Big Thief – Capacity

Capacity is a record of the first morning light, dusted with snow and blood. “There is a darker darkness and a lighter light on this album,” Adrianne Lenker explains, and while nothing could be truer than this, they are not separate: every pristine landscape bears the mark of the prior night’s reds and blacks, and even the darkest nighttimes are shot through with the hot, white clarity of a hangover returning a borrowed memory. “The sugar rush, the constant hush,” Lenker gasps on ‘Mary’, and Big Thief’s second album somehow captures both at once.

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Everything Slays: What Indie Rock Can Learn From Animation’s Queer Voices

The world is a sharp place, and art that serves only to map out its painful edges rarely enchants us. The scenes that leave a real scar are those that locate the intersection of tragedy and farce; the ragged contours, the moments identified in Simon Reynolds’ definition of poignancy as “the exquisite meshing of two contradictory feelings.” It’s driven by characters who compromise the expectations attached to their role, and by proxy, the way we identify ourselves within them. The world’s villains are still easy enough to caricature. But if you happen to fall outside the heteronormative matrix, chances are the heroes don’t look anything like you either.

If all of this seems like a painfully long and worthy introduction to a show that airs on Cartoon Network, then you’ve presumably never seen Adventure Time before. Smart, funny and heartbreaking, often all within the same breath, the series is currently airing its ninth and final season. Over the years, the show has pushed boundaries of artistic experimentation within the remit of a children’s television show – and sometimes, television full stop. Characters die. The main protagonist loses an arm. Notably, the developers went as far as they could to intimate that recurring characters Princess Bubblegum and Marceline ‘the Vampire Queen’ Abadeer had a romantic past; when it aired in 2011, the episode in question (‘What Was Missing’) proved a remarkably late breakthrough for portrayals of same-sex relationships in kids’ entertainment.

Olivia Olson revealed in a Q&A that Pendleton Ward had indeed confirmed to her that the characters were once more than friends. “I wanted to pick Pen’s brain a little bit. And he says, ‘Oh, you know [Marceline and PB] dated, right?'” She later partially retracted the comments, perhaps under pressure from the show’s panicked creators to make sure that, like the 1930s’ Hays code, homosexuality is always coyly alluded to, never explicitly acknowledged. At any rate, Ward’s hands were tied: “He’s like, ‘I don’t know about the book, but in some countries where the show airs, it’s sort of illegal.’ So that’s why they’re not putting it in the show.”

But lord, they’re trying. And it’s not just Adventure Time: the final episode of The Legend of Korra had to tiptoe through its emotional ending, in which female protagonists Korra and Asami are finally revealed to be in love – which, as co-creator Brian Koneitzko admitted, was “hardly a slam-dunk for queer representation.” Steven Universe, the creation of former Adventure Time storyboarder Rebecca Sugar, ran into trouble when its episode ‘We Need to Talk’ was censored for a scene with too much lesbian context. Even more absurdly, Disney’s Gravity Falls recently had to have a gay couple more or less in the background of a shot re-drawn as a man and woman.

One of the smartest ways that animated shows have learned to sidestep such censorship is by skewing gender assignations altogether. Adventure Time‘s B-MO, for example, is never explicitly gendered, but performatively explores different identities, at various times enacting both pregnancy and hyper-masculine Columbo roles without accepting either as natural. Steven Universe has taken this to the next level by literally dissolving its characters’ genders: as well as being essentially aliens, the show’s protagonists are capable of fusing with each other to create new identities. At one point, Steven fuses with his friend Connie, and the scene cleverly plays out different attitudes to coming out – without the metaphor (apparently) becoming explicit enough to provoke the censors.

Outside the world of animation, things were different – or rather, just the same. Suddenly, it became hard not to look at the way modern animation had quietly ushered in queer protagonists to talk and sing about their experiences, and contrast it with how far behind ‘real’ indie music – supposedly pop culture’s main outlier for progressive, alternative ideation – was lagging in 2011. Arctic Monkeys and The Horrors were still sneering out of leather jackets, and with the odd sanctioned exceptions (primarily St. Vincent), mainstream rock narratives felt decidedly staid.

Fast-forward to 2017, and the gulf only seems to be widening. Animation nominally aimed at children continues to experiment with new ways of incorporating queer voices, while grown-up, mainstream rock bands make painfully slow process. It’s still news when Tegan and Sara, freshly minted with global pop stardom, are audacious enough to use female pronouns in love songs. Of course there are cult and underground acts making use of their platform to confront LGBTQIA issues; there has been for decades, to some extent. But they don’t reach the audience of millions that Adventure Time and Steven Universe do.

It would be deeply unfair to lay all this at PWR BTTM‘s door, but the allegations surrounding Ben Hopkins earlier this year certainly didn’t help. Finally, it seemed like two musicians who both identified as non-binary were on the cusp of becoming stars, before they got dropped like a hot brick for paying lip service to safe spaces without honouring them. Unfortunately, musicians are real people, and the rock star avatars they represent are drawn from cruder, more fallible stuff.

But really, what’s the difference? Perhaps the likes of Pen Ward and Rebecca Sugar are afforded greater editorial space to manage their personas, with a wider margin for erasing their mistakes. Perhaps it’s easier to cloak your identity in the form of an animated character than to fuse your physical self to an idea of what you’d like to represent. Nonetheless, both earn a living storytellers; both hold platforms for artistic expression, with room for cultural and political dialogue within them. Both are free to create art that affords them a more comfortable life, if they wish.

It’s the rock stars who are playing it safe. I’m looking at my favourite albums of 2017 so far: Perfume Genius stands out as an extraordinary example that progress is being made, seamlessly weaving his own vulnerability as a gay man into bolder declarations of how pop songs can accommodate queer narratives. Nite Jewel and Diet Cig are up there, both talking up safe spaces in my recent interviews with them. But who else? Music still seems to occupy a rarefied space in popular culture that values vague, cross-market gestures over explicit confrontation, at least when it comes to gender and sexuality.

Even across an eleven-minute episode, these identities can be explored more fully, but songs are still an important part of explaining them. On top of that, the YouTube era has democratised the way in which songs are consumed, meaning it’s as easy to listen to a track from a TV programme as it is a chart hit from a touring pop star – and for the generation who’ve grown up with shows like Adventure Time, the latter category holds no particular sway over the former. Perhaps you’ve got a chill playlist that sandwiches ‘Blue Magic’ and the Sugar-penned ‘Everything Stays’ between London Grammar and Daughter, or a breakup mix that finds room for ‘It’s Over, Isn’t It?’ next to ‘Maps’. Maybe you’ve just been tidying the house to a 10-hour loop of that ‘Bacon Pancakes’ / ‘Empire State of Mind’ mash-up. In 2017, they’re all equally valid.

If today’s showrunners can keep pressing messages of acceptance and individual freedom past the executive gatekeepers, musicians can do the same. More than ever, we need songwriters willing to draw outside the lines.

Interview: Escaping together with Nite Jewel

 

At the height of last summer – that woozy July that ushered in May’s tenure, heat that withered the pound like grapes on a vine – the Guardian published a thinkpiece by the writer Frank Cottrell Boyce. Still basking in the glow of co-writing the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony with Danny Boyle, his article took aim at various contemporary malaises: Brexit, cuts to library and arts funding, East London. But what grabbed me above all was this:

“Innovation comes from those who are happy to embark on a course of action without quite knowing where it will lead, without doing a feasibility study, without fear of failure or too much hope of reward. The engine of innovation is reckless generosity.”

Unscheduled, the sentiment returned to me talking to Ramona Gonzalez, AKA Nite Jewel. It seemed a perfect fit for her attitude, her ideas, the spirit of autonomous creativity that burns through her like ethanol.

Continue reading at Drunken Werewolf

Perfume Genius and the redemptive spirit of No Shape

In the music video for “Slip Away”, the first single taken from the new Perfume Genius album, Mike Hadreas runs through a slideshow of soft-focus fantasies, away from a cast of hapless villains, towards an implied happy ending. Like a dream, the detail is somehow both blurred and crudely exaggerated; the antagonists’ faces are painted in caricature, and overcome by Hadreas dashing through the exploding set, hand in hand with his fairytale bride. Most of all, for an artist who dealt nothing but shade on 2014’s comeback “Queen” – all vicious contours and slicked-back hair, lips frozen in a permanent sneer at American heteronormativity – “Slip Away” presents a palette that is warm, dynamic, and deliriously playful. It’s the story of No Shape.

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This Ain’t A Scene: Clash Meets Diet Cig

 

Let’s get one thing straight: Diet Cig do not care for your bullshit.

Specifically, they have no interest in your studied, angular math-rock poses, your immaculately dishevelled stage presence, your boys’ own preconceptions about what does and does not qualify as punk. They do not have time in the day for anything that reeks of the patriarchy, from the President down to your friend Joel, who’s actually, you assure us, a really nice guy. They bet he is. Most of all – and it may be difficult for them to stress this enough – they do not care about your band. They feel they made this abundantly clear on ‘Scene Sick’, and would politely ask you to refer back to that song for further instruction.

And yet, there’s an awful lot that they do care about. Alex Luciano, human firecracker and Diet Cig frontwoman, cares about making things better. She talks of establishing their live shows as safe spaces, and the positivity that can be conducted on those nights. She tells me that being in a band, or even just going to see one, is a “radical act” in itself today. Noah Bowman, the band’s drummer and “chill” counterweight to Luciano’s nervous energy, cares about how awesome that Pinegrove record was. (We still love it too.) Both of them care about their hometown of New Paltz, New York, but they care about soaking up as much of the world as they can, too.

The duo took some time out to speak to Clash about their forthcoming debut album, ‘Swear I’m Good At This,’ and Alex made some loud karate noises in between. By the end of the call, we cared the shit out of Diet Cig.

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Diet Cig bottle power pop lightning on Swear I’m Good At This

Did it occur to you to stop for a moment and think about what all this might be doing to the kids? Do you even know where you left them? Like a beleaguered prime minister, we’ve abandoned them in the pub, forced to make their own way between the fruit machines and the soothing baritone of Jeff Stelling. And guess what? They know all about Article 50, and the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and now they’re drinking, smoking, reading Dick Hebdige, and having sex in the back of trucks with boys who share their first name. On Swear I’m Good At This, upstate New York duo Diet Cig have effortlessly captured the zeitgeist in half an hour of adrenaline-fuelled power pop, bottling a lightning I’d forgotten could still strike.

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Pure Comedy and the infuriating charm of Father John Misty

You don’t need me to tell you this, but I’ll say it anyway: Father John Misty is kind of a dick. He fancies himself a loveable provocateur on Pure Comedy, singing about having sex with Taylor Swift on live TV and then recoiling in horror at the suggestion that it might have been, you know, a little provocative. He was supposedly tripping on acid during that performance, as he was for his car-crash interview with Radcliffe & Maconie, and he’s keen for you to know it. What a rock star! What a modern day Tim Leary! And of course, he hates “the intersectional-virtue-warrior style of music writing” that us modern scribes peddle, ruining whatever politically incorrect lark he imagines himself to be peddling instead.

How tempting it would be, then, to dismantle his 80-minute treatise on the globalised world with the kind of withering gallows humour he evidently deems himself to have mastered. To tear it apart, to denounce the whole thing as a pretentious, self-serving footnote in the annals of rock history. But I can’t do it. Some writers have compared him to David Foster Wallace’s portrayal in The End of the Tour, but my mind wanders instead to John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity, finally listening to the demo tape handed to him by the obnoxious little punks on the street. Because, hand on furrowed brow, we must face the unwanted truth: Pure Comedy is a hot, brash, unbridled success.

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British Sea Power return to glory with Let the Dancers Inherit the Party

Say what you like about British Sea Power, you can’t fault their industry. Since their last studio album, 2013’s lukewarm Machineries of Joy, the band have kept busy with various suitably charming projects: soundtracking a 2014 documentary film about the globalisation of Bhutan; refashioning their back catalogue for perhaps the third time on Sea of Brass; touring an exhaustive box set edition of their near-perfect debut. None of this is surprising for a band who have lived in thrall to antiquity, though such revisions inevitably invite the listener to compare the glory days to the modern era, a period that might uncharitably be called Austerity British Sea Power. Now back with a decadently-titled new record, Let the Dancers Inherit the Party, it may be time to loosen our belts a little.

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Lydia Ainsworth’s eclectic vision narrows on Darling of the Afterglow

Shooting night scenes like a police photographer, Lydia Ainsworth works in the palette that she knows best: pitch black, pallor white, autopsy violet. It was scoring her friend Matthew Lessner’s 2011 film The Woods, nominally about “hipsters who move to the woods to start a utopian society,” that the NYU and McGill University student was asked to sing over her dark creations; following years immersed in atonal classical experiments, the possibility that she could be one of the pop stars she adored as a child held an appealing possibility. Better yet, as a classically trained cellist who once composed a Philip Glass-inspired score for a 50-piece orchestra, she was uniquely placed to merge both worlds. On Darling of the Afterglow, Ainsworth’s second album, one of those worlds has begun to fade from her work.

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Tall Ships come to a crossroads with Impressions

For the great pessimist Schopenhauer, the will to life was an aberration, a balled fist from humanity’s lowest reach that existed to be overcome. Society was a futile project, he argued, because our baser instincts would always win. “Will to Life”, the second track from Tall Ships’ long-awaited second album Impressions, does not endorse this view, though frontman Ric Phethean does namecheck the German philosopher in the press release. “It’s about battling the darkness and sadness we feel throughout our lives through companionship,” he explains, and the extent to which you consider this statement profound insight or bland pontification will likely inform your enjoyment of the record.

Continue reading at Drunken Werewolf