of Montreal is a band that defies all convention. First of all, they’re not from Montreal, they’re from Athens, Georgia. Also, they’re not really a proper band but more of a loose collective that revolves the eccentric leadership of singer Kevin Barnes. They’re known for highly theatrical stage shows, and for writing concept albums interspersed with more personal musings. Barnes often performs in drag, as a flamboyant alter ego, and writes both from his own perspective and from fictional ones. Musically, of Montreal doesn’t really fit into any genre, although ‘psychedelic electropop’ is one way to describe their sound. They’re dedicated to bringing a sense of high camp playfulness to the often self-serious world of indie pop.
I was delighted to find out that in 2019 my favorite provider of slow jamz, Tinashe, finally sorted out her record label woes and released an excellent new album. As much I enjoyed that, it doesn’t quite compare to Nightride, the record she recorded ‘on the side’ and released against her label’s wishes in 2016. It seems that records companies want Tinashe to make generic pop music and get sexy in videos, seeing her on the same level as C-List pop singer/exotic dancers like Nicole Scherzinger. Tinashe, on the other hand, sees herself as a hip-hop Sade. I just made that last part up, and I have no way of knowing where the singer really wants to position herself, but it’s not entirely wrong. There’s a position open for an R&B crooner with some edge.
The last few years of the decade were dominated by Sia’s power pop. Sia Furler was a hired-gun songwriter who decided to stop letting vocalists like Rihanna and Beyonce have her best material, and ended up becoming a huge pop star herself. She dealt with the handicap of being over 40 by performing with her face covered. The paper-bag gimmick may seem extreme, or unnecessary, but it paid off, in part because it was new, and also because it put the focus back where it needed to be, on the singing. Sia has bigger lungs than just about anyone else out there. She can belt it out to the back rows of a football stadium and still make it sound like she’s crying in her bathroom. Being a generation older than most of her clients puts Sia ahead in at least one regard; she actually has something to write about, like a lifetime of ups and downs, failures, regrets, heartbreaks and breakthroughs, aka a lifetime of life lived that a girl of 20-something just doesn’t have to fall back on.
I loved Ape in Pink Marble for being one of Devendra Banhart’s weirder albums. Tall order, I know. It sounds like the work of someone who’s listened to a lot of Donovan records, watched a lot of those prestige BBC productions where all the men wear straw hats, and dropped acid at a seaside resort in the off-season. That’s what the young kids call a mood. #bigmood
Yoko Ono waited many years for her time in the sun. After decades fighting against the current as an artist and being used as a scapegoat in the culture wars, she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves as a thinker and an activist. As a conceptual artist, her ideas were ahead of her time; her early work dealt with women’s issues and cultural identity in a way that was too confrontational to earn respect at a time when even the “socially progressive” worlds of music and art were still, at heart, deeply racist and patriarchal. Today, as the social conventions that were still so strong in the 1960’s have weakened, generations of young artists have been influenced by Ono’s work. She’s come to be seen not only as a major cultural shaper, but she’s also become a kind of scary/cool grandmother figure who works with and supports young talent. Her music has had a resurgence alongside her artwork, and she’s released a series of acclaimed concept album. Ono’s strength has always been in her innovative ideas, but she’s – at one time notoriously – not a particularly gifted musician. She’s done her best musical work in collaboration with – quote unquote – real musicians with the skills to make her thoughts tuneful, such as her late husband and more recently, her son. Lately, she’s invited famous friends to help reimagine some of the best songs from throughout her career. Yes, I’m A Witch and Yes, I’m A Witch, Too are probably her most accessible records, thanks to collaborators like Ben Gibbard, Moby and in this case, Portugal. The Man. It makes for a great introduction to the musical side of Yoko Ono’s work.
I’ve been carrying a torch for Tinashe since 2014, but the world still refuses to make her a superstar. She obviously has everything it takes to be an R&B diva, except that there’s more than enough R&B divas out there already, and it’s a little hard for a new one to get a foothold. I guess that’s good news for fans of funky slow-jam music; there’s a lot to listen to and discover. Does Tinashe really sound that different from people like Kehlani? Not really, no. I do think that she has the smokiest, sexiest voice in the game, and she may be a little bit underserved by her own material. She needs to make a piano-ballads record, sing some torch songs, get down to basics to really distinguish herself. But here she is making slow-jam music in relative obscurity.
For anyone rooting for Beyonce to strut into the sunset middle fingers akimbo, SPOILER ALERT: she went back to her cheatin’ man. In real life and in Lemonade. And it was, after everything, pretty satisfying to see her conquer the world all aglow with the righteous power of true love and forgiveness. The power of the slighted woman may feel like righteousness, but it is bitter. Still, there’s hardly a better kiss-off to all the lying, failing, disappointing mens out there than Beyonce’s “Boy, bye!” If he lets you down, you roll out with your girls in a painted school bus. Anger in solidarity is your salve and your reward for your solitary and silent suffering. And it matters that this experience is a chapter among chapters. Breakup anthems don’t exist in a void. They’re what comes after the happy love chapters, and after the suspicious growing silences, the creeping distance, the denials, the excuses, the fighting, the revelations, the unveiled betrayal. And after, if you’re lucky, there follows the gathering of strength, rumination, soul-searching, healing, and hopefully, in the end, forgiving.