Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Equality MUSIC ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

PWR to the PPL: The Guitar-Shredding, Gender-Fluid World of PWR BTTM

Everywhere Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins take a step transforms into a scene. It’s a chilly spring day at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in Prospect Park, and the two of them — the duo that is New York punk band PWR BTTM — are strutting and mugging in between the rows of cherry blossoms that bloom for only a couple of weeks each year. “Linda Evangelista!” Ben screams — a supermodel mantra projected to no one in particular — while jumping on a bed of pink petals that have fallen from the trees. A tall blonde fan, recognizing them, yells “Holy shit!” and, with a friend, asks for a hug. Liv, the daintier of the two, is straight-faced and serious, with deep-red lipstick and a knowing smirk; Ben, face swirled with glitter and blue and green makeup over an amber dusting of facial hair, is teasing the hem of a delicate blush-colored dress up both legs like some ruffian Claudette Colbert. “This happens more and more,” says Ben, of the fans who recognize them. “We’re getting used to it.”

They better be. Since forming in 2013, PWR BTTM have exploded into the public consciousness off of two EPs, an album from 2015 called Ugly Cherries, numerous fun and funny music videos that capitalize on their charisma, and live performances that jolt between the chaos of a punk show and the witty raunch of cabaret. This week they are releasing their second album, Pageant. Like the two artists who made it, Pageant is both bombastic and sincere, a weaving ride through plainspoken songs about what all the most powerful rock ‘n’ roll has ever been about — love, despair, excitement, depression, being young and weird — but updated for the 21st century with jangly guitar, beaming choruses, and a burst of slapstick humor.

Take “Answer My Text,” likely the most relatable song of 2017. It was written by Liv (the two of them split songwriting duties throughout the album, with Liv predominantly on drums and Ben on guitar) as a kind of therapy about a real-life boy who just wouldn’t respond to a series of flirty texts, a pain and simmering rage anyone who dates in the iPhone age knows intimately. But then you left again and I just felt confused and nerdy/My teenage angst will be with me well into my thirties, Liv sings. Answer my text, you dick. “When that boy doesn’t text me back now, I can freak out a little bit less because I have written a song about it,” Liv says, settling into a sunny part of the park in between the trees. “I think that although the medium through which that happens is contemporary — cellphones — the story is timeless.”

Pageant is quite contemporary in one way, though: The band has been open and honest about the gender journey they’ve been on over the past few years, and their songs reflect their evolving sense of self — Ben has, since after the band began, started to identify as queer, and Liv has grown into identifying as queer, nonbinary, and transfeminine, beginning to take hormones in August of last year, a process that shows up as a theme on the album. ” ‘Styrofoam’ is about when I started estrogen,” says Liv. “That’s, like, actually a really special time.” That, Liv says, is the entire point of being in a band to begin with: to express in visceral terms the things that can be difficult to talk about. “This is such a bratty way to answer, but everything I have to say about that that’s for public consumption is in the music.”

On Pageant, in between songs about crumbling relationships and crushes on boys, there are layered LGBTQ anthems like “Sissy,” about the struggles and excitements of veering from masculine norms, and “New Trick,” about the invasive questions well-meaning people ask of those they can’t immediately understand. There are moments of bittersweet insight about the strange trip that queer life can be, like a lyric on “LOL” that rings with an empathy and honesty that every not-straight-and-cis kid will understand: When you are queer/You are always nineteen. “When you’re an openly gender-nonconforming person, you’re just always under scrutiny in public,” says Liv. “I think writing these songs helped me process that.”

Liv, 24, and Ben, 25, live in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, about ten minutes apart. In truth, they’ve always lived close to each other. They both grew up in Massachusetts — Liv in the Boston area, Ben about an hour away in South Hamilton — but hadn’t met until they both wound up at Bard College in New York State’s bucolic Hudson Valley. Bard has a reputation as something of a liberal-arts petri dish for experimentation and creativity, and Ben, who studied theater, and Liv, who studied dance, pursued their passions with a feeling for freedom and discovery. “It’s a very open-ended kind of place,” says Ben.

They met when, as they told Out in 2015, Liv accidentally stepped into Ben’s dorm room, mistaking a small get-together for an open-invite party. “Not just walked in — beat the runway into my house. And I was like, ‘Who is this sissy?’ I was confused by her because I wished that I was more like her,” recounted Ben. They started futzing around and making songs together and eventually played their first show in 2013. “I was actively trying to get better because we’re both self-taught,” says Ben. “I started to practice a lot and really care about being in a band.” A shared sense of theatricality has bled its way into almost every single thing they’ve done since, partly from what they learned during their college years, but also because of their interest in pop culture and the art of gender play: They’ve noted RuPaul’s Drag Race as an influence, and Ben claims Justin Vivian Bond, the pioneering New York queer performer, as a drag mother.

PWR BTTM have an openness to unexpected sounds and strange flourishes, including the use of a French horn as a punctuation to their guitars and drums. “It’s unique to have a rock duo that doesn’t sound bare, and that occupies so much sonic space in recordings and onstage,” says Cameron West, who helped with the arrangements on the album and played the horn. “A lot of our discussions were about expanding the instrumentation. I thought it would be unique to have some instruments that are often underutilized in rock ‘n’ roll, so we used bass trombone and alto flute. I knew that the parts needed to be outgoing, maybe even be a little histrionic.” Ben asked his mother, Chris Hopkins, a trained opera singer, to perform backing vocals on a series of tracks, too, adding a pretty siren’s touch that sounds halfway between the great backing vocalists of the 1960s and ’70s and Kim Deal’s voice in the Breeders. “It’s refreshing to hear a kickass rock ‘n’ roll sound again,” she tells me through email of her kid’s music. Which is true: The underground scene in Brooklyn has come, in the laptop age, to be dominated by electronic music and bedroom pop — any music that can be made with just a synth and a computer, really — and there’s something thrilling about seeing a pair of young bohemians pick up instruments and make pure and simple punk.

Indeed, beneath the sparkles and the bluster, there is both a virtuosity and a real talent for songwriting. If sometimes the spectacle of PWR BTTM can suck up more of the attention than the music, there are a number of moments on the album, particularly on somber tracks “LOL” and “Won’t,” in which Liv and Ben sound more like weary country cowboys than glitzed-up rock stars. If their over-the-top appearance is what brings audiences into their world, the quality of songs like these — whatever the subject matter — is what’s going to keep people around. “We write songs about things that we believe in, but we also play our instruments really well and practice them a lot and really care about the craftsmanship of what we do,” says Ben. There is the noted influence of shredders like Weezer and the White Stripes. The two share an affection for James Taylor, and there is a sense throughout that, stripped bare to acoustic guitar and voice, these songs could appeal in any context, to almost any audience. “People see me in drag and that’s what they see. They see us as gender-nonconforming people and that’s [it],” says Ben. “[James Taylor’s music] is so simple and clean and perfect, and simple and clean are not two things that come to mind when you think of PWR BTTM. But I think that is kind of at the beating heart of what we do.”

There’s long been queer swagger and spandex in rock music, from Jobriath and Freddie Mercury to the feminist punk of Nineties riot grrrl bands like Huggy Bear, but PWR BTTM’s friskiness, joy, and defiance feels profound for a moment in time in which gender and identity are excitingly — if tenuously — exploding right in front of us. There is, perhaps, more freedom for LGBTQ people than ever in some senses, but visibility has brought its own dangers: The Advocate reported in March that there has been a spike in murders of trans people around the country in 2017. “When I just look at, like, the queer world, I see this really important moment when the people who have benefited most from the gay rights movement” — meaning white gay men — “could turn their backs on all other marginalized people. They can have a life that is pretty much completely unhindered by their gayness now if they want,” says Ben. “Are you just going to take that and enjoy it and forget about everyone else?” It’s hard to look at last November’s election and a victory for Mike Pence, a character who feels pulled right out of The Handmaid’s Tale, and not wonder if every step forward is met with a terrifying lurch backward. Liv tells me that their way of dealing with that is ensuring that when people do encounter queerness in pop culture, there will be a healthy dose of radical spirit to what they see. “I see people learning what it means to fight back for the first time — people going to their first protests, people calling their senators regularly for the first time,” says Liv.

Barring whatever positive influence their success has had on the world, PWR BTTM has, at the very least, had the effect of making Liv and Ben more relaxed with themselves. “We just bring out the best in each other,” says Ben. “It would have taken a lot longer to get to an understanding of where I stand on the gender spectrum without PWR BTTM,” says Liv.

As the temperature and sun start to drop, before heading off — Ben to buy a plant, Liv to an anti-Trump rally in the city — they both express to me that, for all their bravado onstage, the best part about performing as PWR BTTM might just be that it forces them to figure out how to perform as themselves. “I came out of the closet through the band — I was sort of not publicly identifying as anything,” says Ben. “And PWR BTTM was the first place that I made public queer art. I never had [a] ‘Hey, I’m coming out’ moment — I just started writing punk songs about it.”

By now, Ben has changed into a plaid shirt and a pair of jeans, something of an everyday uniform, and wiped off the glitter and paint with cold cream and a towel, but Liv has remained in the same yellow floral dress from the shoot, telling me that while wearing dresses and skirts used to be just an onstage thing, in the past year or so it’s become increasingly comfortable to wear things from the women’s side of the aisle day to day. “I think that’s the job of being a performing artist — seeming confident when you’re not. I can’t think of a single performer who I really enjoy who ever looks scared onstage,” says Liv. “When you’re onstage, and you have instruments, that’s a very safe place to experiment.” Which is to say: Sometimes you gotta fake it before you make it, and if PWR BTTM have been playing the part of Brooklyn’s most famously fearless rock star queers, that fiction is starting to become reality.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Omnivorous Pop Machine Charli XCX Scores Again

For those of us intermittently confused by March Madness, Billboard is running a Should-Be-Bigger Bracket right now for pop stars who are not as famous as their talents merit. By the time you read this, Billboard‘s five judges will have weighed in on the Final Four: Charli XCX versus Tinashe and Vince Staples versus Hey Violet. Even if Charli XCX isn’t the ultimate winner, it’s not difficult to assert that she should be bigger. Charlotte Aitchison could easily be the world’s biggest twenty-four-year-old pop star, but does her job get any more fun if she is? Would she want to be?

Though she was playing raves in Hackney at sixteen (your 2008), the single that connected her to the larger world, before she was signed in the U.K., was “Stay Away,” from 2011. Produced by Ariel Rechtshaid, it is a blocky, agile song, pairing the light sulk of the Nineties with the heavy glow of the Eighties. Charli’s asking her lover to “stay away” because she’s “never needed anyone,” which doesn’t seem to have worked. Or maybe it did — she’s ended up in “prison” on her “hands and knees,” and the song’s ecstatic synths and slow lope suggest more “electric blue,” her lover’s color, than pain. Charli was laying out themes she has hung on to right up to her current mixtape, Number 1 Angel, which no matter what it’s called or how it’s promoted plays no different than a short album. Her lovers are gender blind, bad experiences and good experiences are not necessarily categorically different, all genres of pop are available, and hedonism is more real than realism.

The money, and the mission statement, came in 2012 with “I Love It,” which she co-wrote, which became a global smash for Icona Pop, and which sounds no different than a Charli XCX track. The production, by Patrik Berger and Style of Eye, is pure turn-of-the-century Eurostomp, two chords turned from rock to disco with a change of timbre. Form and function are both revving up; after a four-bar intro — short by current pop standards — we hit the verse, which leaps into the chorus without pause: “I got this feeling on the summer day when you were gone/I crashed my car into the bridge, I watched, I let it burn/I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs/I crashed my car into the bridge.” This is Charli’s sweet spot, yelling and singing at the same time, happy when it burns, happier still when she’s leaving. There is little room in her songs for consequences. Partying is fun. Pretty is fine, but tacky is better.

This would be minor stuff, at best, if Charli XCX weren’t a pop closer of the highest order. When Buckcherry, Blondie, Selena Gomez, James Blunt, and Yasutaka Nakata are all asking for hooks, you’re writing open-source code. For Number 1 Angel, she’s paired up with producers Sophie and AG Cook and Danny L Harle of the PC Music collective, which is a little distracting. PC Music has spent a fair amount of time chopping up the constituent elements of pop and making them shiver in isolation. So: making pop about pop. Except: pop is already about pop, so Number 1 Angel sounds no stranger or more heterodox than anything Charli XCX has already done. It’s just her third rock-solid full-length, depending on your tabulations. In fact, if we’re counting hard, this ten-track collection is perfect. It’s hard to imagine how any forthcoming “official” album is going to be any better.

The first track, “Dreamer,” is fabulous mulch, pulled off with the help of rapping singers Raye and Starrah. The bass oofs and boofs along, while all three channel the warbling triplets of Atlanta. The studio communal dictionary seems to have been printed in 1993 and updated every year since: “Beamer,” “whip,” “skrrt,” “dip,” “Lambo,” “baggy.” “Babygirl” re-creates the Nu Shooz feeling sparkle for sparkle, with Uffie adding a hologram of Mel C’s rapping. “Drugs” is about drugs, and the track suggests reduced motor function simply by introducing something minimal and dark into Charli’s bright-red maximalism. On “Lipgloss,” Charli’s universe is less heteronormative than ever. Says? CupcakKe in a guest verse: “Call again when you need somethin’ to eat/So I could open my legs, bon appétit, let’s get it.”

What makes Charli’s work such good pop is what makes her a hard sell as a pop star. She is omnivorous at every turn. When she is singing, someone is close to hand with a rap, which turns on a West Indian dance phrase, but not the one currently on the charts. When she advocates blitzkrieg partying, she doesn’t complain about being done wrong. She is a stoic hedonist, a strange combination, and low on persona. She is a doer. Stars need to do a great deal of explicit reflection to pull in the obsessive types who need pronouns to hash out. Charli XCX is enjoying herself too much to provide a surface for ideation. When others are strategizing their squad goals, Charli’s either writing or at the club. She’s not worried about who is number 2, 3, or 4. That’s for others to sort out.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner Takes Her Electropop Seriously

As the singer and multi-instrumentalist for Baltimore duo Wye Oak, Jenn Wasner crafts beautiful, unpretentious songs about the small moments of joy and ruin familiar to anyone entangled in a romance. The music is arresting, existing somewhere between the murky rock of Joy Division and the slowcore work of Low. Over the past ten years, she’s put out five such records with her bandmate, Andy Stack; her sixth is a solo effort under the name Flock of Dimes. If You See Me, Say Yes is a meditation on her current station in life, chronicled (as one might expect, given the Flock of Seagulls reference) in unironic electropop.

The album is both a product of its time and an homage to its forebears. “Everything Is Happening Today,” with its spare jungle drums, sounds like the Cocteau Twins meeting up with Phil Collins. “Semaphore,” a kindred spirit
to Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again,” sees the barest rhythmic pulse eked out from Wasner’s gossamer melody. Occasionally she dives into unfettered fun: “Ida Glow” opts out of lyrical poignancy in favor of a late-Seventies dance feel, complete with a gurgling “OO-OO-oo-oo” synth effect that wouldn’t be out of place on a Blue Swede or Village People track. Thanks to Wasner’s clear understanding of these pop precepts, the album is flexible enough to support pragmatic reflections on adulthood (“And forgive me for my silence/I forget the follow-through/And any lie I ever told you was to seek a better truth”) while remaining sweetly nostalgic.

If You See Me also owes much of its success to Wasner’s voice, which Mickey Freeland’s production treats as both part of the arrangements and the conduit through which everything flows. Her measured alto, which has just the slightest hint of grit, sounds like the voice of someone you love as they sing absentmindedly around the house. It gives power and grace to vastly different tracks: by pairing the aching vocals with clicky cymbals and staccato haunted-house synthesizers, “Flight” becomes moving in the manner of the best Nineties pop radio, taking on stray instrumental passages as it heads toward its climax. Later, on “…To Have No Answer,” a choir of reverbed melodies blends with dreamy keyboards and radio news snippets that crackle in the background, with Wasner’s succinct lyrics dipping into and out of the chaos.

While this project overlaps somewhat with Wasner’s other music — besides Wye Oak, she’s been part of dancepop act Dungeonesse — Flock of Dimes lacks the combustion or ratcheted-up drama of both those groups. In letting the songs
be less dynamic, or rather, by letting the dynamics come from the natural direction of the songs, Wasner manages to be engaging without massive choral hooks, dialed-up drum parts, or any of the other typical ingredients of a pop song. Here, on her own, she revels in her ability not to take herself too seriously, to be unapologetic about wanting to create joy. If You See Me, Say Yes isn’t good because it’s innovative or edgy, but because it’s an unfussy love letter to Eighties and Nineties electropop, filtered through the sly emotional lens of a genuine and perceptive fan.

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Pop Star Wars: Britney Spears vs. Carly Rae Jepsen

Britney Spears has released a new album, Glory, her ninth, in a tricky climate. It’s not just that she’s been a stilted, shy presence in recent years, locked in a defensive crouch since her public breakdown in 2007. It’s also that she’s had trouble finding her place in a musical landscape that has, in many ways, evolved past her. It didn’t have to end up this way. Though she gets little credit as an innovator, Spears pretty much established the pop formula that’s now foundational almost twenty years later (think Miley, Selena, even Bieber) with her first single and video, 1998’s “Baby One More Time”: a commitment to crunching electronic sounds; a reliance on huge hooks; a winking sexuality; a fluency with Auto-Tune; an instinct for spectacle and choreography. Even in-demand producer Max Martin, the mastermind behind Taylor Swift’s blockbuster 1989, essentially got his start with Spears. Looking at a Billboard chart now dominated by divas, it’s fitting to think of Spears, though only 34, as a spiritual mother to the moment.

And yet, not since 2007 has she made game-changing music: the futuristic masterpiece Blackout, an ambitious album full of icy beats and manipulated cyborg-like vocals that went mostly unnoticed at the time due to the tabloid mania around her. Blackout was weirdly prescient, though, its influence visible in the underground electronica of FKA twigs and the loucheness of Rihanna. It was something of a swan song, too: After Blackout‘s dismal reception, and a stint in a psychiatric hospital, Spears seemingly chose security over innovation, releasing two respectable albums (Femme Fatale and Circus) and one listless one (Britney Jean, made under the misguided stewardship of will.i.am).

Glory doesn’t entirely correct the imbalance or capture the stark charisma of Blackout, but it’s a similarly hedonistic, if much more slow-moving and sensual, collection of songs. Like Blackout, Glory is uninterested in lyrical introspection; most of its tracks document straightforward, if non-monogamous, hookups. The list of collaborators is an under-the-radar bevy of respectable producers, and Spears has largely stayed away from trendy auteurs, a smart nod toward timelessness (minus a guest rap verse by G-Eazy on “Make Me…” that already feels dated). Record highlights “Man on the Moon,” “Slumber Party,” “Hard to Forget Ya,” and the particularly fresh “Better” — a track found on the album’s deluxe version, which snaps, cracks, and then mudslides into a mess of melting synths — are slinky and stuttering, with subtle interpretations of the Caribbean and EDM influences that have been all over radio. And maybe in deference to the demographic that has stuck by her in good times and bad, the album is exceedingly dance-friendly, perfect for drunken singalongs at West Hollywood gay bars.

Glory reminds me of another post-Britney star, Carly Rae Jepsen, who filtered the momentum of her own one-hit-wonder status (2012’s goofy, kitschy “Call Me Maybe”) into a career predicated on the simple pleasures of light, compact pop. Jepsen has earned herself an un-ironic hipster fan base by making earnest, nostalgic music, first on 2015’s Emotion, and now on its epilogue, Emotion: Side B (out the same day as Glory). On Side B she sings classic ballads that remind you of high school love (the opening song, “First Time,” sounds like Phil Collins playing backup for Janet Jackson). This approach has yielded a mixed bag of results: Jepsen has yet to replicate the success of her first hit, but her technical prowess at making crystalline pop and her quasi-corny lyrics, which speak to amorous indecision and starry-eyed, suburban optimism, have made her a favorite among the love-don’t-hate set. On “Fever,” she charmingly sings of riding her bike to her paramour’s home and prays that her heart won’t be broken. There is, to her fans, a romance-dork authenticity to these aerodynamic tracks.

In the end, Emotion: Side B has something that’s sadly missing from Glory: relatability. And whether it’s calculated or the real thing, that’s an important quality to possess in 2016: Take Miley Cyrus, a known Britney acolyte, who has absorbed the titillating tactics she learned from the latter’s playbook into her persona as a pansexual hippie. Or, Meghan Trainor, who mimics Britney’s early synth-pop, but also promotes healthy body image in her lyrics, music videos, and interviews — a far cry from the alienating, aspirational perfection of Britney’s initial image. It explains why Spears floundered at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she was starkly overshadowed on a night that was billed as her comeback. Rihanna made the stage seem like a natural, fashionable West Indian bashment across her four performances throughout the evening, while Britney, once as at home on the VMAs stage as anyone, shook around in a passé sparkly yellow costume and lip-synched her way (badly) through “Make Me…”

That’s okay; Britney gave her entire young adulthood to us, and she can do what she wants. Glory debuted at number three on the Billboard charts, evidence, perhaps, that she maintains goodwill among her loyal fans. In recent interviews, she has sounded entirely content. And, in a rare moment on Glory in which Britney speaks directly to the audience — at the end of the high-speed “What You Need” — she whispers into the mic in that famously coquette-ish, chipmunk-pitched voice, and says something so plain and clear it almost sounds like a mistake: “That was fun.” And she’s right: Glory is fun. The question for us, then, is whether fun is enough.

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Nigerian Pop Comes Full-Force to Brooklyn

At first, the song wasn’t even the main hit on Wizkid’s album, released locally in Nigeria. “Ojuelegba,” an ode to the 26-year-old rising pop star’s neighborhood in a working-class part of Lagos, was a midtempo gem with a loping pace and an evocative video filmed in the city, but it didn’t have the makings of a typical international club banger.

But then Drake, the hip-hop superstar, and Skepta, the British-Nigerian grime artist, showed up on a remix, each adding a new verse and tastemaker cachet. Propelled by these guests, “Ojuelegba” arrived last year on U.S. radio, earning favor from influential DJs such as Hot 97’s Ebro Darden.

It was a breakthrough for Wizkid, who now features on “One Dance,” the Drake hit that has been No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 since May. But it also served notice of the rise of a wave of Nigerian artists who are making Lagos one of the world’s most dynamic music hubs today.

“It’s been a long time coming,” says Jidenna, the Nigerian-American singer of last year’s hit “Classic Man,” who grew up between the two cultures. “Ten years ago, there was still a delay. There was latency between what I knew was hot and what was happening in Lagos.” Now, he says, “America is finally dipping into music from the African continent. And artists in countries like Nigeria know exactly what is cool in the U.S. and U.K.”

On July 22, Jidenna and fellow
Nigerian-American MC Wale join a rich roster of Nigerian stars — including Wizkid, Davido, Tiwa Savage, and Flavour — for a show at the Barclays Center that doubles as an arena-scale coming-out party. The bill also includes Stonebwoy, from Ghana; Seun Kuti, son and musical heir of Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti; and, in a nod to Brooklyn’s Caribbean identity, Trinidadian soca star Machel Montano.

The lineup aims to impress. “I don’t like small things,” says Paul Okoye, the Lagos impresario who organized the show, billed as One Africa Music Fest. “If I come to New York, I need the best place where Africans can showcase themselves.”

The new Nigerian sound, plus a smaller parallel scene in Ghana, is known as Afrobeats (with an S) — a slightly confusing term that old heads dislike, since the current music, with its samplers and backing tracks, deviates from the large-band, jazzy Fela legacy. Less political and more popular, it’s the most ubiquitous sound across the African continent — like coupé-décalé ten years ago, or Congolese soukous in the Nineties. Artists like D’Banj and the duo P-Square (with their 2011 mega-hit “Chop My Money”) opened the doors for the twentysomethings who now rule the scene.

A similar effect is under way in Britain. “You’re not throwing an event with black people if you’re not playing Afrobeats,” says Tola Sarumi, a London-based music critic, of the current U.K. scene. She credits the immediacy of the internet and the coming of age of Nigerian-British millennials, who are imposing their tastes. She also notes that Nigerian artists have grown more sophisticated. “Wizkid is well-liked on the grime scene,” she says. “He stepped up and made contacts with the leading urban acts in the U.K.”

In the U.S., outside venues with an African focus (like Shrine, in Harlem), Afrobeats has been slower to pierce through. But in the arts more broadly, America is having its Nigerian moment. Following Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s success, publishers have snapped up new authors like Chigozie Obioma, whose The Fishermen was a Man Booker finalist last year. Njideka Akunyili Crosby has seen her collaged paintings installed on the wall outside the new Whitney Museum, while author Teju Cole, filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu, director of 2011’s Restless City, and visual artist Laolu Senbanjo, who did the body art that appears in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, are all ascendant in their fields.

It’s no surprise, then, that pop music is catching up. And the American market is taking notice. The singer Davido, who’ll perform at Barclays, signed a deal with Sony Music in January and appeared on the cover of the Fader in February. Back in April 2015, in one of his rare Twitter utterances, Jay-Z announced that his “cousin just moved to Nigeria to discover new talent.” (Coincidentally or not, singer Tiwa Savage is reportedly in talks with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation for a management deal.)

The true promise of the Nigerian scene, of course, lies in the quality and range of the music itself — singer-songwriters (Asa, Ayo, Keziah Jones, Nneka), rappers, even rockers. Afropolitan Vibes, a monthly outdoor party in Lagos that joins old-school Afrobeat and highlife artists with young alternative acts, is one of the world’s best music events of the moment.

But pop is finding its sweet spot, as recent hits like Olamide’s “Bobo,” Skales’ “Shake Body,” Wande Coal’s “Baby Hello,” or Patoranking’s “My Woman” demonstrate. The sound is both cosmopolitan and distinctly Nigerian, with musical references to earlier local styles and lyrics in Yoruba, Igbo, and Pidgin. Singer Banky W., the One Africa concert’s emcee, likens its appeal to that of dancehall reggae. “It’s familiar enough but it’s different enough,” he says. “People feel they can get with it even if they don’t understand all the words.”

Jidenna notes that recent American hip-hop has moved closer to African music, whether through the lyricism of a Lil Wayne or Kanye, or by shifting from 4/4 rhythm to more complex time signatures. “It creates a more natural synergy,” he says. For him, the “Ojuelegba” remix signals a greater presence ahead for Nigerian music on the pop scene. “When I heard it, I knew it was a turning point. I knew which way the wave was going, and I was thrilled that it was coming toward us.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Good Charlotte Want the Kids off Their Pop-Punk Lawn

Early-Aughts pop-punk stars Good Charlotte have made a new album, their first in six years, and it’s unclear who they want listening to it.

Longtime fans will likely find Youth Authority a little puzzling. Here are Joel and Benji Madden’s wonderful vocals, sounding as urgent and perfectly whiny as ever, with dense guitars soaring upward, the occasional EQ twist bringing it all rushing to the front. These are the things that make pop-punk fun to listen to, and that Good Charlotte mastered on their best-known record, The Young and the Hopeless.

But here, too, are intrusions of the bland neo-folk chants you’d never hear at Warped Tour (“Reason to Stay”); twee pop’s signature instrument, the glockenspiel (“Stray Dogs”); and even the bro-grunge of Linkin Park (“WAR”), which no one, not even people who listened to the regrettable genre the first time around (me), wants to hear anymore. It would’ve been worse for Good Charlotte to rehash their original sound, but this is hardly progress.

The other people who will probably listen to, and be confused by, this record are the teen-girl fans of the Australian pop-punk boyband 5 Seconds of Summer. For the past two years the Madden brothers have enjoyed an unexpected career turn as songwriters for 5SOS, whose perfectly pierced heartthrobs grew up obsessed with Good Charlotte. With a fan base that rivals One Direction’s in its passions, 5SOS could offer Good Charlotte a new audience, or at least new relevance.

Like 5SOS, I also grew up obsessed with Good Charlotte, and they were ground zero for my own taste. The Young and the Hopeless led me to the Rock Against Bush compilations, which led me to the Clash, and my listening spiraled out from there. When I read last year that a band who still had a place in my heart were writing for some Australian kids, I listened to 5SOS, and it sent me, cringing, straight back to Good Charlotte. 5SOS are homeopathic punk — so diluted, there’s hardly a trace of snarl. Good Charlotte may only be slightly stronger, but even that makes a big difference.

It’s also likely enough to turn off this potential new audience of 5SOS fans eager to hear their favorite band’s favorite band. 5SOS perform pop songs barely disguised with guitar distortion, whereas even at their weakest Good Charlotte are all crunch. And although the lyrics on Youth Authority have lost the punch of the band’s earlier work, they still reach for real irreverence. But the Maddens aren’t teenagers anymore, and their attempt to balance their core ethos with their own aging is wobbly at best.

They do nail it once, on the peppy, soaring love song “The Outfield.” Over a deeply satisfying, chugging guitar line, Joel addresses the partner who helped him grow into a better, and better-adjusted, person. “We were the young and hopeless/We were the broken youth,” he sings, signaling the distance of middle age without falling into nostalgia or bitterness. The outfield becomes a metaphor for a place where adult survivors of their own misspent youths might retreat and, eventually, find each other: “You’re not the only one they used/I was in the outfield too.”

But most tracks aren’t so nuanced, and none less so than Youth Authority‘s thunderous lead single, “40 oz. Dream,” a clunky invective against, well, everything about 2016. Joel details a waking nightmare where rappers sing, rock bands DJ, and his mom is (ugh) taking selfies. “Now all the punk rockers are over forty/They’re coaching Little League and reading stories,” he moans, later implying that the young punks at legendary Berkeley DIY venue 924 Gilman Street have become so tame they leave the cops outside “snoring.” But Good Charlotte aren’t from the Bay Area, and Gilman’s booking policy bans artists signed to a major label. He’s borrowing cred from a scene that wouldn’t want him anyway, an amazingly efficient way to sound totally out of touch.

Passing judgment on the uncool is a beloved pop-punk pastime, but when the people you’re judging are “the kids these days,” you sound an awful lot like the grumbling old-timer at the back of the show. Contemporary acts like Downtown Boys and RVIVR are more punk than anything the Maddens ever did, and so, for that matter, is Kendrick Lamar. The least Good Charlotte could do is acknowledge that the world kept turning while they were away.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Oh Pep! Aim for the Big Leagues With an Ambitious Folk-Pop Debut

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate introduction to Oh Pep! than “Bushwick,” the opening track from the Australian folk-pop outfit’s debut album, Stadium Cake. Starting off slow and spare — all delicate strumming and hushed vocals — it soon grows into something fast, boisterous, and baroque,
a statement of intent that highlights the group’s ambition to be more than just a folk act. About the difficulty of finding your way as a twentysomething (even Australians view Bushwick as a signifier
of youth, apparently), it’s the kind of song that doesn’t require an appreciation of slide guitars and banjos to dig.

Olivia Hally and Pepita Emmerichs, both 24, have been playing together since they met at secondary school in Melbourne, and their comfort with each other is appealingly apparent throughout the album’s 44 minutes. Having already released three EPs — Oh Pep!, II, and Living — since 2012, this band is working on pushing its sound, previously more traditionally folk, in new directions. If you’ve listened to
indie rock over the past two-plus decades, you’ve encountered your fair share of folk-inspired acts, like Bon Iver and Band of Horses, or straight-up contemporary folk acts, like Lord Huron and the Avett Brothers. There are obvious similarities between Oh Pep! and some of these artists — acoustic instrumentation, a deep reliance on harmonies, plenty of twang — but on their newest endeavor, released June 24, Hally and Emmerichs don’t seem particularly
interested in following suit. Dreams of No. 1 singles may not be dancing through their heads, but they clearly have an eye on crossing over and proving that folk can be more cosmopolitan.

From the get-go it’s clear that Stadium Cake is a pop album; it’s simply crafted, using the tools of folk, bluegrass, and country. Uptempo earworms like “The Race,” for instance, could have been recorded by Demi Lovato, though she probably would have forgone the fiddle and mandolin. And even slower tracks, like the torch song “Crazy Feels,” have a belt-me-out quality. This is due to Hally’s piercing voice, reminiscent of Rilo Kiley–era Jenny Lewis and a clear highlight of every track. On Facebook, the group describe their sound as “sometimes foot-stomping, somewhat heart-breaking,” and, at their best, it’s an apt assessment.

Each of Stadium Cake‘s twelve songs houses a whole lot of craft. Recording the album in Nova Scotia, the band worked in multi-track for the first time. Songs like “Wanting” are packed with horns, pianos, and syncopated drum loops; such ornate instrumentation often creates impressively intricate soundscapes. There’s also a welcome unpredictability to many of the tracks — “Only Everyone” starts at a crawl before mutating into a lush, swaying Dirty Projectors–esque number — that shows Oh Pep!’s willingness to experiment with structure.

Taken too far, though, these virtues become cloying. The band could have focused on the hook of “Doctor Doctor” — “I know what I want and it’s not what I need” — rather than drowning the track in dense layers of strings, intricate banjo picking, and harmonies. And, clocking in at a little over five minutes, album centerpiece “Tea, Milk and Honey,” with its random assortment of crescendos and breakdowns, is
a slog to get through. Meanwhile, lyrics about the emotional roller coaster of early adulthood, mostly addressing an unnamed “you,” could have dug deeper, or used a bit more finesse.

Oh Pep! have crafted a engaging album of folk-pop, one that’ll be good for fans of the genre to put on repeat this summer. Only thing is, they clearly set out to surpass this audience. Hally and Emmerichs aren’t where they want to be just yet, but keep an eye on them: There are sure signs that they can get there.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Cage the Elephant, Norman Reedus Take Over Sailor Jerry Fleet Week Block Party

Cage the Elephant played a free set to celebrate the end of Fleet Week at the Sailor Jerry-sponsored block party on May 29. The Walking Dead‘s Norman Reedus also showed up to take photos with fans and support the service members. 

Photos by Nate “Igor” Smith for the Village Voice

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Behind the Scenes With Dark Pop Rockers Ula Ruth at Rough Trade

The Village Voice went behind the scenes with New York-based indie rockers Ula Ruth during their Fever EP release show at Rough Trade on May 24.

Photos by Alex Pines for the Village Voice

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Kevin Barnes Takes Over Le Poisson Rouge

Kevin Barnes, frontman for of Montreal, brought his solo act to Le Poisson Rouge on Monday, May 23.

Photos by Alex Pines for the Village Voice