Review: ‘Sleep Well Beast’ by The National

Upon listening to Sleep Well Beast, I recalled Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself, in which he refers to cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.” Music generates empathy in much the same way, generally on a more personal scale. Considering how intrinsic sadness is to the process of empathy, most music artists will, at some point or another, bare the moroseness of their soul for the sake of their art.

But some artists can outright weaponize melancholy. It’s something The National have done for years, and against all odds, it’s always managed to work in their favor. The band’s songwriting has consistently struck a powerful balance between despair and heart; even at its lowest emotional depths, their work is as animated as it is devastating. The result is a discography that, though not entirely heterogenous due to its repeated emphasis on themes of heartbreak and anguish, wholly explores dysphoria’s every angle, theme, and sound. It’s how The National have remained relevant all these years, and it’s why, even on their seventh album, they haven’t lost any steam in their empathy machine.

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An Asexual Experience

Featured image courtesy of AsexualityArchive.com

Perhaps I should’ve noticed something was off when I was in high school. I remember the distinct discomfort that ran through my bones whenever I would try to flirt with a girl. It wasn’t that I was necessarily poor with words — I have the best words — nor was I awkward around women. I did, however, feel as if my speech was hollow; that kind of socialization was almost mechanical to me, something I did because that’s what boys my age were supposed to do.

I had zero sexual interest in men, so I assumed I was heterosexual by default. It wasn’t until 2014 that I even realized that there were options beyond the three orientations — heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality — of which I was aware. During my annual checkup that year, I mentioned to the doctor my general lack of sexual attraction. There are many medical explanations for such a thing, including hypoactive sexual desire disorder and hypothyroidism, so I wanted to know for sure what was wrong with me. The doctor agreed to test for any possible medical explanations, but also offered up an alternative theory: I was asexual. When my hormone levels came back normal, asexuality clicked for me as an answer to my confusion.

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Review: ‘Are You Experienced’ by The Jimi Hendrix Experience

Note: The tracklist discussed in this review is based on the 1997 compact disc re-issue, which included songs from both the original UK and U.S. versions as well as the band’s first three UK singles.

The opening eight notes of “Purple Haze” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience are enormously crucial. For those eight or so seconds, a guitar chops through the surrounding darkness before diving into the boisterous body of the song like a cold, crystalline lake. Following that brief prologue of steady simplicity, Are You Experienced may adjust pace, but the album never drops its frenetic juggling act. As a debut, it’s an audacious, busy piece of psychedelic rock that finds a lot of breathing room in its loose structure, its constant sense of locomotion keeping it from becoming stagnant. Not only is Are You Experienced an earthshattering debut, it’s a high bar that no psych rock band has equaled in the fifty years since the album’s release.

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Review: ‘Humanz’ by Gorillaz

For a period of time, it appeared as if The Fall would be the Gorillaz’s final outing following the April 7, 2012 announcement that the band had split. It would’ve been a somewhat gloomy end for the virtual band, as The Fall was little more than a pet project recorded on an iPad during the American leg of the Escape to Plastic Beach World Tour, hardly the swan song Gorillaz fans wanted or deserved. That period of time, however, only lasted between two to three weeks, as by April 25, 2012, co-founders Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett had mended their relationship and were confident a fifth Gorillaz record would be in their future.

In the years following Albarn and Hewlett’s reconciliation, Humanz (then untitled) felt like a foregone conclusion, which made its absence all the more frustrating. But over the last two years, while we were waiting, they were hard at work—Humanz sports twenty tracks plus six on the deluxe edition—collaborating across the musical spectrum with some of the industry’s most interesting artists: old, new, and soon-to-be-discovered. Albarn’s ambitions transcend genre, and Humanz explores a lot of different musical ideas and guest combinations; unfortunately, Albarn doesn’t always use these guests correctly, nor does he explore many of these ideas in any sort of depth. The result is an album that can’t help but occasionally feel half-baked, even when it works.

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Review: ‘The Clash’ by The Clash

Co-written by Rob Piersall.

For as influential to the genre as they were, The Clash didn’t spend much time as a pureblooded punk band. With the 1979 release of London Calling, the band began a transition away from the jagged purist punk aesthetic to a fuller, more polished sound with broader appeal; by the time Sandinista! and Combat Rock rolled around in 1980 and 1982, respectively, The Clash had gone fully “mainstream.” It was in this era that they released some of their most popular songs—including “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go”—but despite their peak commerciality in the ‘80s, it was in the year 1977 that the band made its biggest impact of all with their self-titled debut album.

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Review: ‘Damn’ by Kendrick Lamar

“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA / I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA.” In “DNA,” Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar establishes the central thematic through line of his new album, or, more accurately, confesses that no such single through line actually exists. Damn lacks the driving narrative force of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and the political consequence of To Pimp a Butterfly, but that doesn’t mean it lacks purpose or emotional potency. Lamar has a lot to say, and unlike his past two studio albums, he doesn’t use a storytelling device to say it. After two critically-acclaimed concept albums, it may be tough to swallow Lamar’s return to a more standard album format (i.e. 2011’s Section.80), as it was initially for me. However, Lamar remains as deceptively dense as ever in how he balances vocal delivery and lyrical content, crafting songs that are as poetically meaningful as they are sonically enjoyable.

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Review: ‘Emperor of Sand’ by Mastodon

In the lifespan of every successful band there exists a point at which the band must decide whether to stay within their niche or branch out into the mainstream, essentially “selling out.” Mastodon seems to have chosen the latter, though the changes didn’t come all at once. Their discography displays incremental shifts from the grimy sludge metal of early efforts Remission and Leviathan to The Hunter, which showed signs of Mastodon’s initial change in sound, to Once More ‘Round the Sun, a mopey hard rock album posing as progressive metal. Emperor of the Sand continues this trend, proving that the law of diminishing returns applies to Mastodon as much as it does economics.

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