‘Bolt Cutters’ Opens Wounds, Stretches Boundaries of Music

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Fiona Apple has increasingly stretched the boundaries of music with each release, so that it’s no longer driven by artifice but absolute remove. Her new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is nothing if not a natural progression for the famously reclusive singer then, who has established a slow-drip pattern of releasing material. It may be her most riveting album yet, which is a feat she’s secured with each release in a career that now spans four decades.

Apple starts the album with opener “I Want You to Love Me”, one of its more deceptively conventional tracks. Backed by pretty piano keys that invoke gentle blue skies, she coos with the rich alto fans have long recognized. However, the next track “Shameika” is more indicative of the album’s ethos: lacking a catchy chorus, Apple’s lyrics fixate on one vague line: “Shameika said I had potential”—and repeats it dozens of times by song’s end, no less decipherable with piano keys that clatter like drums.

By the third and fourth tracks—the title song and a ditty entitled “Under the Table”—the heavy, percussive, thread-bone instrumentation and Apple’s idiosyncratic musings threatened to put off even a lifelong fan like me, who essentially grew up with her music when were both teenagers at the dawn of her career in 1996. I’d been prepped by press releases that referenced an incendiary, stark track, “Hot Knife”, from her previous album, 2012’s The Idler Wheel… as a precursor to this album, but was still thrown for a loop—and I loved that track.

I pressed on, and to my chagrin fell for “Ladies”, which is most reminiscent of Apple’s earlier, more accessible work: swooning, lilting melodies with high production values and best of all, Apple’s voice at peak beauty. If one wants a pretty melody though, Apple is no slouch in that department either. “Ladies” is lovely, and shouldn’t be ashamed to be.

Suffice it to say, Cutters is not a pretty record though; but upon repeat listens, it’s certainly not easy to ignore either. After the tentative first round, I was drawn back to it and was able to hear it on its own terms. This is not a typical Fiona Apple record, but it’s that very ornery defiance that makes it an utterly typical Fiona Apple record.

The new album is like an exotic meal you try once—discovering that it’s not doused in sugar or spice or anything immediately definable—then you end up craving it for weeks after. That it also happens to be nutritious is only a bonus—this is music of and for the soul.

“Reinvention” is a cheesy word and would never apply to Apple, but the 42-year old singer has avoided repeating herself since arriving at the tender age of 18 in the only decade she could have gotten traction in: the 1990’s, when it was last plausible for a sad-looking and even sadder-sounding musician to go triple platinum, as she did.

Her debut, Tidal, was disarmingly honest and haunting, but with a pop sheen that she would never rely on again. She quickly dispelled all mounting doubts of being a fluke with her 1999 follow-up, When the Pawn… confidently establishing herself as a true sophisticate with a penchant for timeless melodies and mature craftsmanship on par with her hero, John Lennon. 2005’s Extraordinary Machine expanded her sound and conceptual reaches even more, and 2012’s The Idler Wheel… was her most innovative work yet: stripped down to sonic essentials, it only showcased her lyrical and melodic ingenuity further.

In hindsight, this discography set the stage for Cutters, which rests entirely on something Apple was never short of and still isn’t: authenticity. What draws the listener to the album isn’t escapism, so much as exorcism—of inner demons, anxieties, and revelations that have been percolating under the surface for years or even decades.

Much has already been written about the timely themes that permeate the tracks: Apple’s quest to give voice to the silent majority that still finds itself at the whims of an ostensibly masculine world. However, Apple has always held men accountable for their actions from the onset of her career. That she does so to this day is perhaps most revealing, politically, now. She also clearly ruminates on the tricky nature of female friendships in several songs on Cutters, which is new in her catalogue.  “A girl could roll her eyes at me and kill,” she laments gingerly in the title track, needing no more explanation for the adolescent hell that still haunts most adults.

Chants, wordless vocalizing, and half-speaking fill the album—invariably centered on a phrase that does not belong in Top 40. They’re cathartic only in the capable hands of Apple: “Kick me under the table, I won’t shut up”, she repeats like a petulant preteen. It oddly becomes a mantra, not just literally but for its sheer attitude.

“I spread like strawberries/ I climb like peas and beans”, Apple shouts with conviction in “Heavy Balloon”, invoking a startlingly earthy and esoteric metaphor—a reference from a children’s book that described how the aforementioned flora grows.

It’s not to say that the album is devoid of indelible sounds. Aside from the more conventional tracks mentioned, “Hot Balloon” rouses with a pulsating percussive splash that seems to belie its meditation on depression. The title track has a serene, lazy, almost calypso-style lilt. “Under the Table” has perhaps the catchiest chorus, accented by a shimmering piano loop. “Cosmonaut” recalls the whimsical, melodic instrumentation of her mid-career albums.

Underscoring the visceral quality of this album, it was notable how relieving it was for me to listen to a pure, unabashed pop song from the rest of my itunes playlist afterwards. It made me appreciate that sort of music even more—while also simultaneously appreciating Fetch the Bolt Cutters more. There is a time for each urge; if I want unvarnished authenticity and raw muse literally caught on tape for secondhand witness, I will press play on this album repeatedly.

25th Anniversary: ‘Live Through This’ album review

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The rumors about Courtney Love were true: her band’s second album is brilliant. From the deceptively underplayed riffs of opening song “Violet” to its explosive chorus with Love’s rebel yell backed by her four-piece band, Hole laid the groundwork for an album that flexed considerable muscle for the then-peak alternative rock movement. It will stand as one of the genre’s seminal works.

The elephant in the room is neither ignored, pointedly demolished, or obsessed over on this album: can a woman rock legitimately, without negating her femininity?

Love wins, because she has it both ways: she’s so good her gender’s not even relevant, which makes the revelation all the more relevant. She’s a natural: charismatic, dangerous, cocky, defiant, funny, tender, and poetic. That she happens to wear baby doll dresses is moot.

And the answer is a resounding yes: feminine themes are laced throughout the album’s lyrics and sound, but not at the expense of the genre’s nihilism. Just as Love’s voice can command and dominate with raspy force, it can flirt and dance with a showgirl’s glee.

‘I am the girl you know can look you in the eye,’ Love boasts in the raucous first single, “Miss World”. Mixing her favorite concepts of glamour and destruction, the song nakedly implores ‘Watch me break/And watch me burn’, before crunching everything under a guttural chorus: ‘I made my bed and I lie in it’.

Most of the album employs this soft/hard dynamic that dominates the genre, with a few heavy exceptions. “Plump” churns hard guitar riffs like gunfire while Love subverts feminine expectations: ‘I don’t do the dishes/I throw them in the crib.’ “Jennifer’s Body” skitters edgily along until exploding into power pop/rock riffs rivaling any hard-rock contemporaries.

Elsewhere, the slow-burn cautionary tale “Doll Parts” lays down its lyrical and stylistic groundwork so expertly without a hint of artiness: an artist’s dream in the form of twentieth century grunge rock. ‘Someday you will ache like I ache,’ Love forewarns in the chorus, changing the inflection slightly at every reprise until it bears multiple meanings.

A lone guitar riff periodically accents the throbbing bass showcase of the album’s quietest song, “Softer. Softest”, titillating you just as you’re being soothed by the song’s languid spell. It’s these simple but unexpected sonic twists that captivate and challenge listeners.

Throughout the album, we’re reminded again of the ineffable power of music—what can be achieved by the arrangement of chords and beats from a few instruments in different variations. No matter how crude and humble the parts are the sum can be transcendent.

The album’s lyrics alone are exemplary too—born from the best conversations neo-philosophers dream of and budding screenwriters would sacrifice a rent check for: ‘If you live through this with me/I swear that I will die for you’, begs the song “Asking for It”.  ‘I fake it so real I am beyond fake,’ Love concedes in “Doll Parts”. ‘I don’t really miss God/But I sure miss Santa Clause,’ quips “Gutless”. None of the lines feel precious or pretentious, furthering their impact.

Like the lead singer herself though, it’s not an easy album to accept at face value. Its compelling sheen is on alternative-rock terms; this is not your grandmother’s female rock star. Many music fans will simply not bear the palette to welcome it, and it’s their loss.

For fans of alternative rock and true music connoisseurs, however, it is undeniable. “Live Through This” is a stroke of genius in its sonic dynamics, thematic scope, and lyrical potency. It’s rife with excoriating ruminations set to indelible hooks that seduce and assault you simultaneously, daring you to embrace and question yourself and the world—like the best rock music does.

Album Review: Radiohead’s ‘Moon Shaped Pool’ is One-of-a-Kind Art Rock

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The album cover art for Radiohead’s new album A Moon Shaped Pool is a fitting metaphor for the music within: a corrosive, abstract form that defies definition. It is the venerable band’s most oblique and sonically dense record, from their catalog that has consistently defied musical categorization.

It’s easy to get lost in the theorizing of the mystique and motives of such an artistically lauded band instead of focusing on the work that propelled them into such a position in the first place. Their new album stands on its own as a musical work of art, and an admirable extension to their ambitions and abilities as musicians, writers, and artists that have been in the public domain for a quarter of a century now.

The first response I had to the album was not immediate devotion as a fan, but a caveat: it was not outwardly accessible, even for a band that never aimed for such a feat. For a fan, it threw me.

Listened to on a cursory level, the eleven-song cycle could be condensed to obtuse whispers, hushed strings, and formless melodies—all wind and sail, with no immediate soul or beat to anchor one’s mind to. Or so I thought.

Like some records we’ve doubtless encountered, I had to be in the right headspace to receive it. And like the muse behind art, there is no formula for discovering the beauty behind art. It simply arrives on its own.

When it occurred, I found myself intoxicated with ineffable fascination at the album’s sonic landscape. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood was the prime force behind the songs’ use of haunting choruses and emotive strings, imbuing the album with a strange and indescribable beauty that singled it out from any other albums I’ve ever listened to in the rock genre.

Whether it was merely artifice or thematic ingenuity, I found myself quietly stunned and enraptured, like a zealot hearing his gospel at church. If music stirs you instinctually or cerebrally or both, it’s done its job.

The opening track and first single, “Burn the Witch” is the most conventionally structured song in the album. Buoyed by a fast, frightening string section straight out of an arty horror film, it’s a tense and urgent tune that gives way to a far more oblong musical journey afterwards.

“Daydreaming” follows—a languid, sleepy meditation that lead singer Thom Yorke has essentially been writing since OK Computer in 1997. It’s a summation of all the fears, dreads, and wonders the band persistently chases throughout their discography, providing new insights each time with each new phase they enter.

“Decks Dark” perhaps best encapsulates the album’s musical identity: an anomalous hybrid of harrowing archaic choir, weaving strings, Yorke’s croon, and ebullient keyboards. Even if the voice and lyrics aren’t articulate, the emotion is there—it’s all in the sound.

Another track, “The Numbers”, is a heightened version of this combination, propelling the sensation of strings and conventional rock instrumentations into new levels of hysteria and transcendence.

Elsewhere, there are more familiar sounds that Radiohead fans will recognize: “Ful Stop” seeps in quietly, building on a searing guitar loop that crescendos periodically through the cacophony of Yorke’s falsetto wails and shimmering noises.

“Present Tense” is a rollicking, acoustic guitar-driven track that is reminiscent of the band’s prolific first decade of the new millennium. It is no less riveting for being familiar: a plaintive, yearning ode that hooks you throughout its tense course.

Lastly, the album closes with a tune that has batted around the Radiohead canon for two decades now, as a fan favorite at concerts—only officially appearing on the band’s Live EP I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordingsin 2001. Now, “True Love Waits” is punctuated with muted piano chords and lilting keyboard effects. For a fan of the poignant, acoustic guitar-centered live version, it was initially unnerving. But in the context of this searing album, it is fitting. The somber, sedate take feels earned: wary yet hopeful, shattered but enthralled by the wonders of feeling, it’s a serene close to an otherworldly journey.

La La Land: The Story of Us (Review)

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They say there are no new stories to tell, and nothing new under the sun—that phrase itself is a cliché, see. Yet we still need these tales, for ineffable and primal reasons. Why? Well, it’s ineffable—so sometimes it’s beyond words.

“La La Land” is one of the most familiar stories in the modern canon: girl has a dream of stardom and pursues it in spite of demoralizing setbacks. On top of that, it’s a love story between a girl and a boy—and the boy also has the same dream, essentially. This sandwich of familiarity is enough to send any quasi-cynic running for shade—and I don’t mean for cover. But oddly, many of us are still on board with this setup; so much so, that this film has become the breakout hit of the year: Oscar bait and pop cultural force. And for good reason: for many, it’s simply our story.

The film opens with an inventive musical nod to one of the hallmarks of the city of stars: L.A. traffic. In a gridlock on a steep highway overpass, passengers do the most natural thing in a musical: break into song and dance—jumping on top of their vehicles, courting each other out of their cars, and dancing on the concrete lane with unmitigated reverie, proclaiming in the song’s title how it’s “Another Day of Sun”. For a person who’s lived in Los Angeles longer than I care to divulge, this scene blew straight passed my jaded antennae and bowled me over with its unabashed whimsy. Instead of scoffing at the absurdity of it all, I wanted to join in.

At the song’s end, we meet Mia, played by pixie-ish but quirky Emma Stone. Mia is an aspiring thespian who heeded her childhood calling to tinsel town to realize her dreams of becoming a star—but mostly to tell stories through her craft, like every bleeding-heart artist on Earth. Although Mia is certainly likable, the film is less about character than plot and ideals. Stone is competent as always, but you guessed it: does not add a new wrinkle to this careworn archetype. She does add another notch to her increasingly impressive repertoire, proving that Hollywood may not be so shallow after all: in one scene, after a humiliating audition, Mia zips through a hall of Stone-lookalikes that are also vying for the part. In the elevator, flanked by two of these clones, she is clearly the least statuesque and nubile.

This doesn’t stop her from catching the eye of another aspiring artist, Sebastian—a somewhat aging (by Hollywood standards—read: thirties) jazz pianist played by the still smoldering and chiseled Ryan Gosling. He has the slightly more original dream of the two by default: to simply open up a jazz club, which is a feat because it’s a jazz club and this is the twenty-first century.

In a subdued, if not entirely original setup, Mia is drawn into a nondescript nightclub by the chords of a pensive tune that she hears Sebastian playing inside. This melody becomes a smartly recurring musical motif throughout the film. It’s there that she spies Sebastian, but thankfully it’s not love at first sight for either party. They meet again shortly after through serendipity (he’s a keyboardist at a Hollywood party that she attends), and the inevitable develops between these two passionate artists—cue: excoriating debates on the merits of their crafts and the plausibility of their dreams to secure them, and—romantic love. They inspire each other and cheer each other on, unsurprisingly.

These scenes are padded by more musical numbers—less grandiose in overall production, but still charming and catchy—particularly the lovely, haunting theme of the film, “City of Stars”. These numbers also continue to pay winning tribute to more L.A. trademarks and locales like the Griffith Observatory, beach piers and the Watts Towers. The film does lose its musical momentum in the second half of its story, which will not go unnoticed by musical connoisseurs. For novices like me, it’s the best of both worlds: I enjoyed the songs far more than I’d expected from a traditional film musical, but I was just as happy to be saddled with plain plot and character in the interim, however uneven.

I won’t disclose too much of the remaining plot, because it’s no trouble guessing for a proverbial tale as this anyway: the story reaches its emotional apex when Mia can’t bear another humiliating failure, and hits the sore spot many viewers who bought into this story for personal reasons, fear most—pondering that she may not be destined for greatness after all.

Nonetheless, the ensuing conclusion is probably what you’d expect for both aspiring artists in a film like this. And with that, this is the reason why these familiar stories still work: we need to be reminded that things are possible. It’s not cliché; it’s human—which one came first? (Well, frankly the human—but one thing informs the other). Notably, the movie does handle the love story between Mia and Sebastian with less hackneyed results, and I will leave that utterly out of this review for the viewer to discover on their own.

“La La Land” is nothing new, but it’s a tale we’ll never grow tired of because (many of us) will always care about the things it cares about.