RELAXER by alt-J

alt-J are a band of their time and place – they’ve got more than a bit of hipster aloofness, but their music sounds volatile enough to be earnest – their indie-gone-global catapult is reflected in their need to make music that is ‘true’ to themselves, yet appealing enough to their wide audience. With RELAXER, while they have created quite a bit of music that reflects that mosaic, along the way, they seem to have have lost the plot.

alt-J’s music has been characterized by harmony and subtlety, sharpened by rougher elements that lend form to the music, lest they wander into inoffensiveness. That balance is often disrupted on RELAXER – there are moments of sheer beauty, and moments of guttural, primal aggression, but not enough of the right blend of the two extremes. The singles remain some of the best tracks on the album. 3WW’s intro immediately intrigues, with subtle textures that nevertheless don’t recede into the background. The vocals are clean and appropriately moody. And then there are bursts of crackling synths that surface when the lyrics indicate a tonal shift. It’s impeccably produced, and a perfect introduction. The next track, and the second single, In Cold Blood, is a contrast; with its pointed soundscape, and lyrics that are rather incongruent, the track is a display of alt-J’s interpretability. But while both these tracks work great by themselves, their sequencing is questionable. The lack of cohesion in sound is repeated throughout the album due to its mere 8 tracks, as if a singular sound that the band wants to home in on has been deconstructed and its individual parts scattered across the length of the album.

Other tracks take alt-J’s notorious self-indulgence a little too far.  House… is melodically beautiful, where the strings create a stunning atmosphere as they pitch up and down with lyrical tone. But there are wordless sections that would benefit from an additional element, but are left hanging. Lyrically, while it’s an interesting take on an old folk song, the chorus is cloyingly ironic. Last Year is overlong and dull – it has probably the strongest narrative on the album, but the production is the boring side of simple, and there’s nothing memorable enough to keep the listener hooked. Adeline picks up and makes a pretty great track about halfway through, but the first half is simply too long. Hit Me Like That Snare, meanwhile, is downright terrible. alt-J simply isn’t a band that can create a great punk track; there is an outright lack of melody, Jon Newman’s nasally voice is at its most annoying, and the outro is baffling – it’s unclear whether this is the band’s attempt at being ironically self-aware, or an attempt to capture the bluntness of great punk, and it fails on being either. Which is a shame, because lyrically, this is the most intriguing track on the album (save the outro.)

The best tracks, then, are the ones where alt-J’s newer ideas are polished and come together perfectly. Deadcrush is dark and foreboding, the production combining a noticeable edge with impeccably earworm-worthy melodies – the hook succeeds with Newman’s nasal inflection what failed in Hit Me… Overall, the song is just fun – something that can’t be said for enough of the other tracks. Pleader is an ethereal, hymnal track that is an absolute joy to listen to despite its length, thanks to the many sections the track flows through effortlessly – it’s dynamic, but never jagged. And it’s the perfect closer to the album.

alt-J hasn’t really changed. Their esoterica is thankfully intact – who else would open their track with a lyric in binary?! There are musical choices that few other bands can pull off – the marching rhythm of the “ya, ya, ya” choral bridge in Adeline shouldn’t work. but it simply does. But the band is having something of a crisis of faith. They are unsure of their direction, and have faltered along the way. To their credit, they’ve definitely made some bold choices. Some of them don’t work, but when they do, the reward is immensely enjoyable. If they take their successes, and remold and improve them, alt-J’s next album will truly be a worthy payoff. Till then, RELAXER has enough great music to tide us over.

 

 

RELAXER by alt-J

Five Songs For the Weekend – II

A weekly series where we pick 5 songs that we think you’d like to listen to over the weekend

1. Keep it Low by Generationals

An indie pop-rock gem driven by lo-fi vocals and serrated guitar licks, this track has a catchy melody that keeps its edge intact. If you like your pop music with a bit of a punk aesthetic – a la The Strokes – this is worth a listen.

#2. Cool Your Heart ft. Dawn Richards by Dirty Projectors

From the first album to come out since Dirty Projectors basically became David Longstreth’s solo project, this dynamic, vibrant track is, in his own words, “an anti-co-dependency anthem.” The production is by far, one of the most intriguing pieces to come out this year – minimal, with blocks of sound moving around and snapping into each other like Tetris pieces. Dawn Richards fits into this puzzle perfectly, her vocals a perfect foil to David’s deadpan delivery. Quite the satisfying concoction.

#3. Shining by DJ Khaled, Beyoncé and JAY Z

DJ Khaled keeps outdoing himself. After a supersized – “major” – 2016, he brings together the power couple of music, Beyoncé and JAY Z, for a toast to success, the black tie variety. The production is appropriately luxurious, and Bey is at her swaggering best, soaring with confidence few rappers have the right to. Jay’s verse is short, but as he is wont to do, carves his niche with cool assurance, and deftly hands the mic back to his woman. This is the suave anthem.

#4. Kinda Bonkers by Animal Collective

The wonderfully weird Animal Collective return with a psychedelic-pop beauty, the production slightly glossier than than one is used to from them, but with their trademark irreverence. The background vocals add another interesting layer, while the primary vocals themselves are fun, with esoteric lyrics and an insanely catchy hook. This one’s going to be playing in your head for a while to come.

#5. Mask Off  by Future

Future cannot lose. After a 2016 where he saw his profile rising, but also had his detractors saying he’d lost touch with his original trap sound in favour of a more pop-ish sound, 2017’s self-titled Future album is enough assurance he’s always going to be a trapper at heart. Mask Off is one of the best tracks off the project, with an audible sneer and chest-thumping production to accompayny Future Hendrix’s boasts. You know he’s going to be around for a long time.

Five Songs For the Weekend – II

Puberty 2 by Mitski

– Hanan

Discovering Mitski was one of the best things that happened to me last summer. She’s lulled me to sleep during several of my early morning hour-long commutes to Uni and it’s even lovelier to wake up to her, especially to her brilliant fourth album Puberty 2. (Not that it’s sleep music – I’d fall asleep to anything in the morning, even Children of Bodom. Can I call it my superpower?)

       Puberty 2 is a fitting title because it revolves around the second coming of puberty; a first, second maybe even a third foray into adulthood and still not being quite ready to leave all the adolescent angst behind, is a terribly relatable feeling. It’s about realizing the fleeting nature of happiness which is cleverly sung about in the album’s first track “Happy”, where a lover is used as a metaphor – he comes over with cookies, then comes inside her, and leaves while she’s still in the bathroom (how rude!)

It is also about pursuing happiness in the smallest of things, such as wearing your favourite outfit, a white button-down in Mitski’s case, as she says in “A Burning Hill”. “My Body is Made of Crushed Little Stars” is another one of my favourite tracks off this album which is about wanderlust, paying rent, not having enough money for either, existentialism; basically a homage to the classic notion of adulthood with really satisfying dissonant guitar riffs as a backdrop (personally, I only relate to the wanderlust bit, which gets very palpable sometimes. Also shout-out to Indian parents for letting us live in our own rooms instead of the basement, and mine for still paying for, well, most of everything.)

Besides being one of my all-time favourite albums, Puberty 2 is also the perfect soundtrack for my current phase in life. Her sound, to speak of it broadly, may be classified as indie rock/pop, but to put her in such a box would be a disservice to her. It spoke to me in a way little else does, and that to me, seems to be the purpose of music,

Puberty 2 by Mitski