Neil Young / Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Time Fades Away/Zuma

Neil Young boasted of steering his career into “the ditch” in the early 1970s, choosing to make sad, lonely, difficult records in the wake of Harvest’s wide success. The “Ditch Trilogy” (as Young enthusiasts dubbed it) of Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night, and On the Beach marks his creative peak—yet for decades, this era was neglected and incomplete. On the Beach only made it to CD in 2003, and Time Fades Away was never reissued digitally.

Thanks to the vinyl revival, the trio is finally available. Rereleased initially as a pricey Record Store Day box set, and now as individual LPs, the “Ditch Trilogy” records—plus its sunnier epilogue, Zuma—are back in print for the first time since their original releases. So while On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night are well-established masterpieces, now’s the time to consider the on-ramp and the off-ramp to the Ditch, and understand how Young entered that dark spiral and how he escaped it.

Time Fades Away is the album Neil Young didn’t want us to hear; in several interviews over the years, he’s bluntly referred to it as his “worst album.” In Waging Heavy Peace, Young’s 2012 memoir, the 1973 live album is mentioned exactly twice, which is approximately 1,000 times fewer than his electric Lincoln and his Pono music service. Even when major missing pieces of his ’70s catalog were patched in 2003, Time Fades Away was left to rot in the archives.

Several theories have circulated to explain the conspicuous snub, most often returning to the cursed fog that hung over Young’s 1973 tour. Originally, the band was supposed to include Danny Whitten, Neil’s guitar foil in Crazy Horse—but, fighting drug addiction and alcoholism, Whitten couldn’t hack it at rehearsals in fall 1972, and he was fired and sent back to Los Angeles. That same night, he was found dead from an overdose of alcohol and Valium. Whitten’s death cast a shadow over the tour, which started the following January and wormed its way across the United States in a rigorous 62 shows in 90 days.

The stories from the tour, as regaled in Young biographies, are like a nightmare version of Almost Famous, replete with drug indulgences, money arguments, audience riots, medical issues, and technical problems. Two-thirds of the way through, Neil’s vocal cords were shot, leading to show cancellations and inclusion of David Crosby and Graham Nash, to no great help. Young’s band the Stray Gators, the murderer’s row of session musicians from Harvest, didn’t translate to basketball arenas; drummer Kenny Buttrey had the worst time of it, with Young asking him to play louder and louder until he literally bled on his drums. Legendary producer and arranger Jack Nitzsche, playing piano, self-medicated his stage fright with alcohol; for his own part, Young spent the tour chugging tequila and trying out a new Gibson Flying V guitar instead of his totemic Old Black, his dissatisfaction with the sound leading to endless soundchecks and after-show spats.

So this wasn’t exactly the tour you’d want to commemorate for eternity with a live album—but at least initially, Young was perversely excited to reflect its chaos, and left the recording mostly free of the overdubs that glossed many live albums of the era. “Money hassles among everyone concerned ruined this tour and record for me, but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while,” Young wrote in the liner notes of 1977’s Decade.

But in retrospect, he was too harsh. The Stray Gators were one of Young’s most interesting bands: they were fragile, straining, and desperate. One could easily see where their heavier material, such as “Yonder Stands the Sinner” and “Last Dance,” would have fit Whitten-era Crazy Horse. Here, pedal steel wizard Ben Keith levels up from a classy hired hand on Harvest to assume Whitten’s role, his instrument providing wobbly, intoxicated howls that amplify the haunted mood. Nitzsche plays a deceptively clunky piano that turns “Time Fades Away” into a chicken-wire saloon and creeps with tinkling anxiety around the edges of “Last Dance.” When Crosby and Nash show up, they create an alternate-dimension CSNY that uses their harmonies as a weapon instead of a balm, with Young and Crosby’s “Yonder Stands the Sinner” choruses particularly deranged.

Coming on the heels of the slick Harvest, Time Fades Away was a crucial swerve for Young, and it established the proudly flawed aesthetic that has kept his work immediate and powerful for decades. These are weary, acidic songs about the hollowness of stardom—recording them during a tour from hell is an asset, not a flaw. Even the crowd noise between songs heightens the despair—blissful, oblivious applause from an audience too remote to see Young’s naked pain. Songs previously lost on Time Fades Away are key parts of Young’s story. “Don’t Be Denied” is one of Young’s best autobiographical songs, wistfully telling the story of his Canadian childhood through Buffalo Springfield’s early days. “L.A.” is a wonderfully cynical kiss-off to the city where that band found stardom, a land of dreams beset by earthquakes, traffic, and smog.w

Because Zuma was packaged with the trilogy for the Record Store Day vinyl box set, there’s been some recent chatter of a “Ditch quadrilogy.” But Zuma is a poor fit with the other three; it’s a record made on a beach instead of On the Beach, a happy reunion and fresh beginning for Crazy Horse, and a goofy boys’ club hangout released only five months after Tonight’s the Night’s tortured slog. It hits the reset button in many ways—most literally with its opener, “Don’t Cry No Tears,” which recycles the melody from “I Wonder,” one of Young’s first recorded works with his high school band, the Squires.

It also marked Young’s decision to reform Crazy Horse for the first time since Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, with new guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro filling the big rhythm guitar shoes of Danny Whitten. That Young could even stomach replacing Whitten, two years after his death, signaled that the session in Malibu would be one of recovery and rebirth. That period was particularly debauched, with the recently divorced Young and his bandmates enjoyed the company of California girls and Colombian powder, and the party carried over into the “studio” (essentially just a room in producer David Briggs’ rental house). There, the new Crazy Horse got to know each other over some hastily written material, simplified to work with Poncho’s rudimentary guitar.

This lackadaisical formula explains the uneven nature of Zuma, which is equally filled with classics and duds. “Cortez the Killer” and “Danger Bird” are two triumphantly moody, electric epics—lesser cousins to the “Down by the River”-style sprees of the first Crazy Horse, but still spacious opportunities for Young to revive his trademark lacerating guitar tone. It’s here that the sludgy Crazy Horse known today takes shape: the trade-out of the communicative Whitten for Sampedro’s simpler style creates that blunt sound. The rhythm section of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina lurches menacingly through “Cortez” and “Danger Bird,” and Sampedro’s blocky guitar caddies for Young’s lengthy soloing.

The album’s two other highlights revive a breezy, poppy Young that had been missing since After the Gold Rush. “Don’t Cry No Tears,” is simple twangy country-rock well in the Horse’s wheelhouse, gilded with innocent backing harmonies. “Barstool Blues,” despite being a fairly shameless rip of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” is a convincing and catchy depiction of drunken euphoria—and a pretty accurate portrait of Zuma’s making. On the less lovable side of the endless party, “Stupid Girl” is nowhere near good enough to justify its casual misogyny and title swipe from the Rolling Stones, and “Drive Back” is barely a song beneath its mighty riff and creepy piano. Leftovers tossed in from Homegrown (“Pardon My Heart”) and the aborted second CSNY record (“Through My Sails”) don’t quite fit the mood, presaging the less cohesive and spottier records over the rest of Young’s decade.

Still, if Zuma is an epilogue to the Ditch Trilogy, it’s also a prologue to the rest of Young’s career, kicking off his fickle, impulsive zig-zagging between genres and volume levels. That restlessness would keep Young vital long after his peers faded—and it can be traced all the way back to the stoned sunsets of Malibu, where Young decided to cry no more tears and move onward down the road, swerving all the way.

Neil Young / Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Time Fades Away/Zuma

Neil Young boasted of steering his career into “the ditch” in the early 1970s, choosing to make sad, lonely, difficult records in the wake of Harvest’s wide success. The “Ditch Trilogy” (as Young enthusiasts dubbed it) of Time Fades Away, Tonight’s the Night, and On the Beach marks his creative peak—yet for decades, this era was neglected and incomplete. On the Beach only made it to CD in 2003, and Time Fades Away was never reissued digitally.

Thanks to the vinyl revival, the trio is finally available. Rereleased initially as a pricey Record Store Day box set, and now as individual LPs, the “Ditch Trilogy” records—plus its sunnier epilogue, Zuma—are back in print for the first time since their original releases. So while On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night are well-established masterpieces, now’s the time to consider the on-ramp and the off-ramp to the Ditch, and understand how Young entered that dark spiral and how he escaped it.

Time Fades Away is the album Neil Young didn’t want us to hear; in several interviews over the years, he’s bluntly referred to it as his “worst album.” In Waging Heavy Peace, Young’s 2012 memoir, the 1973 live album is mentioned exactly twice, which is approximately 1,000 times fewer than his electric Lincoln and his Pono music service. Even when major missing pieces of his ’70s catalog were patched in 2003, Time Fades Away was left to rot in the archives.

Several theories have circulated to explain the conspicuous snub, most often returning to the cursed fog that hung over Young’s 1973 tour. Originally, the band was supposed to include Danny Whitten, Neil’s guitar foil in Crazy Horse—but, fighting drug addiction and alcoholism, Whitten couldn’t hack it at rehearsals in fall 1972, and he was fired and sent back to Los Angeles. That same night, he was found dead from an overdose of alcohol and Valium. Whitten’s death cast a shadow over the tour, which started the following January and wormed its way across the United States in a rigorous 62 shows in 90 days.

The stories from the tour, as regaled in Young biographies, are like a nightmare version of Almost Famous, replete with drug indulgences, money arguments, audience riots, medical issues, and technical problems. Two-thirds of the way through, Neil’s vocal cords were shot, leading to show cancellations and inclusion of David Crosby and Graham Nash, to no great help. Young’s band the Stray Gators, the murderer’s row of session musicians from Harvest, didn’t translate to basketball arenas; drummer Kenny Buttrey had the worst time of it, with Young asking him to play louder and louder until he literally bled on his drums. Legendary producer and arranger Jack Nitzsche, playing piano, self-medicated his stage fright with alcohol; for his own part, Young spent the tour chugging tequila and trying out a new Gibson Flying V guitar instead of his totemic Old Black, his dissatisfaction with the sound leading to endless soundchecks and after-show spats.

So this wasn’t exactly the tour you’d want to commemorate for eternity with a live album—but at least initially, Young was perversely excited to reflect its chaos, and left the recording mostly free of the overdubs that glossed many live albums of the era. “Money hassles among everyone concerned ruined this tour and record for me, but I released it anyway so you folks could see what could happen if you lose it for a while,” Young wrote in the liner notes of 1977’s Decade.

But in retrospect, he was too harsh. The Stray Gators were one of Young’s most interesting bands: they were fragile, straining, and desperate. One could easily see where their heavier material, such as “Yonder Stands the Sinner” and “Last Dance,” would have fit Whitten-era Crazy Horse. Here, pedal steel wizard Ben Keith levels up from a classy hired hand on Harvest to assume Whitten’s role, his instrument providing wobbly, intoxicated howls that amplify the haunted mood. Nitzsche plays a deceptively clunky piano that turns “Time Fades Away” into a chicken-wire saloon and creeps with tinkling anxiety around the edges of “Last Dance.” When Crosby and Nash show up, they create an alternate-dimension CSNY that uses their harmonies as a weapon instead of a balm, with Young and Crosby’s “Yonder Stands the Sinner” choruses particularly deranged.

Coming on the heels of the slick Harvest, Time Fades Away was a crucial swerve for Young, and it established the proudly flawed aesthetic that has kept his work immediate and powerful for decades. These are weary, acidic songs about the hollowness of stardom—recording them during a tour from hell is an asset, not a flaw. Even the crowd noise between songs heightens the despair—blissful, oblivious applause from an audience too remote to see Young’s naked pain. Songs previously lost on Time Fades Away are key parts of Young’s story. “Don’t Be Denied” is one of Young’s best autobiographical songs, wistfully telling the story of his Canadian childhood through Buffalo Springfield’s early days. “L.A.” is a wonderfully cynical kiss-off to the city where that band found stardom, a land of dreams beset by earthquakes, traffic, and smog.w

Because Zuma was packaged with the trilogy for the Record Store Day vinyl box set, there’s been some recent chatter of a “Ditch quadrilogy.” But Zuma is a poor fit with the other three; it’s a record made on a beach instead of On the Beach, a happy reunion and fresh beginning for Crazy Horse, and a goofy boys’ club hangout released only five months after Tonight’s the Night’s tortured slog. It hits the reset button in many ways—most literally with its opener, “Don’t Cry No Tears,” which recycles the melody from “I Wonder,” one of Young’s first recorded works with his high school band, the Squires.

It also marked Young’s decision to reform Crazy Horse for the first time since Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, with new guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro filling the big rhythm guitar shoes of Danny Whitten. That Young could even stomach replacing Whitten, two years after his death, signaled that the session in Malibu would be one of recovery and rebirth. That period was particularly debauched, with the recently divorced Young and his bandmates enjoyed the company of California girls and Colombian powder, and the party carried over into the “studio” (essentially just a room in producer David Briggs’ rental house). There, the new Crazy Horse got to know each other over some hastily written material, simplified to work with Poncho’s rudimentary guitar.

This lackadaisical formula explains the uneven nature of Zuma, which is equally filled with classics and duds. “Cortez the Killer” and “Danger Bird” are two triumphantly moody, electric epics—lesser cousins to the “Down by the River”-style sprees of the first Crazy Horse, but still spacious opportunities for Young to revive his trademark lacerating guitar tone. It’s here that the sludgy Crazy Horse known today takes shape: the trade-out of the communicative Whitten for Sampedro’s simpler style creates that blunt sound. The rhythm section of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina lurches menacingly through “Cortez” and “Danger Bird,” and Sampedro’s blocky guitar caddies for Young’s lengthy soloing.

The album’s two other highlights revive a breezy, poppy Young that had been missing since After the Gold Rush. “Don’t Cry No Tears,” is simple twangy country-rock well in the Horse’s wheelhouse, gilded with innocent backing harmonies. “Barstool Blues,” despite being a fairly shameless rip of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” is a convincing and catchy depiction of drunken euphoria—and a pretty accurate portrait of Zuma’s making. On the less lovable side of the endless party, “Stupid Girl” is nowhere near good enough to justify its casual misogyny and title swipe from the Rolling Stones, and “Drive Back” is barely a song beneath its mighty riff and creepy piano. Leftovers tossed in from Homegrown (“Pardon My Heart”) and the aborted second CSNY record (“Through My Sails”) don’t quite fit the mood, presaging the less cohesive and spottier records over the rest of Young’s decade.

Still, if Zuma is an epilogue to the Ditch Trilogy, it’s also a prologue to the rest of Young’s career, kicking off his fickle, impulsive zig-zagging between genres and volume levels. That restlessness would keep Young vital long after his peers faded—and it can be traced all the way back to the stoned sunsets of Malibu, where Young decided to cry no more tears and move onward down the road, swerving all the way.

Jóhann Jóhannsson: Orphée

Orphée, the latest album by the Icelandic composer and filmmaker Jóhann Jóhannsson is billed as his first studio album in six years since the somber and excellent The Miners’ Hymns. But during that time Jóhannsson has released eight records—three of which were scores to major films (including Sicario & The Theory of Everything) and the rest music for smaller film projects, one of which Jóhannsson directed himself. But with even The Miners’ Hymns itself serving as a score to a film, the particular criteria for which Jóhannsson deems a record to be a “studio album” as opposed to a “film score” is somewhat unclear. What is clear is that after years of albums on 4AD and small post-classical labels such as Fat Cat’s 130701, in moving to Deutsche Grammophon—the oldest and most significant classical music label left standing—Jóhannsson wants Orphée to be seen as a work of music propped up by nothing but itself and its own deserved grandeur.

Loosely themed around Ovid’s version of the Orpheus myth, Orphée’s grandeur is made clear within seconds. Using only a few repeated parts of piano, violin, and some crackling sound treatments, opener “Flight from the City” takes off. It feels like film music in a way that most of Orphée does not; you could easily imagine it playing over credits, or an opening scene, or in a mid-film montage. But the palette, tone, and structure of Orphée vary greatly and much of it embraces a compositional approach akin to ’90s chamber experimentalists the Rachel’s and others in the post-classical mold on 130701 or Erased Tapes. “A Song for Europa” features more of those crackling sound treatments as well as a recurring spectral vocal sample, while the stately “A Deal With Chaos” or “The Radiant City” would be at home on the Rachel’s Music for Egon Schiele.

Apart from “Flight from the City,” the most unforgettable tracks on Orphée are where Jóhannsson adds more experimental textures, particularly in the penultimate diptych of “Good Morning, Midnight” and “Good Night, Day.” In a way, these two tracks play out the climax of the Orpheus myth: The former begins with dreamy slow-waltz strings and burbling sound effects that connote the gait of a person heading toward destiny unknown, before giving way to a close-mic’d solo piano piece that sounds like the ruminative thoughts of man by way of Satie-style impressionism. The latter, “Good Night, Day,” begins with repeated string warnings that plays as a realization of chased dreams lost, with a cello melody serving as an elegiac narrative counterpoint. On each, the blend of early 20th-century modalities and experimental recording approaches make them archetypal post-classical tracks.

Boldest of all is Orphée’s a capella closer “Orphic Hymn,” which features a breathtaking choral vocal performance by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices of text from Ovid’s The Metamorphoses. Sung vocals are rarely found in Jóhannsson’s work, but the angelic arrangement makes you wish that he had found more opportunities to integrate vocals into the rest of the record. “Orphic Hymn” also brings Jóhannsson back full circle to British post-classical elder statesman Michael Nyman. The piece strongly recalls the longing of “Miserere” from The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, a great example of how Nyman’s scores work as independent music woven into a film rather than applied to the surface of scenes.

It’s exciting to hear the freedom of Jóhannsson’s compositions in autonomous music, and with Orphée he’s reasserted himself as not a just an elegiac film score guy. As good as his cinema work has been, the act of telling someone else’s story puts limits on both an artist’s freedom to work and the impact of how they might be received, and Jóhannsson likely isn’t looking to become known as “the Next Thomas Newman.” The voice he uses on Orphée says otherwise, and provides a clear blast attestation that Jóhannsson is among the brightest lights of any member of the loosely grouped post-classical genre.

Various Artists: Desconstrução

On the eponymous opening track of his 1968 debut, small town Bahian boy Tom Zé sang of his adopted hometown São Paulo with ambivalence. “São São Paulo quanta dor/São São Paulo meu amor” went the chorus, alternating between pain and affection in describing the smokestacks and traffic jams of the sprawling megalopolis, its bustling populace of eight million described as “crowded loneliness.” While the most populous and industrious city in Brazil, culturally São Paulo has always stood in the shadow of Rio de Janeiro. It was known as samba’s grave.

But as the compilation Desconstrução proves, the musicians clustered around São Paulo’s current “samba sujo” (dirty samba) scene relish their hometown’s pallor. For those struck by the sound of Elza Soares’ A Mulher do Fim do Mundo from a few months ago, this twelve-track comp culled from the early days of the Goma Gringa Discos label is the next logical step in exploring modern Brazilian music. It features a similar cast of players and musicians from Soares’ album, including saxophonist/arranger Thiago França and Rodrigo Campos. And much like Soares’ late-period masterpiece, Descontrução places songs wild with fusion against contemplative and arresting moments of quiet. 

From Campos’ hushed and simmering noise ballad “Ribeirão” to the roiling acid-rock tinged conjured by trio Metá Metá on “Rainha Das Cabecas,” each act expertly navigates through these influences to produce an exhilarating array that escapes easy classification. Most acts rotate through a stable of players, be they Juçara Marçal, Kiko Dinucci, Marcelo Cabral, Romulo Fróes, Sérgio Machado, Campos, or França, which the press release states “are not a movement, [but] togetherness in motion, always linked from one project to the next.” Almost any selection here contains strands of native samba, post-punk’s rumble, Afrobeat’s driving rhythm, blats of avant-jazz that seem to dilate space, as well as flashbacks to ’60s Tropicália, itself a mutation of Brazilian pop music interacting with outside influences. 

But it’s one thing to just jump from influence to influence, and another to make each gestural leap and genre shift feline and graceful. Thiago França’s contributions might be the most deft of the set, “Space Charanga” bringing to mind the open-ended, exploratory jazz of Kamasi Washington or Charles Mingus’ own Cumbia & Jazz Fusion. It’s tight and lyrical, able to fly up into fiery spiritual jazz stratosphere while also staying firmly grounded in rhythm. Meanwhile “Na Multidão” is a quicksilver track that avoids drums entirely, drawing its pulse from filigrees of electric guitar and upright bass, punctuated with quick jabs of brass and droning woodwinds.

Serving as elder statesman for this clutch of musicians is Vicente Barreto, whose career—much like Soares—dates back to the early ’60s and also include many vicissitudes of fortune. Barreto collaborated with everyone from Vinicius de Moraes to Tom Zé on his 1978 album Correio Da Estação Do Brás. The guitars blare like sirens and grow increasingly anxious, but Barreto’s gravitas keeps the song from flying apart. The comp’s most gorgeous moment shows another side of Metá Metá. The trio’s hushed “Obatalá” brings to mind everything from early ’00s freak-folk to Gilberto Gil’s ethereal “Futurível.” With little more than a wordless whispered vocal and a plinking guitar figure that hovers over flutters of saxophone, they evoke an unspeakable beauty. Both guitar and horn teeter on the edge of extended-technique noise. But as their atonal din grows, the group strikes the perfect balance, conveying something sublime amid such noise, a bloom of color amid the gray. 

M.I.A.: AIM

When revisiting the culture that informed her 2005 debut album Arular, Maya Arulpragasam painted the 2000s with a rose-colored tint. “We had way better fucking music. People were having way better sex. People were eating way better food. It’s like we had progression,” she told Rolling Stone last year. She concluded that in 2015, broadly speaking, art was boring and safe, due to the lack of “fireworks,” the repetition, and the disappearance of the “new.” It was a recalcitrant comment, sure, but also unsurprising coming from M.I.A. What felt unnatural was all this nostalgia. M.I.A. has always been an artist interested in constant reinvention—the past, it seemed to her, was nothing compared to the future. Her music, her art, her years of public confrontation were once prophetic.

But today it’s increasingly clear that many pieces of her creative legacy, from the caustic inhuman sheen of Maya to the bullet casings that litter “Paper Planes,” have either been plundered or misinterpreted. The fake patois of Drake’s “One Dance” blaring from car windows all around the world, the ubiquity of greasy synths and rattling gun-shot samples in dance music (see any of the artists in NON or Fade to Mind), and the globalization of American and European pop music all can trace a thread back to M.I.A.’s experiments, both failed and successful. Her evaluation of art in the present was another middle finger pointed at watchful eyes, and now, with the release of her fifth album, AIM, it’s become an unintended self-criticism of her own inability to light the fuse.

The lead-up to AIM was not without expected provocation. Before the album had a name there was a music video. It was searing and combative, an addictive piece of agitprop that once again aligned M.I.A. as one of our best political artists. The video for “Borders” depicted a dramatization of border crossing that was at once complicated, blunt, and grandly rendered. The song was empathetic about the global refugee crisis, (“We’re solid and we don’t need to kick them/This is North, South, East and Western”) yet it was also a polemic against media saturation and the endless panoply of issues both serious and inane (borders, politics, identities, privilege, being bae, breaking the internet) that made any action impossible. When she summons these topics through the course of the song, she cooly punctures them with a simple question, “What’s up with that?” Overall, it was the type of sobering political gesture that was much needed in the music discourse. Then the controversies started.

She was dropped as the headliner for London’s upcoming Afropunk Festival after clumsily targeting Black Lives Matter and the activist inclinations of musicians like Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé, asking if questions like “Muslim Lives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? Or this kid in Pakistan matters?” would function into the dominant conversation in pop music. Then she got mad about MTV overlooking “Borders” for this year’s VMAs, accusing the media corporation of “racism, classism, sexism, elitism” and essentially policing what kind of voices were institutionally sanctioned. And naturally, she threatened to leak AIM (which she also threatened to do with her last album), and claimed that Interscope refused to clear samples for a Diplo-produced version of “Bird Song.” After the predictably rocky months of rollout, the 17 songs of AIM read as a disappointment, lacking bite and bounce, and presenting only glimmers of what once was.

For what went wrong, look no further than what might’ve been the big pop hit of the album, “Freedun,” a collaboration with smoldering One Direction malcontent Zayn Malik. The song was apparently written over Whatsapp, and it certainly contains all the half-baked charm of a group text thread. “I’m a swagger man/Rolling in my swagger van/From the People’s Republic Of Swaggerstan,” she begins, extremely inauspiciously. It’s the forgivable brick from someone with a history of lyrics that are at the very least provocative or allusive. But this specific brand of poor writing haunts the album. In “Bird Song,” her avian puns are grating: “I believe like R. Kelly, we can fly/But toucan fly together/Staying rich like an ostrich.” Her voice seems flatter, inelastic, and without her early inventiveness. 

At the same time, AIM isn’t saved by some world-beating or state-of-the-art production. Neither M.I.A. nor or her collaborators (including Skrillex and longtime producer Blaqstarr) come close to the vibrancy of her previous work. Take “Foreign Friend,” with its half-hearted drum beat, sleepy progression, and clunky construction. Its pallid form turns the song’s sharp narrative about cultural assimilation into a trying slog. This has never been a problem with her music before—even when it didn’t work, it was wild and freewheeling, intelligently and deftly compacting rhythms from around the world under a single flag.

But these songs are diffuse, thin on hooks, and often recycle through old warhorses of polyrhythmic percussion and splattered sampling. It’s telling that “Visa” samples her debut single “Galang” in its back half. It creates a bizarre effect, like listening to M.I.A. do karaoke over her own music. “Visa” also heavily references—almost eulogizes—her past work (“They call me Arular, trendsetter, making life feel better/Breaking order like a leader now follow”). It’s as if she is well aware of how newness has escaped her, as much she feels it has escaped the world at large. This recursive comment would work better if the album were explicitly framed as a referendum on her career up to this point: the boredom and frustration of the present as an endless reflection of the past. Instead, whatever grand vision AIM is hoping for becomes muddled. While the highlights offer glimmers of hope, like “Ali R U OK”—an incisive narrative about capitalism’s degradation of immigrant hustle—AIM is in desperate need of a clear identity or throughline. 

Diplo once said, “Albums now are a hit song and 11 other songs that are attached to it.” “Borders” will live on as one of many crown jewels in some future retrospective of M.I.A.’s music, but AIM is otherwise her dullest album. For all the accusations that she’s been blithe, unaware, or plain reckless with her messaging, there has never been a more crucial time for pop music that wrestles with globalization, transnational suffering, and the plight of immigrants. While she may never have been the most articulate and thoughtful messenger, in AIM, M.I.A. demonstrates her legacy as an artist eager to tackle issues that are volatile and antagonistic. But at this point her music is more potent in theory than execution.

Fan Attempts to Climb Kanye’s Flying Stage in Atlanta

Fan Attempts to Climb Kanye’s Flying Stage in Atlanta

During Kanye West’s Saint Pablo Tour, he’s been performing on a flying stage. During tonight’s show at Philips Arena in Atlanta, a fan attempted to climb up on the stage while Kanye performed “Power.” In the below footage (via Complex), you can see the person dangling from the side of the stage before ultimately falling back into the crowd.

Jackie Christie Almost Punches Angel Brinks | Basketball Wives LA

Angel Brinks finally arrives to her 5-year anniversary party, only to be confronted by an emotional Jackie, who almost ends up fighting Angel.

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Vox Clamantis: Arvo Pärt: The Deer’s Cry

Producer Manfred Eicher first heard the music of Arvo Pärt on the radio, while driving down the highway. The dramatic string writing and bell-like piano of Tabula Rasa made him pull over and think about expanding his offerings. Until then, Eicher’s ECM imprint had focused mostly on jazz. While his label’s discography included a few modern classical composers like Steve Reich, it didn’t feature a wide range of contemporary notated music. But after Eicher’s conversion on the Autobahn, ECM’s “New Series” was born. 

The first release from Eicher’s expanded classical lineup was a collection of Pärt’s instrumental works, issued in 1984. That album assumed a delicate profile during quieter passages and projected resonant lushness in its more grave sections. Those interpretations have never been bested, and Pärt has worked closely with ECM ever since. While Eicher’s airy production can occasionally tread close to a “new age” aesthetic, this has served Pärt well. After a youthful run that saw the composer mixing religious music with wild-eyed modernism, Pärt’s mature writing tends to employ a blend of centuries-old chant styles and contemplative, minimalist orchestration. 

This lower-key approach to experimentalism benefits from the clarity of Eicher’s mastering. In the early going of The Deer’s Cry , “the ECM sound” allows Pärt’s strangeness to hit with a paradoxical serenity. The opening moments of “Von Angesicht zu Angesicht”—a setting of the “through a glass, darkly” portion of 1 Corinthians—are pensive but also gorgeous, as string lines and a doleful clarinet wind around supple choral writing. During the soprano vocalist’s solo, however, a soft dissonance is held at the end of one line. What once seemed an attractive bauble now appears more unsettling (and in tune with its source text).

It’s these moves that keep Pärt’s attractive music from relaxing into any “easy listening” format. The desperate nature of his search for the beautiful is rarely far from view. The title track’s words attest to the presence of Christ on all sides of the singers. But the lamentation of Pärt’s harmonies is so extreme, it’s natural to wonder about our ease of access to the divine. Because he turned to Christianity during the Soviet era, Pärt suffered censure for his choice of devotional texts—and it’s difficult to miss the hard-won toughness that resides in his spiritual music. 

The Estonian vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis displays admirable command of the composer’s art. The pieces are mostly miniatures, drawn from multiple decades of Pärt’s output. Several have been recorded before. But the takes by Vox Clamantis always tease out something new. In the finale from Kanon Pokajanen, they offer a brighter sound than previously heard on ECM. And their renditions of more popular Pärt fare (such as “Da pacem Domine”) are dependably excellent. 

Fans of the composer may have heard as much as half of this program in other interpretations. Yet the performances and engineering here argue persuasively for new experiences of this music. The same way that Eicher’s first album of Pärt’s music offered a sampling of his instrumental pieces, The Deer’s Cry is a useful entry point to the composer’s vocal music. Its overall effect is not quite as potent as those of long-form compositions such as Miserere or Litany, but there are still plenty of moments that can stop you in your tracks.

Vox Clamantis: Arvo Pärt: The Deer’s Cry

Producer Manfred Eicher first heard the music of Arvo Pärt on the radio, while driving down the highway. The dramatic string writing and bell-like piano of Tabula Rasa made him pull over and think about expanding his offerings. Until then, Eicher’s ECM imprint had focused mostly on jazz. While his label’s discography included a few modern classical composers like Steve Reich, it didn’t feature a wide range of contemporary notated music. But after Eicher’s conversion on the Autobahn, ECM’s “New Series” was born. 

The first release from Eicher’s expanded classical lineup was a collection of Pärt’s instrumental works, issued in 1984. That album assumed a delicate profile during quieter passages and projected resonant lushness in its more grave sections. Those interpretations have never been bested, and Pärt has worked closely with ECM ever since. While Eicher’s airy production can occasionally tread close to a “new age” aesthetic, this has served Pärt well. After a youthful run that saw the composer mixing religious music with wild-eyed modernism, Pärt’s mature writing tends to employ a blend of centuries-old chant styles and contemplative, minimalist orchestration. 

This lower-key approach to experimentalism benefits from the clarity of Eicher’s mastering. In the early going of The Deer’s Cry , “the ECM sound” allows Pärt’s strangeness to hit with a paradoxical serenity. The opening moments of “Von Angesicht zu Angesicht”—a setting of the “through a glass, darkly” portion of 1 Corinthians—are pensive but also gorgeous, as string lines and a doleful clarinet wind around supple choral writing. During the soprano vocalist’s solo, however, a soft dissonance is held at the end of one line. What once seemed an attractive bauble now appears more unsettling (and in tune with its source text).

It’s these moves that keep Pärt’s attractive music from relaxing into any “easy listening” format. The desperate nature of his search for the beautiful is rarely far from view. The title track’s words attest to the presence of Christ on all sides of the singers. But the lamentation of Pärt’s harmonies is so extreme, it’s natural to wonder about our ease of access to the divine. Because he turned to Christianity during the Soviet era, Pärt suffered censure for his choice of devotional texts—and it’s difficult to miss the hard-won toughness that resides in his spiritual music. 

The Estonian vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis displays admirable command of the composer’s art. The pieces are mostly miniatures, drawn from multiple decades of Pärt’s output. Several have been recorded before. But the takes by Vox Clamantis always tease out something new. In the finale from Kanon Pokajanen, they offer a brighter sound than previously heard on ECM. And their renditions of more popular Pärt fare (such as “Da pacem Domine”) are dependably excellent. 

Fans of the composer may have heard as much as half of this program in other interpretations. Yet the performances and engineering here argue persuasively for new experiences of this music. The same way that Eicher’s first album of Pärt’s music offered a sampling of his instrumental pieces, The Deer’s Cry is a useful entry point to the composer’s vocal music. Its overall effect is not quite as potent as those of long-form compositions such as Miserere or Litany, but there are still plenty of moments that can stop you in your tracks.