September In Review: Selection of Album Appraisals
Issue 4, Volume 113
Pixies deserve their flowers. In their almost 40 years of activity, they’ve established a massive cult following, influencing bands like Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam while helping to pioneer the alt-rock movement of the ‘90’s. However, their most recent album, “Doggerel,” portrays a band past their golden age, relying almost exclusively on the nostalgia of their early days and their chops in the genre to carry it.
The main issue with “Doggerel” is the lack of highs and lows—the continuous mid-tempo often has the effect of blurring even the best of the album’s songs together. “Pagan Man,” for example, ends up being a highlight of the album with its catchy hook, twangy guitar, and whistled melody. However, in the context of the other songs, it is monotonous and indistinguishable, with a similar structure and instrumentation to the rest of the album. This is also present on the opening track “Nomatterday,” which, despite featuring a catchy bassline and an interesting tempo change, lacks the extra kick of energy to make it memorable. Sometimes songs fail due to half-baked concepts: “Vault Of Heaven” suffers from underdeveloped lyrics as it follows the lead singer as he drunkenly stumbles into a 7-Eleven but ends up in outer space. This story, while a little silly, could’ve been saved by something interesting happening in the latter half of the song, but the track seems to end right where it started. Despite this, it’s difficult to call any of these songs truly terrible, and some songs remain great within their uniformity: the title track, for example, is a nice closer, with mellow, introspective lyrics and an excellent guitar solo.
“Doggerel” may be an essential listen for hardcore Pixies fans, but for new listeners, it doesn’t offer much, lacking the innovation and energy of the band’s earlier work. For a genre as wide and diverse as alt-rock, the album ultimately ends up feeling fairly run-of-the-mill.
Björk’s tenth studio album, “Fossora,” is as beautiful as it is quirky. The most recent release from the Icelandic electro-pop sensation came five years after 2017’s “Utopia,” and perfectly exemplifies her unorthodox style and lyrical themes—she draws inspiration from death, motherhood, and mushrooms. “Fossora” masterfully navigates tonal extremes, featuring a soundscape full of Disney-esque string and horn sections woven between aggressive, techno-inspired sounds that disrupt this natural softness. The effect leaves the listener haunted both by Björk’s incredibly unique melodies and the jarring violence of its interruptions.
This aforementioned beauty is most prevalent on “Freefall,” a simple marriage of strings and voice that narrates conventional feelings of love in a very unconventional manner. Björk sings: “Safe inside the fabric of our love-woven membrane / Our affections captured in a structure visceral sculpting / Our solar systems coalesced softly,” reaching an emotionally gut-wrenching climax that acts as the face of the album’s beauty and love. The interlude, titled “Trölla-Gabba,” exemplifies the more chaotic end of this soundscape. It begins with eerie, midi-triggered vocal inflections that increasingly give way to screeching melodies akin to the wails of babies or sirens, and aggressive percussive instruments that drop in and out with a sense of random urgency. There’s a similar disturbing dread to “Victimhood,” which evokes a sense of claustrophobia with its light ticking percussion and blaring foghorn-like sounds decorated by Björk’s dissonant melodies and self-sacrificial lyrics.
These mood choices mirror the dichotomy of Björk’s last few years, as she experienced COVID isolation back home in Iceland. The fascination with the natural world is ever-present in Björk’s work, which manifests itself on “Fossora” through the mushroom imagery in the artwork, music videos, and lyrics. She explained this mushroom focus in an interview with Pitchfork, in which she said they felt bubbly and fun, while also representing a sense of groundedness. There’s also the subject of motherhood, which Björk delves into across the album, most explicitly on “Sorrowful Soil” and “Ovule.” These pleasant, innocent focuses are juxtaposed with serious topics, namely the passing of Björk’s mother. “Ancestress,” a content-rich eulogy to her mother, focuses on this theme most directly, as it features vocals from Björk’s son and muses on the relationship between mother, child, and death.
While these themes may seem to be only vaguely linked, the bizarre melodic and aesthetic choices act as the mycelium connecting “Fossora,” and the varied production keeps the listener engaged and fascinated throughout. “Fossora” may not be for everyone: its strange subject matter, unconventional melodies, and occasionally challenging instrumentation will push most away, but listeners who give it a chance will be rewarded with a pure authenticity that only Björk can deliver.
The work of underground hip-hop visionary Billy Woods often feels like half remembering a vague, bizarre dream. Woods moves quickly, yet thoughtfully—he introduces imagery for a line then shifts away, only to bring it back later recontextualized by new images introduced in between. He vividly paints pictures that collapse only moments later; random lines of dialogue from unnamed characters are referenced constantly with little to no explanation, and the literal and the metaphorical collide so much that they become indistinguishable. These factors often make Woods’s work disorienting, confusing, and concentrated, textured both by his selection of dense beats as well as his deep voice and entrancing, steady flow. These are the attributes that most accurately define Woods’s most recent album “Church,” which follows the critically acclaimed “Aethiopes” released earlier this year.
Despite its title, “Church” spends little time dwelling on religion, instead acting as a layered reflection of Woods’s childhood and family disguised under imagery of nuclear fallouts and historical violence. These themes are broad yet powerful, as Woods effectively conveys distinct and often disjointed imagery in a truly poetic fashion. This is most prevalent on “Cossack Wedding,” where Woods paints himself as a “disaster tourist” wandering through “Chernobyl’s wildlife,” whereupon a ghost-like woman with “aqueous humor” and an elusive identity visits him while he sleeps. This shifting imagery can be explained to mean any number of things—perhaps the destroyed environment he’s describing, as suggested by the wreckage and scaffolding on the album cover, is a metaphor for the neighborhood he grew up in, or maybe the ghost is some manifestation of love that guides him through this world. Whatever it means, the simple beauty of the imagery itself is enough to captivate the listener.
The beats on “Church” are unique, to say the least. They are unstable, dense, and haunting, often using eerie vocal samples over hard-hitting percussion loops and deep bass. Take the production on the opening track, “Paraquat,” where wobbling synths, shifting opera vocal samples, and deep bass give way to a warbled jazz-trio sample. “Cossack Wedding” exemplifies this as well, as slow vocal lulls juxtapose a sharp, plodding trap percussion section, combining into a bleak backdrop for Woods’s references to David Foster Wallace. “Pollo Rico” is the peak of the album, as a hollow voice sings an emotionally painful and staggeringly simple melodic part over thick, rattling percussion. Woods delivers some of his most hard-hitting lines on this track, rapping “When the revolution was over they gave ‘em half what they promised / My uncle told me they can’t bury that many bodies, it was dark, I could see his teeth, it wasn’t a smile.”
All in all, “Church” is an overwhelmingly compelling project, and adds to Woods’s legacy as one of the best underground hip-hop artists of all time. His combination of poetic intensity and complex production make “Church” a worthwhile listen for any fan hoping to expand their taste in hip-hop.