Bangers: Florence + The Machine, Kacey Musgraves, Jlin
Music is hard to talk about, it seems, in part because almost all conversation has to do with the personalities behind it, or the most recent controversy, or anything but the actual music. But there are amazing releases coming from all over and they deserve to be highlighted properly. This column is a place where the stuff I’ve been bumping lately can hopefully get some credit for the sounds contained therein, not for context or thinkpiece nonsense. This is all going to be music that I find worth my time, not slams of things I didn’t care for or a place to talk about what everyone else might be. Because at the end of the day, the most important thing is what comes out of your speakers.
Florence + The Machine – How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
So it has to be asked: exactly how big is How Big, the third album from one of the largest voices on the planet? It’s no triple-LP, but clocking in at 70 minutes it’s certainly not a brief excursion. Sonically we hear Florence Welch and an immaculate set of arrangements build up soaring towers that strain your neck and vision when you look up to catch a glimpse of the top. Not that there’s much time to step back in the middle of this maelstrom. It’s the perfect calling card any stadium-filling, festival-headlining artist would kill to have under their belts. How blue? The most effective songs on previous albums Lungs and Ceremonials convinced us that her heartbreak was the most immediate and devastating thing on the planet. How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful thoroughly charts out every corner and angle of heartbreak, from intimately painful near-silence to billowing gales of scorn and rage. The ocean laid out is full of storms and monsters and too vast to absorb on one voyage through. And most importantly, how beautiful? There were several missteps that could be generously written off as experiments and artistic indulgence on her previous records. For the third-time-as-charm, the fat’s been cut. Classic rock arrangements recalling greats such as Fleetwood Mac provide drive and that all-important oomph factor; orchestral flourishes and generous backing vocals expand the palette to places both comfortably familiar and bracingly new. And through all this Florence Welch’s voice is a siren on a bedrock, guiding us through a sea of messy heartbreak to let us know that the waters may be rough, and the hurricane unrelenting, but the storm is ultimately just as arresting as the calm.
Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
On sophomore album Pageant Material, we can hear Kacey Musgraves gently rebuffing her bestowed-upon status as a modern savior for one of the most lambasted genres in American popular music. The “modern savior” rhetoric surrounding her place in country is something we’ve heard (and gotten fed up with) before, usually regarding artists who fade from ubiquity or assimilate themselves into the system and genre tropes they were heralded to save and change. Musgraves’ songwriting talents are apparent in how she takes clichéd lines like “family is family” and turning them into moments that have impact and emotional heft. Her lyrical style is deftly conversational, like she’s relating a great story in a way that happens to rhyme. And the voice is impeccable, honey smooth in harmonies but with plenty of bite when called for. The timbre recalls a younger Alison Krauss, but it’s difficult to imagine Krauss singing such hilariously blunt lines “I’m always higher than my hair.” The instrumentals are a bit safe throughout, but Pageant Material’s strength lies in Kacey’s impeccable voice and knack for storytelling. She’s not interested in being anything but herself, and it’s impossible for us to deny her that when she’s having so much fun doing it.
Jlin – Dark Energy
Footwork has been stamped with a “Made in Chicago” for good reason: the South Side’s underground battle dancing and DJing scenes quite literally birthed the style that’s become the toast of discerning dance music listeners the world over. Less fortunate has been the fact that footwork remains almost entirely male-dominated. But Jerilynn Patton, a steel mill worker from Gary, Indiana, walks in the face of this boy’s club by banging out her own tunes. Dark Energy eschews the 4/4 house foundation inherent to most of her peers. Instead, each of these tunes inhabits a much more rhythmically fertile 6/8. Each one pulses and snaps and crackles with laser precision, snapping industrial drums serving as an earthquake-shaken floor for samples that feel fired off like sniper’s rounds. The primary emotions, on the surface, are things like fear and dread and the sense of staring at the inexplicable. Dig deeper, though, because the suspense coupled with the swirling rhythms will eventually kaleidoscope into something hard-edged, angular, and utterly beautiful.
Peter McCracken is a student, tech support drone, and music aficionado from Milwaukee.