And now, an album I actually like: I meant to post this little bit about Tennis’ new record, Ritual in Repeat, last week, but just didn’t get it to. I find this album immensely comforting; it’s so easy to love, so eager to please. This band has become so good at writing melodies that strike this bittersweet, autumnal tone; as I wrote in the review, the characters in these songs always sound like they’re yearning for something, mourning a subtle loss or thinking about a good time long since past or thinking about the peas trapped under the mattress of their lives. There’s a depth and a heart to this record I never dreamed could come from the band that wrote and released an album as flimsy as Cape Dory, and slowly following their growth over the last few years — coming to like them, and then to weirdly love them — has been very rewarding for me as a fan and a critic.
I tried to touch on a social thing I find interesting at the very end of the review, in a very quick way — in my original conception of this write-up, it was the tentpole around which the rest of the review evolved, but after talking it through with a colleague (thank you, Jeremy L.) I really minimized it in favour of other stuff. But I think there’s still a grain of truth in it, even if it wasn’t right for the Pitchfork review of this record, so here it is, plainly stated: I think Tennis’ falling out of critical fashion post-Cape Dory was accelerated by the fact that they became a sort of shorthand for the sort of tone-deaf “privilege pop” some people have accused Vampire Weekend of writing in the past, even if that descriptor didn’t totally make sense. They made themselves an easy target, of course: when your origin story is “we got married, sold all of our stuff, sailed a boat up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and wrote an album about it… and then did it again for our second record,” people are going to dismiss you as lame bougie dopes, especially in a critical era when the people writing about music are more attuned to a) just how banal that kind of thing can be, and b) the advantages you might have been afforded by your race and wealth. (To be clear: I think that increased attention to the social context surrounding new bands, and the writing about them, is 100% a good thing.)
The thing about Tennis is that while Cape Dory was a weak record regardless of the applicability of that descriptor, they’ve gotten so much better since then: their melodies are stronger, their production is more suited to their sound, their arrangements are more fleshed out, their lyrics are about something other than floating on hot stinky garbage water a few miles off Long Island. It’s stuck with them nonetheless. So my hope with this review was to convince a few of the people who still think of Tennis as the silly white couple on the boat that this band is really worth a little bit of their time, now more than ever, and I hope you’re convinced too.
This album is not very good! I worked hard to come at it with an open mind, and to evaluate it based on its musical merit alone — which is really difficult, of course, especially when you consider that Brown’s various legal issues tangibly affected this album’s release in the form of considerable delays, you can’t just dodge that — and tried to strike a balance between acknowledging his history and focusing on this piece of work. Even if you stripped away everything we know about Chris Brown as a popular figure, this just wouldn’t be a good record: it’s scattershot, it’s shallow, it’s lacking cohesion, and it’s not always compellingly sung. If Chris Brown makes a good record at some point in the future, I will give him credit for that; this is not that record.
(And of course, Team Breezy is predictably assaulting my mentions over this — which is fine, I would’ve been hurting over it a few years ago but I’m a crusty old vet at this point, relatively speaking. But it’s making me regret having a picture of Drake in sunglasses (matching a picture of me in sunglasses) as my Twitter header. What a perfect peg for accusations of bias! I should’ve changed it back to the wide shot of the 401 I used for years as part of the prep for this review.)
This review ran yesterday, but I was very busy with buying and playing my new PS4 last night, so I didn’t have a chance to write a little post here about it. As someone who grew up on their music, I was so excited to have a crack at reviewing Sloan for the site, though of course this album ended up being rather atypical in terms of concept and execution when you look at the rest of their discography. I think it’s probably hard for Americans to appreciate Sloan’s cultural prominence and lasting popularity up here in Canada — they are and always have been a niche concern to Americans, a cult favourite, kept like a secret and adored by nerds — but I made sure to note in the review that Sloan is one of our most beloved rock bands. They are popular: they’re always on rock radio, they soundtrack NHL team intros (which is a very big deal, you know) and populist barbecues and radio station events and every other type of large gathering you can imagine. They’re just part of our nation’s cultural fabric now, and every Canadian rock band with even a passing interest in melody or popularity that’s come up in the last 15 years has a little bit of Sloan in their DNA. The New Pornographers would not exist without Sloan; Alvvays and Mac DeMarco might not, either.
And they’re not coasting on that national goodwill, either: just a few years ago they released one of their finest albums ever (that’s The Double Cross, probably second only to One Chord to Another in the band’s discography) and are still experimenting with genre and form. I make the point in the review that Commonwealth is ultimately a noble but heartening failure, and I really do believe that; it’s not as good as many of their other records, but it’s so thrilling to watch the band trying new things.
Sloan played a free Canada Day show in the middle of downtown Kitchener this year, maybe a 15 minute bus ride from my apartment — it’s hard to give this an American equivalent, but it’s something like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band playing a free show in downtown Minneapolis or something — and it was one of the best concerts I can remember seeing. (I meant to write about it here, of course, but it escaped my brain the ways ideas tend to you when you’re busy.) It was an incredibly generous performance: it seemed like the band made an effort to engage every single person in the first three rows, whether by directing some banter at them or singing a lyric right at them or just pointing and grinning, they stormed through almost all of their hits, they swapped instruments with abandon and told jokes and generally seemed to enjoy each other’s company, which is really quite rare. They played “The Rest of My Life” and everybody screamed, “I know that I’ll be living it in Canada!” I ended up running into a coworker — my best work friend, in fact, and those of us who are well-acquainted with the drudgery of an office and the sparks of light provided by great office friendships understand the concept — and all we could talk about the next day what was a great time we had. I suppose this review was fueled by the great memories I have of that night, and of hearing songs like “If It Feels Good Do It” and “The Other Man” and “The Good in Everyone” and “Everything You’ve Done Wrong” & & & on the radio as a kid. I wanted to give the band the treatment they deserve.
I loved this song when it first came out as part of ARTPOP, and I’ve been spending a lot of time with it over the last few days. At her best, Gaga makes the ridiculous seem warm, funny, and ineffably human; I think it’s a balance she struck more often than not on ARTPOP, though many people would surely disagree. This is a pretty ridiculous song, and complex to boot — to my ears, she’s rendering this full-fledged, vaguely Teutonic (wasn’t much of the album? Nein Zedd!) nighttime fantasy and contributing a sort of director’s commentary, and nesting it in a boozy recollection taking place the next night. Meanwhile, it’s veering back and forth between S&M dungeon electro and Gaga’s take on the farty, fizzy electronic maximalism that sprung out of the UK around the turn of the decade, with a vocal take cribbed from an overcaffeinated musical theatre major. This should not work; it shouldn’t even come close.
And yet! It’s the little things that keep this glued together, diction and small tonal shifts and the giggled aside that serves as the song’s hinge. That perfect phrase, “Makin’ love in my sex dreams,” pinging around the chorus; you can hear her saying it into her half-drained pint, then again with her head raised and her eyes crossed, looking at her friend across the table. “*hiccup* Makin’ love in my sex dreams!” And just after that, pulled from a different spot on the timeline, just after she wakes up: “Tomorrow when I run into you / tomorrow when I run into you.” It’s not shameful as much as it’s amused; less “I can’t believe this happened,” more, “I can’t wait to tell you about this later.” There’s also a gender ambiguity to “Sexxx Dreams” that I find really appealing: if anything, it seems like she’s singing about a woman, depending on how much you want to read into “Heard your boyfriend was away this weekend…” And while Gaga is openly bisexual, the conversation that constitutes the outer shell of “Sexxx Dreams” feels like a chat between two platonic girlfriends, one of whom happened to wander into the other’s sensual fantasy. They’re close enough to laugh about it, but it’s humorous rather than sexually charged.
I’ve had a question about ARTPOP sitting in my Tumblr inbox for a few months now, and I just haven’t gotten around to answering it; maybe this is the closest I’ll come. It’s something about why I think the album failed, why it became an all-time ARTFLOP. I think it’s complicated. I think Gaga misjudged the relative importance of “art,” especially compared to “pop”; I think extremely popular musicians in any genre are kind of like pro athletes, in that the great majority of them burn really bright and then fade out quickly; I even think that on some level, Gaga was happy to step down a notch on the ladder of stardom, to a level where she’s free to make jazz albums with Tony Bennett and do whatever weird shit she wants without feeling like she has to carry a record label on her back or drop buzz single after buzz single until one lands. (Not to suggest that ARTPOP was an act of deliberate self-sabotage or anything, just that she was content to follow her muse knowing full well it wasn’t the most commercial thing she could’ve done.) But the truth is that I like most of ARTPOP; I think most of it is good, some of it is very good, and the best of it can hang with anything else in her catalogue. At the very least, “Sexxx Dreams” is enough for me.
I bought a new bookcase at the Walmart on the other side of town yesterday. I don’t have a car — or even a driver’s license, not since last November — and while the great majority of my day-to-day activity doesn’t require one, on occasion I find myself lending unearned nobility and heroism to routine actions in an attempt to justify their inconvenience. The fossil fuels I’m leaving intact, the bicep muscles I’m building, the sweat leaking from my brow as I haul unassembled hunks of crappy oak and little screws through a mile-long parking lot towards a humble bus stop bench, all given a little extra glory. The bookcase had two seats to itself when we rode home.
We got off the bus around the corner from my apartment, and I found myself struggling with my grip on the box. It slipped, and I stuck my right knee out to slow its fall; it slapped against me just above my kneecap, and fell onto the sidewalk. Justin was there quickly, tending to my blooming wound. An old man was riding down the sidewalk on a tiny bike with handlebar tassels, and he stopped as he rode near us. “I felt that from over there!”
"Yeah, it stings, but it’s no big deal. As long as the stuff inside is alright."
"Well, I hope she kisses it better!" And then he rode away.
It took us a second, but we looked at each other and started to laugh. We began to work backwards, trying to construct the scenario in which that remark could make any sense. Were we two friends doing some hapless lady pal a favour? Did he see Justin caring for me and drop a low-key pronoun-based insult? It didn’t come close to warranting that much thought, of course: it was just an unobservant old guy with a straight brain, making the kind of comment he’s made a thousand times before, pedalling away with a smile and an internal “heh heh heh.” We’re both lucky because we don’t really have to grapple with the realities of a straight world on a regular basis: we live together in a gay bubble, we’re out to all of our co-workers and friends and families, we’re rarely forced into interactions where our sexual orientation is an unknown quality or, even worse, a problem. This was one of those mostly innocuous moments — like friends talking about giving blood, like walking through a pack of bros on a Friday night, like seeing a Kickstarter for a kid who’s been thrown out by his bigoted parents float around Twitter — reminding me that much of the world still sees me, and people like me, as deviations from the accepted norm.
Anonymous said: Do you eventually want to become a full time writer?
A complicated question, but I guess the answer is “no,” at least for now. My contract with the university is up in eight months, and if you offered me the choice of a similarly compensated/equally engaging position at the school or a full-time staff writing gig in Toronto or New York, I would take the former. I think about this every single day. There are a lot of variables. In a vacuum, writing is the thing I like to do most, and it’s probably where I have the greatest depth of skill. But doing it full-time with even a grain of stability would mean settling for less money, leaving my friends and family and loved ones, leaving the only country I’ve ever called home, and coming to terms with a considerable opportunity cost. I have this nightmare filed away in the back of my brain where I’ve leapt ten or twenty years into the future, and I’ve just been let go because almost every cent has been drained from the world of cultural criticism, and I’m 31 or 41 with no experience and no savings and no escape plan. It probably wouldn’t ever get that bad, but I can see 60% and 80% versions of that scenario playing out.
I look at my life now, and things are pretty great: I live in a gorgeous apartment with my boyfriend for relatively cheap, I have a good job that involves a lot of non-music writing while allowing me to develop my management skills, and I get to write for some of my favourite editors and publications in my spare time for beer and pizza money. I know I love writing about music as a hobby, but I have no way of knowing if I would still feel that way if I was stuck on the news grind or was made to churn out pieces about things I’m not totally invested in; I find the clique-y, insider-y social aspects of contemporary music writing suffocating and tiresome, and I only ever taste them on Twitter and Gchat. I’ve actually come to value the perspective I’ve gained from working in a different field and living somewhere other than New York, and I think it’s enriched my writing as I’ve gotten older and better. I add all of this together and it leads me to believe that pursuing a full-time career as a writer is not the best choice for me right now.
(Of course, this could all look silly in a year: my contract runs out, I can’t find another job here in Waterloo, one of my editors has a position free, and next thing you know I’m renting one of four bedrooms in Bushwick and liveblogging the Teen Choice Awards. But this is where I am right now.)
Anonymous said: do you email musicians often to help answer questions for your articles? plan of action if they don't respond?
I don’t, I can only remember doing it once or twice. My thoughts on a record rarely hinge on the clarification of a lyric or the elucidation of some theme by the artist, and if I ever find myself at that sort of junction I usually opt for reshaping my thought or taking a different angle. I have go-to research strategies, of course — spend a lot of time with their discography, read a lot of interviews, read both dated and recent non-review writing and criticism — but directly questioning artists while writing something is not typically one of them.
Anonymous said: Any thoughts on the emo revival?!?
Hmm, nothing really noteworthy, to be honest. I like a few of the records that fall under the “emo revival” umbrella, I suppose, particularly this year’s efforts from the Hotelier and Joyce Manor; they have an energy and passion that has helped them stand out at a point in my life where I’m finding it a lot easier to latch onto pop, R&B, and electronic music than rock music. But I think the best way I can use this space is to refer people to what Ian wrote about this particular batch of bands and records for the Pitch a few days ago, especially since he’s the critic who alerted many people to the existence and quality of these records in the first place. He dismantles the flawed concept of the “emo revival” with the same intensity and spirit that makes a song like "End of the Summer" worthwhile.
Anonymous said: How long does it take you to write a typical review?
I think I answered something like this a few months ago, but my work habits might’ve changed, so I’ll just give it another go. I usually spread the composition of any piece, review or essay or whatever, out over two nights, or two distinct sessions. First, I pour out anything and everything I’d like to say about the topic into quick and dirty point form notes, without filtering or focusing on cohesion or structure. This usually takes no more than half an hour. When I come back a day (or a few hours) later, I write the piece in order from beginning to end, building from the notes I took before and editing and rearranging as I go along. The time required depends on my level of focus, interest in the topic, and the length of the piece, but I’d say it usually takes anywhere from one to three hours.
Sometimes I procrastinate and put myself in a bad spot, and I have to skip the notes phase and write the whole thing from scratch in one sitting. This doesn’t add much to the overall time required, but I’m usually less happy with the final product. To be honest, I feel like I’ve done 70% of the work by the time I sit down to spit up notes or actually write the piece. Once I get an assignment or land a pitch, I can’t stop thinking about the subject, and I do a lot of the planning internally: figuring out structure, memorizing little turns of phrase, refining ideas and thoughts, etc.