Review: Spoon — They Want My Soul

 

After a four-year hiatus, Spoon returns this month with their eighth studio album, They Want My Soul. This record marks several firsts for Spoon: their first collaboration with outside producers (Grammy-award-winners Joe Chiccarelli and Dave Fridmann) and their first album with keyboardist Alex Fischel.

Beginning with their 1994 debut, Spoon slowly earned a place as critics’ darlings. In 2001, that niche blew up—with college radio falling in love with the minimalist, beat-driven melodies of Girls Can Tell. Spoon has, ever since, honed catchy, low-key indie pop. They Want My Soul develops out of these traditions, but doesn’t add to them as much as one might hope. It is difficult to compare Soul with the energy and excitement of 2001’s Girls Can Tell or 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Britt Daniel’s song structures, while always intelligent, expose strains of familiarity that begin to feel, after eight records, too familiar. However, Soul is nevertheless full of shining moments that sound—if nothing else—exactly like Spoon.

Throughout the album, Soul grapples with the desire to run and the avoidance of spiritual capture. In “Rainy Taxi,” Daniel says “if you leave / you better run away for good…if you say ‘run,’ I may run with you.” In the previously released single, “Do You,” Daniel asks, “Do you want one thing or are you looking for sainthood? / Do you run when it’s just getting good?” The very title of the album lets listeners know—before we even become listeners—that there is something from which to run.

            Britt Daniel called the ballad “Inside Out” his “favourite song on this record, and it’s the most beautiful thing we’ve done…I don’t really know if I can quantify why it’s so good, but for me it pulls your heartstrings in exactly the right fashion.” The track suggests completion through love rather than spirituality: “I don’t got time for holy rollers…they do not make me complete.” While beautiful, the song lacks gravity: though the lyrics imply a great emotional turmoil, this is difficult to feel in the music. Its beauty is weightless—both in the ethereal quality of its synthesizers and harp strings, and the quiet insistence of Daniel’s vocals. Melodic distance is often part of Spoon’s charm—but can a track so weightless really deliver as their “most beautiful”?

The title track lists people and things who want the lyricist’s soul, including earlier inspiration Jonathan Fisk (the title of a track from Kill the Moonlight about a classmate who bullied Daniel in middle school): “Educated folk singers want my soul / Jonathan Fisk still wants my soul / I got nothing I want to say to ’em / They got nothing left that I want.” His soul is similarly coveted by card sharks, street preachers, upsellers, palm readers, post sermon socialites, park enchanters, and skin tights. The list ranges from rock and rollers to religious entities, again an attempt to cope with spiritual malady, or the implication of spiritual maladies which the lyricist is not interested in having “fixed.”

The album also includes a cover of Ann-Margret’s 1961 waltz, “I Just Don’t Understand,” an accusatory dance-step about selfish love. Rhythmically, this song knows exactly what it’s doing: the ¾ signature a metaphor for a relationship keeping a steady pace, unchanging over time. And it fits perfectly within Spoon’s idiom—a tightly structured track beating beneath emotionally unstable lyrics. Alex Fischel’s piano harmonizes smartly with Daniel’s humming, creating a disarming gentility.

In “Let Me Be Mine,” the calm of the melody, the repetition of the rhythm, distances the listener (again) from the weight of the lyrics: “Auction off what you love / it will come back sometime / lock it up / what you love / and it says ‘let me be mine’.” The track comes to a head with the phrase “they want you to run,” repeated over and over as explanation. The song observes romantic sabotage as it is inflicted, the chorus repeating a request to own oneself.

            “New York Kiss” seems to shuffle off the heavier lyrical themes of spiritual and romantic weight, ending the album with a perfect, high-powered pop song. Suddenly caught by past selves we can’t shake, we’re bogged down by the power and seduction of memory. Maybe, after all, that’s why we’re still listening to Spoon: the power and seduction of memory.

           

Rating: 6.5 / 10

Deirdre Coyle is a non-practicing mermaid living in New York City. Her work has appeared in theNewerYorkFwriction : ReviewLuna Luna Magazine, and elsewhere. She edits Mixtape Methodology. You can find her overseeing the internet at deirdrecoyle.tumblr.com and@DeirdreKoala.

Review of True That & Interview With Michael Cera

Review of true that

     Michael Cera’s album is exactly what you expected Michael Cera’s album to be.

      Ever since he sang Beck’s “Ramona” in “Scott Pilgrim Versus the World” or his Moldy Peaches cover duet with Ellen Page in “Juno,” many of us have been waiting for Michael Cera to drop an album. And he did. Beyonce style: true that was released on Mr. Cera’s bandcamp page (which features a 1940s-boy-scout-esque cover photo of the indie polymath in front of a tent as well as a chuckle-worthy biography) on August 8th, completely unanticipated. And true that is Michael Cera, or it would be if it were personified.

     The album itself is a delightful hodgepodge of ragtime piano, nylon string guitar, and – of course – Michael Cera’s voice. There are several things about true that that make it engaging, especially its variety. It is clear that he is no novice to composition: the instrumental arrangements swing gracefully from chaotic and jarring to gentle by changing rhythms, modes, and artfully switching from piano to guitar, respectively, calling to mind meticulously-arranged albums like Matthew Friedberger’s Matricidal Sons of Bitches (2012, Thrill Jockey.) And yet, true that is easier to listen to than other complex albums due to its simplicity that lies in the recordings.

     In other tracks, particularly the Blaze Foley cover, “clay pigeons,” he brings forward the American folk feel that stays an undercurrent through the whole album. It is worth noting that “clay pigeons,” as well as “Ruth” both offer traditional-style three-part vocal harmonies.The particular cover yields nothing new or exciting, but serves as a nice contrast to the previous two tracks and a pleasant homage to the original.

     On a whole, the album is well balanced: not only through the composition but in its seriousness as well. Some songs have silly titles, (“uhohtrouble”, “Gershey’s Kiss,” and the pop-culture fad-referencing “2048”) and these do nothing detrimental to the album, but rather give it a sense of lightheartedness. true that, much like Michael Cera, is not something that seems to take itself wholly seriously, but still maintains its intellect.

     Often, the sound buzzes or something is out of tune, maybe Michael struggles to hit a note (e.g. “Steady now”) but these do not sound like flaws. In the style of Daniel Johnston, Pavement, Sparklehorse, and countless others, true that’s imperfections remind us that the record is human: made by a human, for humans. It’s refreshingly natural in the musical atmosphere of post-production overtaking the industry today.

      My only grievance toward true that is that it is presently only available on digital. Its DIY feel was charming above all, but I’m sure many would love to take home this record on cassette or vinyl.

Overall: 8.5/10

 

Q&A With Michael Cera

Q: You’ve played in other bands, but up until now, the main focus of your career has been acting. Why release an album now, as opposed to two years ago or four years from now?

A: It just occurred to me one day to put the songs online so I did it, there honestly wasn’t any more thought put into it than that.

Q: What was your thinking in choosing a quiet, secret-release instead of hyping up what could have been the “Michael Cera Musical Debut Extravaganza World Tour Super Campaign?”

A: I didn’t consider it a secret personally, it’s just that nobody knew about it.  And I didn’t want to pull focus to it because it’s not really something I consider a performance in terms of presentation, it’s just some music I made that I wanted to share via the internet with anyone who had any interest.

Q: There’s a lot of subtle similarities to other great records that show up here, what are some albums and artists that influenced your style on this record?

A: I don’t really know who influenced the style, I suppose my fairly limited abilities and resources sort of resulted in what ends up being the overall sound and tone of the music.  But I like the album Mr. Hood by KMD and the way that it feels like it was made in their living room, I guess that was a sort of style influence in a weird way, the levels of comfort and relaxation on that album.

Q: Now you did pretty much everything that made true that, right? How was it playing all the instruments, writing, etc. compared to acting and being given a script and direction to do this and that in this way?

A: Well it’s kind of like the difference between being at work and being at home doing something you love to do on your own.  It’s not really related at all I guess.

Q: You’ll obviously be busy with This Is Our Youth, but do you have any plans in regards to shows or touring for true that?

A: Not at all, I don’t anticipate doing that kind of thing.

Q: Do you drink your orange juice with pulp? If so, how much? If not, why not?

A: I’m not sure exactly, sometimes I think I do but then again I’m never really certain.

Q: Do you think true that is the beginning of a “rebranded” Michael Cera- that is, Michael Cera the musician? Or do you see it as just an extent of your polymathic career?

A: I’m not sure, I never ask the big guys upstairs (the two heads of the corporation I’m employed by) what the end-game master plan is, I just do what they tell me to do when they deem it the appropriate moment, and then I just pray that as a team we’ll weather the storm that is the open entertainment market.

Q: Finally, what has been your go-to record recently?

A: The Kinks – Arthur.

 

Madden CJ Aleia is a student, poet, and musician living in Connecticut. She recently became the assistant editor at bottle rockets press and expects to self-publish her chapbook, the bolsheviks didn’t even know what hit them, in early 2015. She has curly hair and collects elderly cameras. Fragments of her poetry can be found on her blog, unitedstatesofno.tumblr.com

 

Review of Wang Ping’s Ten Thousand Waves

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In her poetry collection, Ten Thousand Waves, Wang Ping revisits some of the same topics she has explored in her soothing, strong voice for many years. In this collection, however, she brings readers the harshness of it all. While her previous poems may have driven home their point, the ones pooled together in Waves have drove the stake through the heart deeper than ever before. This third collection has proven to be even more of a political statement than her others, considering that her title poem takes up the bulk of this text and tells the stories of those who died in a recent industrial work-related tragedy in China. Her activism, shown through her moving words, makes for a powerful combination that both teaches and reminds readers about a world that cannot be made beautiful through verse, only through action.

In regards to her writing style, Ping’s years of living through the Chinese Cultural Revolution are long since over, but her memories, and her subsequent ability to reflect on those days has only grown stronger with time. Her poetry, since the publication of her first collection, The Magic Whip, has changed only somewhat substantially. Her writing style, though still stark and poignant, has developed a more modern aspect that was not as visible in her older pieces. A piece titled “The Last Son of China” may have been the turnaround from more traditional to more experimental, considering that the format of that poem was something never before seen in Ping’s work:

“…………………..    hello hello hello    …    Weiwei    …    where have you been?    …    I see you in dreams    …    bleeding    …    in the darkness of the sun    …    81 spots in the flame    …    each a nightmare one cannot wake up from    …    Weiwei    …    the last son   …”

This poem is included in the second part of Waves, placed after a list of quotes from migrant workers, company representatives, and anonymous factory workers stationed in China. Wei Wei’s history is complex, but he is infamous for his work linked to the social injutsicies in China. To place this broken, experimental poem after something as concrete as direct quotes from those Wei Wei wishes to liberate is powerful. It creates a real-world connection that the reader can be shocked and interested by; that, and it also artistically makes sense. Wei Wei’s art is so often only seen as art, just as poems are often only seen as poems – contained entities, only existing to entertain. “The Last Son of China” is a transcript, an unanswered phone call, a voice given to those who know and want to publicize all that Wei Wei’s art is about. Ping’s use of an experimental style in this piece only works to highlight this, creating an almost conversation-like experience.

This unconventional style is seen in traces in Waves, particularly in the poem “Dust Angels.” Again, someone – or many someones – are pleading to the reader. These pieces seem to have a new “voice” – unlike Ping’s previous lilt, this voice in her poetry is much sharper, much more angled; there is a razor edge to the writing, and the subject matter of these particular pieces is not sliced to ribbons but made all the more deadly when combined with this stylistic choice. Her poems are longer, too, more prosaic in nature – the continuing tale that travels through pieces like “Soltice in Lhasa” and “Luosang’s Dream” illustrate her attempts to add the natural flow of her poetry to prose that so oft covers many of the same issues her poems have already covered. These prose pieces do not do Ping credit as a poet. Too sharp and stilted, the subtly of her poetry is gone when she instead clearly illustrates the social issues in the form of personal stories. While her poems captivate, her prose lacks in its structure, content, and general feel.

A prose piece that saved Ping from the poor nature of her long-form style was “In Search of Chinese Poets.” A list of last names of presumed Chinese poets (Ping makes no move as to say whether they are real or fictitious, but going by her tendency to use the names of real people she knew or once knew or knew of, it may be safe to assume they are all very real indeed) is followed by brief explanation as to where they are now. Now being the 21st century, of course. One that is particularly striking in its starkly non-poetic nature is this: “Dachun – Plunged into the sea.” In four simple words, Ping is able to convey the stark reality of many writers in two ways: one in the literal reading of this sentence, that they commit suicide; and in the other, through a Chinese saying that means to give up one’s profession. Did this poet, Dachun, end his own life, or simply give up on crafting the word? The rest of the listed poets have more pliable explanations for their disappearance, with a few more being listed as plunging into the sea – the sea, like Ping’s poetry in this case, is both volatile and a welcoming release. The poets, like herself, must have sought it either literally or figuratively as a way to rid themselves of the often cruel awareness that comes with being a poet. Like Ping, these Chinese poets need to “plunge into the sea” in order to either escape their craft or to perhaps escape the social stigma that surrounds being the traditional idea of “the voice of the people.”

Speaking of voices, none are more powerful than in the most anticipated poem in this collection. Frankly, the title poem deserves an entire review unto itself: “Ten Thousand Waves” can ultimately be called Ping’s most moving and most impactful piece. Based off a 2004 tragedy that resulted in the deaths of twenty-one immigrant workers off of a coast in England. There deaths, notes Ping, took place on the eve of the Lantern Festival (a traditional celebration held amongst family and friends that heralds the end of the Chinese New Year, and the beginning of the next). The voices of these workers have been gathered here, in this poem, in order to tell the last fleeting moments of their stories. Here is where Ping’s prowess as a Chinese poet is made apparent; the poems themselves, twenty-one in total, of course, have a repetitive nature – a choice of technique that becomes apparent in the final poem within the poem, “Chorus From All Ghosts.” Most, if not all of the poems, end with the name of the sea in which their speaker drowned – the North Wales Sea. It is more than a reminder of what killed them – it is a poetic choice meant to convey a traditional Western form of poetry: the choral poem. In ancient Greek literature, the chorus of the dead was often a calling to the living, a plea to remember them and to honour their deaths.

There seems to be a marked similarity to the voices, though individualized, and the pleas of the men Odysseus encounters after crossing the river Styx in Homer’s The Odyssey. Though this may be a worn-out poetry trope, Ping does it a newfound justice by combining traditional Eastern poetic methods with such a Western form. In “Zhou Xun Chao, Dong Xi Wu” a pictorial arrangement of characters presents a cross to the reader – a common symbol of death. To those who can read the language, it is a reminder of the tragedy and assuredly shares words to convey as much; to those who can’t, the image represents the same meaning.

Though experimental at points, most of the twenty-one poems in this piece carry traditional methods. There are couplets, there is free verse, and there is even a brief piece of prose-poetry. Ping pulls out all of her stylistic abilities in order to create a highly varied but externally singular poem. It is the “Chorus From All Ghosts” that brings the poem together. The final lines “our eyes on the North Star / Our spirits churning for the sea” are poignant. The North Star, being a point of reference in ancient (and modern) seafaring travel, suggests that souls of the lost may just be attempting to head home to the sea in which they belong – not the coast of England, but the coast of China, a place where their families may recognize them in the waves. This ending is as poetic as the entire set of poems collected together on one titular piece, and functions as both haunting and hopeful.

Ping outdoes herself in this collection. Even when she seems to be singing the same choral song, she brings forth new ways to present the social and cultural issues she focuses on in each of her collections. Her words in this collection are particularly moving, as if she has reached a new peak in her poetic career. Wang Ping has always created a moving portrait, a choir piece, a work of art that seems to encapsulate the most complex in the simplest of ways – but never before has her work seemed so human, so full of the people begging to be heard. Ten thousand waves lapping against a shore sound an awful lot like whispered voices when all else is quiet.

Rating: 8/10

T.R. Abrahams studies English literature in Toronto, avoids the suburbs, and edits HOLEY SCRIPTURE. Other work includes publications in Electric Cereal, The Mall, and Literary Orphans.

Camera Obscura- Live In Concert

Desire_Lines_(Camera_Obscura_album)

When you take into consideration that it’s a treat to see Glasgow band Camera Obscura on their brief eleven day North American tour this summer, it was even more of a treat to see them in the relatively intimate settings of the Loving Touch in Ferndale, Michigan.

Singer/guitarist Tracyanne Campbell addressed the close quarters of the venue by saying “It’s been a while since we could smell the crowd,” and without further ado the band launched into the aptly titled “Break It To You Gently” from last years underrated LP Desire Lines that set the tone for the remainder of the evening.

By the time the band hit the shimmery new wave dream of the end of “New Years Resolution” and Campbell’s refrain of ‘Stay Now’, it was clear the packed house wasn’t going anywhere.

“Let’s Get Out Of This Country”, the first of several songs from the 2006 album of the same name, upped the ante.  The number’s galloping pop and declaration of setting out for parts unknown are quintessential Camera Obscura and guitarist Kenny McKeeve stepped on the volume pedal for the wondrously twangy solo.

Camera Obscura’s subtle versatility was on display and for a band that is at times accused of sounding too much the same, it’s amazing to behold the way the 7 piece group can move so effortlessly and chameleon like through a variety of genres like 60s pop, motown soul, new wave, angelo badalementi moods, Smithsian jangle just to name a few.  Part of the greatness of the band is the timelessness of the sound, without it ever sounding blatantly retro.

The band has been known for its somewhat dour expressions and disposition.  When some audience members implored McKeeve to just “smile”, Campbell responded by deadpanning “Smiling is overrated”.  It was a good reminder of the bookish, sarcastic anthems for Lit major geeks of old Camera Obscura.

The new songs from Desire Lines seemed to have benefitted from some time and distance.  “Cri du Couer” was a revelation with Carey Lander’s keyboards and Tim Davidson’s pedal steel interweaving to create a gorgeous swoony atmosphere.  The rhythm section of drummer Lee Thomson and percussionist Tim Cronin shown on the buoyantly bittersweet “Every Weekday”.  Bassist Gavin Dunbar maybe the unsung hero of the entire band as his seemingly effortless melodic basslines are as s unassuming as his stage presence.   The set ended with a trio of Motownesque powerhouse songs “Do it Again”, “Lloyd,  I’m Ready to be Heartbroken” and “If Looks could Kill” that had the crowd revved up and attempting to clap along to the beautifully somber and perhaps an ill-timed “Country Mile” to which Campbell reassured the audience, “It’s not really a song you can clap along to”.

The encore of “Books Written for Girls” just about stopped time, with Campbell casting a spell over the venue that stood in rapt attention while Lander and Davidson wrapped the whole thing up with more dreamy keyboards and pedal steel.  Closer “Razzle Dazzle Rose” ended the show in that perfect Au Lang Sine way that it always does.

Opener Laura Cantrell played a thoroughly enjoyable set of her well-crafted fine art country songs.  An impromptu duet with Matthew Smith of the Detroit band Outrageous Cherry on the Everly Brothers “I Wonder if I Care as Much” gave the set a jolt of energy and a special moment for the Detroit faithful.  It was a nice gesture on Cantrell’s part to recognize a vastly underrated talent in Smith and to invite him to sing on an equally underrated Everly Brothers song.

As the band bounded off the stage, there was a hint of sadness and finality to the evening.  There seems to be a question mark surrounding the future of Camera Obscura.  Perhaps these lines from “Country Mile” say it best –

I won’t be seeing you for a long while

I hope it’s not as long as these country miles

I feel lost

Rating: 9/10

Mostly because they did not perform “Fifth in Line To The Throne”, which belongs in a David Lynch film.

Steve Davison is a writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He has degrees in Environmental Studies and English.  Recently he has written pieces for the Rapidian, Troika Moonshine 300 and ArtHack.org.  He has spent a great deal of his life, maybe too much of it, listening to, talking about and reading about music.

Review of Passenger’s “Whispers”

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Passenger takes his acoustic sound to a new scale in “Whispers”

It’s rare to find honest music that questions, despairs, and unravels the heart, but Passenger is something you want to come home to. There’s something comforting in his simple arrangements, mellow guitar plucking, and raspy voice.

Mike Rosenberg started off busking in England and Australia to fund his first four solo albums. His humble beginnings made his music refreshingly soulful, personal, and endearing. Due to the popularity of his single “Let It Go,” he quickly became one of the most talked about indie musicians. His new album Whispers caters to listeners that are dipping their toes in indie waters, featuring cinematic pop tracks amongst a few understated folk gems. Some tracks are grandiose and confidently tackle complex issues to appeal to a wide audience, straying from the subtlety and humility that won over millions. However, others are unflinchingly honest, taking storytelling to new heights and imbuing ideas with meaning, wonder, and purpose.

The album starts on a warm note with Coins in a Fountain, a feel-good love anthem with catchy percussive rhythms and a unique combination of instruments, featuring violins alongside xylophones and bongo drums. 27 takes an introspective turn, illustrating Rosenberg’s frustration at not finding success for most of his music career in an orchestrated track whose upbeat melodies take away from the difficulty that he’s describing. However, Hearts on Fire, a love song about being with the right person at the wrong time, hits home with its simple arrangement and soothing guitar fingerpicking in Passenger’s iconic style. It is easily one of my favorite tracks on the record and is heartbreakingly, devastatingly beautiful.

Bullets adds some country flavor to the mix, telling the story of a man whose bullet collection, which was very important to him, was stolen for no reason. Unfortunately, its shrill harmonica melodies and repetitive, predictable chord progression trivialize the story being told. However, Golden Leaves is extremely moving, reminiscing on the love of an old couple that has lost their hope as their relationship has run its course. It will make your heart sink in the best ways, featuring wistful and earnest orchestral melodies that build on and compliment Rosenberg’s vocals. The shifting violin melodies against the repetitive acoustic guitar heighten every moment. The stripped-down arrangement and stunning mix of minor and major melodies make the song deeply heartfelt.

Thunder provides comic relief from this emotional rollercoaster in a light-hearted, nonsensical pop song with repetitive percussion that propels it forward. Rolling Stone has more depth, describing the downsides of leaving everything behind to chase your dreams. It discusses the traveler’s experience of being lonely on the road, missing their loved ones, and struggling to maintain relationships.

Start a Fire sounds like it came straight from an old west movie soundtrack. Its country feel and muffled horns set a scene as it tells the story of a life. Whispers, my personal favorite, is a powerful and relatable shout into the void that contains some of the most striking and thought-provoking lyrics on the album. It describes feeling trapped and confused trying to understand an unstable world, and uses crescendos well to amplify its effect.

Riding to New York is a touching tribute to a man Rosenberg met at a gas station, who was dying of lung cancer and driving across the US to spend the rest of his days with his family. It has a unique arrangement, with gentle guitar fingerpicking, haunting violin rhythms, and an 808 drumbeat against Rosenberg’s raspy vocals.

The album ends on a weak note with Scare Away the Dark, a rant about being disconnected with the world and suppressed by the monotony of everyday life whose clichés and popular culture references like “we want something real, not just hashtags and Twitter” and “I bet Gangnam style will still get more views” belittle the social commentary it offers. Although its message about materialism is heartfelt, it is produced for popular success, which takes away from its impact.

Despite a few forgettable tracks, Whispers features some of Passenger’s most meaningful lyrics, talented guitar work, and vivid storytelling, staying true to his acoustic sound while adding in new production. Although this album is more ambitious and uplifting than All The Little Lights, Passenger holds onto his contemplative, melancholy moments and soulful approach to music. He draws from his stories and those of others, creating an all-encompassing portrayal of being alive in a weird and wonderful world. His music and lyrics contain layers that let you find new meaning in each listen.

Rating: 8/10

Nayantara Dutta is a rising sophomore at Tufts University who plans to major in Psychology and minor in Music. She loves avocados, flea markets, and indie folk music. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Paperfinger Magazine, Atwood Magazine, and Chicken Soup for the Soul.

What Do We Do When Our Dream Comes True?

ferras

Music Review of Ferras by Ferras, June 2014

I’m thinking right now about Ferras, the first artist on Katy Perry’s new private label Metamorphosis Records. I want to talk about Ferras even though the big news today is actually in Brooklyn, rather than LA, with the junior-high heavy metal band “Unlocking the Truth” and its big contract with Sony’s indie spin-off, Cherry Party. We’ll get to them in another issue.

I want to talk about Ferras because, in the June 17 issue of Us Weekly, Perry described not only her thrill at having a private label but her thrill with Ferras, who is “a man with a message” and “an important artist.” On that same day, Metamorphosis released Ferras’ new EP, the self-titled Ferras, including “Speak in Tongues,” “No Good in Goodnight,” “Champagne,” “King of Sabotage,” and the duet with Perry, “Legends Never Die.”

Ferras was getting big before the Metamorphosis release, of course: he was Perry’s opening act. But his one previous release was almost seven years ago, Aliens & Rainbows, in 2008. The reason that Aliens & Rainbows is so great is, paradoxically, the reason that a lot of really great solo albums go largely unnoticed, and why solo singer-songwriters are a brave bunch. But, man, the leap from Aliens & Rainbows to Ferras is so astonishing that it puts this question front and center: what the hell is up with popular music? If it’s doomed, why is it so—popular?

Ferras in Aliens & Rainbows has a brilliant, often-unaccompanied piano, soulful and evocative in a way reminiscent of a performer a generation back, Jackson Browne, but also subtler and more melodically complex. It’s a starkly beautiful album. The fierce opening of the first song, “Liberation Day,” with the slight touch of synthesized drums, recalls the style of Ben Folds in Songs for Silverman except that the lyrical focus for Ferras is what it means when our dreams don’t come true, when we can’t work them out. Following this, the title song, “Aliens and Rainbows,” is eerily similar to Leona Lewis’ “Better in Time,” which came out the same year (and it would be interesting to know if one influenced the other or they both had that weird thing that happens to artists in certain times when they hit upon more or less the same sound without knowing it). But that doesn’t make “Aliens and Rainbows” any less beautiful, and if course Ferras is working on a completely different idea lyrically—where Lewis is telling us she’s going to be OK, Ferras is wondering what it means to realize that, whatever “human” is, you just can’t grasp it. Lewis is beautifully unrealistic; Ferras is tragic and brilliant. There’s not a trace of studio over-production on this album. It cuts like a knife because the knife is all that’s there.

Enter Metamorphosis Records. “Everything’s different,” sings Ferras in the opening single, “Speak in Tongues.” “Something’s gone missing.’” And he’s not kidding. From the opening measure of every song on the EP, every space is full of sound. This is true synthetic music of the kind Katy Perry trademarked. You can picture the score for each song running anywhere from four to ten staves vertically for the melody and nine different simultaneous synthetic effects, including synthesized voices. And, yeah, you can’t really take the genius away from a brilliant songwriter, so the lyrics here are interesting. But whatever that soulful piano dominating Aliens & Rainbows was, it has been left out in the rain. And the numbers are interesting. On Spotify, the top songs from Aliens & Rainbows—“Hollywood’s Not America,” “Rush,” and “Take My Lips”—have roughly 700,000, 650,000, and 300,000 listens, respectively. Of the songs from Ferras, only two show up—“Legends Never Die” and “Speak in Tongues”—and they together barely show 43,000 listens.

The crazy killer Phil Specter invented the “Wall of Sound” in the early 1960’s, and you could argue that Katy Perry has perfected the new generation of it, incorporating far more sophisticated synthesizers and hip-hop into something that gets her most popular songs nearly 200 million listens. She has her ear to the track and the light at the end of the tunnel is indeed her own oncoming train. But if Ferras wants to remain Ferras, he needs to return to recording his roots. His dream came true. He’s backed now financially to the hilt. But if Katy Perry’s train hits him, he’s not going to come out alive. Toward the beginning of all this I wondered aloud why popular music was so popular when it’s so enormously contrived—like perpetual ADHD—and that actually may be the answer to the question right there. There is so much to hear, all the time! Ecstasy! Coke! Without the hassle of jail time and so on! But losing Ferras to his latest sound would be a true loss for someone as gifted and as fortunate to have made Aliens & Rainbows.

          

Tom Simmons is an associate professor of English at the University of Iowa. His seven books are all still available on amazon under the name “Thomas Simmons,” although he hasn’t read any of them since 2012.  A singer-songwriter, he plays twice a month at one of his two favorite venues, The Mill in Iowa City (the other favorite venue, The Hideout in Chicago, hasn’t actually invited him yet).

Review of Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

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              Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist is a collection of essays that both takes on the meaning of feminism and a number of current subjects important to feminism. Invoking feminist Carol Hanisch’s famous maxim that “the personal is political,” Gay educates her readers with an approachable voice, at times both academic and irreverently humorous, and always thoughtful and thought-provoking.

              The essays are grouped into several sections, including Gender & Sexuality, Race & Entertainment, and Politics, Gender & Race. As a woman of color, Gay does not ignore the intersectionality of race and gender, despite the omission of race in the book’s title. Her main thesis, however, is that feminism is a slippery term, and feminists (and their detractors) assign to the label a plethora of definitions. Gay makes this clear when she writes, “feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed.” Therefore, she says she “embrace[s] the label of bad feminist because I am human,” and does not “have all the answers.” This is the book’s greatest strength – Gay’s refusal to define, categorize, and impose rules on what it means to be a woman, a woman of color, and a feminist. Furthermore, in “Bad Feminism: Take One,” she resists an “essentialist feminism” that “doesn’t allow for the complexities of human experience or individuality. And, hilariously, in “Bad Feminism: Take Two,” she confesses to liking the color pink, listening to gangster rap (“I am mortified by my music choices”), and shaving her legs.

              Although she eschews having all the answers, one of the best essays in the collection is “How to Be Friends with Another Woman,” a list of rules for sisterly solidarity. She instructs readers not to “tear other women down” and to “Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive.” As Gay’s voice is as humorous as it is straightforward, she also advises that women shouldn’t “flirt, have sex, or engage in emotional affairs with your friends’ significant others” because “If you want to be with an asshole, get a fresh asshole of your own. They are abundant.”

              Because Gay is an academic, she does include ideas from feminist writers Judith Butler and Hélène Cixous, but her tone remains accessible to those outside academia. What makes the book most accessible to its intended general readership are her essays on popular culture, in which she deals with both portrayals of women and of people of color. In the essay “The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help,” she tears down the basis for America’s love of the book and film, illuminating for readers the many problems with the representation of race relations and representations that audiences have found comfortable. The main issues as she sees them are that the portrayals of black women are stereotypical (they are maids and “magical negroes”), the representations of white women are “overly sympathetic,” and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement is entirely absent. So while those who love the book and/or movie have lauded it for its depiction of solidarity between white and Black women, the truth, as Gay makes clear throughout all of these essays, is not so simple due to our cultural history as well as our human complexities.

              Although Gay could be criticized for focusing heavily on trivial popular culture, she brings insight to her interrogations of these subjects that enlighten readers. In “Some Jokes Are Funnier Than Others,” she discusses the incident when an audience member called out comedian Daniel Tosh for a rape joke during a standup comedy routine. Gay points out that the “heckler” was correct in saying that “‘rape jokes are never funny’” because “Rape humor is designed to remind women that they are still not quite equal.” She also goes on to make a point that, particularly in the age of the Internet, “Sometimes, saying what others are afraid or unwilling to say is just being an asshole. We are all free to be assholes, but we are not free to do so without consequence.” Truth, Roxane. TRUTH.

              At times, Gay makes assertions that are not supported adequately. For example, in “The Alienable Rights of Women,” Gay says, “The drug industry has no real motivation to develop a reversible method of male birth control because forcing this burden on women is so damn profitable” and that “men don’t seem to want the responsibility for birth control” because “They see what the responsibility continues to cost women, publicly and privately.” Some elaboration would make these statements stronger for readers who are on the fence when it comes to the particulars of reproductive freedom (or feminism in general). Gay’s style, however, is not to belabor a point, but to draw out ideas and invite the reader to consider ideas for herself.

              Overall, Bad Feminist is a strong interrogation of our cultural climate with regard to women and people of color. Gay does not try to impose answers to the seemingly insolvable problems of racism and sexism. She does offer a final conclusion about being a feminist: “Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman.” She concludes the entire collection by saying, “I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.” It is the striving for social justice and doing one’s best to heighten the public’s consciousness that matters, in the end, rather than being a perfect feminist, as there is no such thing.

              Bad Feminist is a deceptively dense read in that Gay requires readers to stop, think, consider and question not only issues of feminism but also those of race. Most readers will find themselves not only exclaiming “Yes!” out loud, sharing Gay’s humor and insight on social media, and underlining the choicest bits with pencil in hand, they will also find themselves in this book and grow from the experience. With the recent publication of her debut novel, An Untamed State (which she discusses in “The Smooth Surfaces of Idyll,” in addition to this collection of essays (many of which were previously featured in publications such as Salon, The Los Angeles Review, and Jezebel), Gay is becoming a major voice in cultural criticism and creative writing.

              Let me be clear about this. Buy this book, read it, savor it, laugh with it, disagree with it, and expand your awareness of feminism. You will not be sorry. I’m more enlightened because of this book.

Harper Perennial, $15.99 USD

Overall rating: 10/10

 Tracey K. Parker is a college English instructor who earned her PhD from the University of Arkansas. The focus of her research is popular culture in literature. She also has a journalism degree from the University of Missouri and is an avid reader and published writer.