I do not envy any band or artist I write about. The minor leagues of digital music journalism may be a bit precarious and exhausting at times, but the only thing that sounds dumber than “I want to write for Rolling Stone!” is “I want to be a rock star!” and that’s because it’s next to impossible to have even one song be not only heard by audiences but enjoyed as well, let alone be able to back it up with a whole album’s worth of quality material. To be at all successful in the music industry for even a brief fleeting moment these days is statistically miraculous.
But then there’s always the “what’s next” looming around the corner…
If you succeed the first time, people are going to expect you to do it even better the second, meaning your artistic life becomes a struggle against both those outside expectations and your own creative limitations. It’s why the term sophomore slump got appropriated by music critics in the first place; we rationally don’t expect most acts to overcome that struggle and it’s fun to have a buzzy phrase to encapsulate this phenomenon.
I bring all this up because for the column this week, in honor of that age-old struggle, I’m going to revisit a few artists that are approaching the “what’s next?” phases of their respective musical evolutions, some more gracefully than others. Cool? Cool.
Also, shameless plugs and all, but buy your ticket to the All Things Go Fall Classic on September 13th featuring Future Islands and Bear Hands and other good bands. And follow the Tunes You Should Know in 2014 Spotify Playlist because it makes me feel validated.
Onto the music!
- Zammuto – Anchor
I like Nick Zammuto and his band Zammuto for a variety of reasons.
1) I never knew The Books, Nick Zammuto’s much more popular previous project, so I approached his new music with a tabula rasa, giving me an unbiased appreciation of it (a phenomenon which I once compared to watching the Star Wars movies in episodic order as opposed to chronological)
2) Nick Zammuto tweeted at me that he liked said Star War comparison so #validation
3) This video, “A Day In The Life of Nick Zammuto”
4) He and his bandmates write some of the most exhilarating avant-garde pop I have ever heard.
5) Their debut album captured platonic resentment and bitterness so damn exquisitely.
You see, Zamutto, the band’s debut LP was released directly on the heels of Nick Zammuto and the other half of The Books, Paul de Jong, dissolving the band in a way that Nick himself described was “messy, dirty and frustrating.” And you can feel that angst coursing through the entire record. There are song titles like “Too Late Topologize.” There are voiceover samples saying ‘You can’t trust people; you can’t even depend on them!” Hell, the song “FU-C3PO” contains the lyric “You have lost your edge, I’ve had enough, my bags are packed, I’m picking up/I would rather lose my house and home then have to smell your acetone.” It’s anger was beautiful.
But two years later, now that the wounds have cauterized and the nerves aren’t raw, what’s next?
Well, after an uber-successful IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds, Nick and his team have a follow-up album called Anchor ready to be released on September 2nd. Two songs, the fantastic “Need Some Sun” and “Sinker” will be familiar to fans, as they were released a year ago when promoting said IndieGogo campaign, but newer singles like “Great Equator,” “Hegemony,” and “IO” are refreshing signs that Nick and his music have shed the exquisitely-donned but burdensome weight of bitterness that made the first album so juicy but that would have made the second feel rotten. They’re not all sunshines and rainbows — this is Nick Zammuto we’re talking about — but they do feel like they’re more at peace with themselves than past material was.
So while usually the sophomore album is where the original energy fades and the pressure mounts, Zammuto, a band led by a man who was close to retiring from the music industry only a few years ago, seems to have gained a second wind as they take on their “what’s next?” and we should all be thankful for that.
Get the album when it comes out September 2nd, and mark your calendars; these guys will be hitting up DC9 on October 28th.
- Ofei – “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime”
Somewhere on my high school senior page there is a quote from the 1994 comedy Airheads. In the movie, a rock band consisting of characters playing by Adam Sandler, Steve Buscemi, and Brendan Fraser that calls themselves The Lone Rangers holds a radio station hostage in hopes of getting their music played on the airwaves. At one point or another, one of the DJs asks Brendan Fraser’s character why they’re doing this, to which he eloquently replies:
“I’m average and screwed up enough that I might just write a song that will live forever. And then it’s all going to be worth it.”
If you can write just one song that really moves people, does it really matter what else you do? In the mind of the fictional character Chaz Darby, no. However, if you want to actually have a rewarding career in the music industry, then yeah it kind of does. Which makes me worried about Ofei.
When I first heard his where-the-hell-did-this-come-from? debut single, “London,” back in 2012 I was floored. When writing about it, I called it “startlingly captivating,” describing it as “one of those songs that you immediately recognize as something special.” But as the mysterious Ofei finally became less mysterious and revealed his four-song London EP, I was unable to connect to anything like I did with “London.” It’s not that “Fate” and “Tomorrow” are bad songs, but they just came across as poor man’s versions of “London.” It seemed like Ofei had captured lightning in a bottle with that song and was hoping he could repeat the process by retracing his musical steps.
And unfortunately, with two songs from his upcoming EP out, I’m still just as unsure about “what’s next” for Ofei. The leadoff single, “WOW,” relies on the same sonic formula as all his previous material and the second single released, a cover of Beck’s underrated song “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” off the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack, is so perfectly in Ofei’s wheelhouse that it would be a giant red flag if this song wasn’t at the very least heart-worthy on Hype Machine. With the other material on this next EP (release date TBD), Ofei is either going to have to alchemize the “London” formula to even better results or show us something new, otherwise he’ll have to just be content with the fact that he at least wrote one song that deserves to live in iTunes libraries forever.
Here’s hoping he pulls it off.
- The Knocks – “Classic”
I have a working theory about The Knocks, a band that I feel obliged to say has been awesome to All Things Go in the past and who I’m sure we have a continued working relationship with…
I think The Knocks bet too much too soon when it came to writing their “breakthrough hit” to capitalize on momentum and buzz, and because of that original bad decision, everything they have done since is trying to make up for it, with mixed results.
If you can remember, a few years ago, The Knocks were in that perfect sweet spot where they were gaining critical acclaim for their fun, disco-influenced dancefloor jams like “Make It Better,” “Blackout,” and “Dancing With The DJ,” but they were also gobbling up fans left and right thanks to live shows like the one they did that one time at U Hall that I can barely remember. They were riding a wave of success and decided to unleash “Brightside,” a single’s single that took what The Knocks had already been doing and infused it with everything you could want to make a song like this more appealing: house synths, a simple vocal line, even some “na na na”s. It was supposed to make them huge.
Only it only sort of worked. The following Magic EP helped their star rise, but there was a noticeable difference in their approach to the songs after Magic didn’t capture the hearts and minds of a blogosphere like they though. Soul gave way to saccharine and it felt more and more like this once-funky duo were just doing whatever they could to make it to the brighter side of the music industry (sorry, I had to make that pun). They had bet big on “Brightside” and while they hadn’t actually lost, they won only enough to make them feel like lady luck was on their side; they just needed to be even smarter about their bets.
That meant recording an even more blog-friendly cover of M83’s “Midnight City” and releasing it even while M83’s version was still dominating airwaves. That meant trading remixes with seemingly anyone that was interested. And that definitely meant taking advantage of the chance to partner up with St. Lucia, the safest bet in the world of synth pop, last year to collaborate on the unlistenable “Modern Hearts.” With each career decision, they were taking the strategically defensible but critically questionable route, I assume believing this double down on attempt to sell out would make up for all the false starts that preceded it.
Except somehow, all that newfound recognition didn’t stop the 4-song Comfortable EP from delivering underwhelming commercial results when it was released 7 months ago (and it even had a song with Ra Ra Riot on there!). To make things worse, The Knocks are handling a very crucial “what’s next” situation with the same old formula: doubling down on what they believe will be HUGE as opposed to focusing on what they are good at.
“Classic” is Daft Punk + Foster The People + (insert generic female indie pop “star”), with the end result being exactly what you’d expect and nothing more; it’s not bad per se, but it’s not going to ever make you wonder who the creative geniuses behind it are. And unfortunately for The Knocks, if they are ever going to make it to a place where they can stop hustling and just focus on their strengths, this isn’t going to be the way to do it.
But now for a very special edition of…
AURAL PLEASURE WITH FRIENDS: Justin McCarthy Edition
Editor’s Note: Justin McCarthy helped organize All Things Go’s wonderful look back at the Garden State soundtrack 10 years later, and he thinks you should check it out here.
- Jungle – Jungle
Has the phrase “conceptual minimalist synth-funk-lite soul” been coined? Are your eyes rolling so hard upon reading this phrase that you’ve given yourself a headache? Is the whole “series of questions to start a piece of blog writing” device a little bit played out? In the act of writing about British duo Jungle, I find myself forced to pose these (and many more) questions.
In the act of listening to Jungle, however, I ask no questions. I tap my feet, I bob my head. I lose myself to 4/4 rhythmic hypnotism. I squeak out a few bars of the melody under my breath, knowing full well that singing along while the song is playing will only make it harder to extricate these earworm lines from my brain while I’m lying in bed later, sleepless and fitful, brain filled to the brim with synth gurgles and bass throbs. If you like urgency, catharsis, and emotional and musical high stakes in your summer jams, Jungle is not what you’re looking for.
Jungle is much cooler than that, somewhere between James Dean cool and getting frozen by Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat cool. Jungle is funk that’s been cooled in the fridge for twenty minutes, to be taken out just a few minutes before a dinner party. Jungle is soul that’s just received its Pepco bill for last month, and the bill is lower than usual, so it decides to splurge and crank up the AC a few notches. Jungle is a perspiring tall boy straight from the cooler at the upstairs bar, that the bartender opened and gave to you without making eye-contact. Don’t let the opening track of their debut album fool you – Jungle is not about “The Heat.” Jungle is summer cool. I like the back end of the record especially. Though singles like “Busy Earnin’” and “Platoon” give you those delicious shivers in the first few tracks, finding chilly-ass bangers like “Crumbler” and “Son of a Gun” toward the end of the album feels like locating a surprise tray of ice cubes in the freezer, behind the frozen peas.
So raise a glass of PBR&B to Jungle. Cheers, mates; you’ve left me cool and unquestioning, and for summer in DC, that ain’t half bad.