The Knife’s music is a distant relation to the electronic music you hear at clubs and bars, in the same way that the frozen ‘breakfast pizza’ you were served in middle school is related to what people eat in Sicily. (Obviously, The Knife’s music is the authentic Sicilian cuisine in this equation.) The Knife evokes a frosty and surreal atmosphere, using such dangerous gimmicks as voice distortion and tinkling reindeer bells. It is, through and through, very Scandinavian, and like Scandinavia itself, not to everyone’s taste. Alienating music is by rights the most interesting music, and by alienating people in swaths artists gain cult-like followings from true believers. With The Knife, Fever Ray and solo projects, Karin Dreijer is definitely one of those artists who serves freshly-chilled weirdness to a small cabal of true believer-type fans. She is not about to become a household name or headline a major festival, but I’m guessing that she has more freedom and satisfaction in her idiosyncratic career than major pop stars may do in theirs.
What does David Bowie know about the disappointments and frustrations of a mundane life? Probably not much, having escaped from it long ago, but he can empathize. This may a standout from Reality, which I’ve always thought was a very strong album overall. It’s a return to the plastic soul sound he perfected so well in his Young Americans days. It certainly tunnel-visions it back to the days of station wagons with faux-wood paneling on the outside and Soul Train on television. And it imagines the nagging resentment of a life lived on the wrong side of the Hudson River, a life of suburban dreams grown shabby and the paths to escape growing fewer over the years and the repetition of daily life becoming the only experience. That’s a life we all either end up living, or narrowly escape from.
In good music world news, Rhye released a new album this year, and it sounds exactly like their first one. If they made ten albums that all sound exactly the same, it might get tedious, but at this point, twice as many identical Rhye songs is exactly what the world needs. (This one is from 2013, if you can’t tell or don’t remember.) If Rhye’s output it the musical equivalent of an Instagram filter, well, who doesn’t love a good Instagram filter? It makes the ugly world look a tiny bit more beautiful, and your ugly life more appealing. It may be an illusion, but only you know the truth. That’s also what mood music does, only with your emotions. It makes your miserable mental state and sleazy love life seem adventurous and poetic. That, unlike Instagram filters, is an age-old tradition. People have been strategically using music to alter their moods and enhance the atmosphere ever since people invented music.
We know that a life of beauty, wealth and fame is not guaranteed to be free from pain and suffering. But we also know that a life without those things is absolutely guaranteed to deliver the hard knocks and to never stop delivering them. And that success after a life of hard knocks is very rare. Sharon Jones is one of those rare people who worked her way to fame over decades of poverty and struggle, and she has, indeed, a unique perspective on life. She has a perspective even the greatest soul and blues singers may not have had. She didn’t observe life from the remove of a working performer, imagining it from the stage or through the window of a tour bus; she saw the real ugliness up close, in her job as a guard on Rikers Island. That kind of work can destroy the soul of the person who has to do it, but for Jones, it did the opposite. It allowed her sing about hard-knock things with empathy and authority, to be a voice for women like herself. She has no patience for shitbag men and their romantic platitudes, for one thing, and she has no patience for tough-guy posturing and big talk. She has no patience for people who don’t treat their loved ones with love and respect. What she does have is all the love and respect for women who get knocked down and get back up and learn to keep on fighting. She has respect for children who grow up strong in spite of all the hard knocks their parents passed down to them. Here, she specifically calls out the cruelty of abusive parents and celebrates the child’s strength to grow up and stand up for themselves and break the cycle.
Portugal. The Man, stealin’ from the sixties again. Can’t complain about it – they nail the whole psychedelic rock sound so well that if I didn’t know better I’d be wondering what obscure Haight-Ashbury collective is responsible for this. They got it right, right down to the song titles. What I can’t help but wonder with these guys is just how serious they’re being. You can’t fault their musicality, but is there a subtle element of ironic mockery at play? It may be that I’ve just been raised to expect ironic mockery in everything and have a hard time accepting sincere homage as real, being the jaded millennial that I am. But this is now, and you can’t just sell sunshiny melodies without a dark evil underside. If you’ve ever watched any of Portugal. The Man’s videos, they’re usually as dark as the songs are tuneful. If the music isn’t exactly ironic – and I think that it’s too lovingly well made to be – then it’s at least self-aware.
The sea shanty is about due for a revival. Since sailing has ceased being a major industry and seamanship a major career option, so the shanties have died out. But with all things old-timey and artisanal being currently on-trend, I think we can expect to see some of the more obscure and niche types of folk music becoming a hip thing for trendsetters to be in-the-know about. Bluegrass music has been steadily becoming more popular for some time, while the general interest in backyard gardening and the long-lost pickling arts shows no sign of waning. People want to do things with their hands again, they want to feel connected to some kind of heritage, they want to feel some sense of self-sufficiency, and learning musical folklore is part of that.
The single most blood-curdling lullaby you’ll ever hear. And it becomes even more chilling when you learn that it’s very much based on real history. The real-life Shankill Butchers were a kill-squad within the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force who went about kidnapping and murdering Catholics during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. I much recommend learning about the political history of Ireland, because if nothing else it will deepen your understanding of all the pop culture that the Irish have produced. (It’s also quite the cautionary tale about the English people’s boundless desire to colonize literally everyone including their next-door neighbors.) If you don’t feel like doing the research, then the Decemberists have done it for you.