Five Quality Tracks: April 2016

Including initial thoughts on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Drake’s VIEWS

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1. Weezer: “California Kids”

We’ve gotten to a point where we judge Weezer too harshly. They were one of the most celebrated bands of the ’90s with their first two albums, the Blue Album and Pinkerton, but they slowly fell out of critics’ (and even some fans’) good graces as Rivers Cuomo opted instead for cheap hooks and obvious lyrics. While a lot of their decisions were unfortunate, they still cranked out fun, catchy songs. Their two most recent albums, 2014’s Everything Will Be Alright in the End and this year’s White Album, both even echo the magic of their old stuff. The White Album may not be quite as inventive as the material from their earlier days, but the songs are plenty satisfying. “California Kids” has a melody that’s ready for summer, harmonies straight from the Beach Boys’ playbook, and most importantly, huge, fist-pumping, “Say It Ain’t So”-style guitar riffs. If you still haven’t forgiven Weezer for past transgressions, it’s time to open that cold heart of yours.

 

2. Andrew Bird: “Truth Lies Low”

Andrew Bird’s music suffers from “consistency syndrome,” which is a dumb term I just coined. He is completely incapable of releasing a bad (or even mediocre) album, but since he doesn’t necessarily defy expectations ever, we often take him for granted. Let it be known: Andrew Bird is a mastermind. His songwriting is always excellent, his voice is gorgeous, his skill with any number of random instruments is unparalleled. The song that caught my attention from his brilliant new album, Are You Serious, is called “Truth Lies Low.” It coasts on a syncopated, slightly distorted electric piano riff and settles into a cathartic groove. Along with Bird’s beautiful vocals, he punctuates the track with violin solos, a quiet but funky bass line, bright and plucky strings, and a sense of poise.

 

3. Parquet Courts: “Human Performance”

Brooklyn post-punk rockers Parquet Courts returned in April with their best album to date, Human Performance. Their sound is indebted to Television, Wire and other late-’70s post-punk acts, but they imbue the material with their own character and wittiness. “Human Performance” almost has a bluesy-psychedelic Rolling Stones flavor to it, complete with a ’60s-style flute bridge juxtaposed against the raw, strident guitar. Frontman Andrew Savage sings about a love that has gone and the darkness that has replaced it: “In walks the darkness I pitch without you … It never leaves me, just visits less often / It isn’t gone and I won’t feel its grip soften without a coffin.” The chorus is cryptically poetic, as it reverberates and echoes over the crescendoing guitar: “Witness and know, fracture and hurt / Eyes in the fire, blink unrehearsed / Shield like a house, closing its door / Curved in the dark, rinses of yours.”

 

4. Drake feat. Rihanna: “Too Good”

The jury in my head is still out on VIEWS, Drake’s much-anticipated and much-hyped album over two years in the works. There are unquestionable highlights (“Controlla”, “One Dance”, “U With Me?”, the title track), but it seems like the highlights are moored on little islands surrounded by a vast sea of uninspired, yawning mediocrity.

It’s possible that some of the slower and meandering tracks will grow on me, like “Keep the Family Close” and “Redemption,” with their impressive soundscapes. But part of the problem is I’m used to Drake’s music immediately grabbing me with its catchiness. Drake’s signature quality is his unique ability to excel at both rap bangers and cathartic R&B jams. They are few and far between on VIEWS. For the last five years, Drake has made hit-making seem effortless. But here, there are no rap songs that even come close to “Started from the Bottom” or “Energy” or “10 Bands” or “Jumpman”. And there are very few R&B songs that even come close to “Hold On, We’re Going Home” or “From Time” or “Too Much” or “Take Care”. I mean, maybe VIEWS is just a different album than what I was expecting. It’s more low-key, more understated. Maybe I need to listen to it on a winter day and let it soak through. All I know is I’m used to Drake making albums loaded with hits, not smattered with a few points of interest.

But as I said, VIEWS has its share of highlights, starting with the best track on the whole album, “Too Good.” Drake again teams up with Rihanna, reuniting the duo that brought us “What’s My Name”, “Take Care”, and this year’s inescapable “Work”. They have chemistry flowing out of their ears, bringing some much-needed vibrancy to the album as they sing “I’m too good to you, I’m way too good to you / You take my love for granted, I just don’t understand it.” The lyrics by themselves makes it seem like they’re resigned to their fate of differing perceptions and expectations, but the way they sing it — tangoing together, fully engrossed by the beat — lets you know that they’re still hung up on each other. Whether Drake and Rihanna are playing a part, speaking the truth, or some of both, we’ll probably never know. The beat propelling them forward is a mix of Latin shuffle, understated modern R&B, and some touches of Beatles-esque backwards sound effects, if you can believe it. Everyone is working completely in tandem with one another, and it’s a beauty to behold.

 

5. Beyoncé: “Formation”

I can’t believe it, but Beyoncé has done it again. She has taken her artistry, expression, and musical output to another gear on each of her last three albums, starting with the spark of 2011’s 4 (featuring “Countdown”, “Party”, and “Love on Top”). Her self-titled album in 2013, surprise-released in the middle of a December night, was as grand a statement as you can make — an amazingly-produced celebration of marital bliss and just general boss-ness (that’s a word now). With her latest release Lemonade, which debuted on HBO in the form of an hour-long film (or “visual album”), she has again pushed the boundaries of what we thought possible in modern pop music. No one releasing music today can match the simultaneous popularity, scope, and creativity of a project like Lemonade (Kendrick Lamar does come close, but he still doesn’t have her insanely wide reach). The music and accompanying videos are masterful, captivating, conceptually whole. As she addresses infidelity and inequality, the emotion of each track shines through and pierces you. Each track progresses naturally into the next, telling a story of pain and healing. The list of collaborators is impressive, especially to an indie music nerd like me (Jack White, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, James Blake, Kendrick), but let’s be real — none of them outshine the true master here.

I could have selected almost any song to represent the album: the summery slow-jaunt of “Hold Up,” the rock-god feel-my-wrath power of “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” the empowered “tell him ‘boy, bye'”-fueled “Sorry,” the raw ballad “Sandcastles,” the confident and invigorating “Freedom”, the simmering bluesy soul of “All Night,” (I could literally keep naming every track on the album). But I’ll go with the all-out jam of “Formation,” the album’s lead single and closing track. The beat is incredible and the lyrics are full of earworms: “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making” or “My daddy Alabama, momma Louisiana.”

 
Huge honorable mention this month goes to “Creature Comfort” by Woods and “On the Lips” by Frankie Cosmos.

Also, here’s a running Spotify playlist of all the Five Quality Tracks songs for each month in 2016 (or at least, all the tracks that are on Spotify).

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