Caetano Veloso: Caetano Veloso

In the history books, it was on March 31st, 1964 that a military coup ousted Brazilian President João Goulart. The U.S.-backed junta overtook all branches of government, ending nearly a century of newfound democracy for the one-time adjunct of the Portuguese empire and subjecting the country to two decades of increasingly repressive military rule. In Caetano Veloso’s 2003 memoir Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil, he is adamant that the date is a lie: The coup actually took place on April Fool’s Day. Four years into the new regime, then-twentysomething Brazilian pop singer Veloso recorded his first solo album.

But the first voice you hear on his 1968 self-titled release isn’t that of Veloso, but of Portuguese knight Pêro Vaz de Caminha, credited with discovering Brazil in the year 1500. He wrote a letter to Manuel I, King of Portugal raving about the fertile Brazilian land and how “all that is planted grows and flourishes,” convincing the king that the presumed island was worthy of colonization. Carta de Pero Vaz Caminha is considered the first literary text to emanate from Brazil but it gets parodied in a high nasally voice by Veloso’s drummer Dirceu. Little did the percussionist know that the tapes were running. And when the arranger of the session mimics the “exotic” sounds of the Brazilian rainforest, it points back to that time when Brazil was virgin land, before the empire arrived at her shores.

Caetano Veloso’s debut album remains one of the most revolutionary albums released into the worldwide tumult of the 1960s. The opening salvo of Tropicália, it announced the arrival of the greatest Brazilian talent since João Gilberto and launched a fifty-year career that’s not only changed Brazilian music but American music as well, from Talking Heads to Beck to No Wave legend Arto Lindsay and Animal Collective.

To non-Portuguese speakers, Caetano Veloso might not sound anywhere near as transformative as the other albums of that year: Electric Ladyland, The White Album, White Light/White Heat, Anthem of the Sun, A Saucerful of Secrets, to name just a few. Couched in lush orchestral strings suggestive of the generation prior instead of the psychedelic production effects of the moment, it’s a sound thoughtfully strummed on an acoustic guitar. It has few of the tricks and technology of the aforementioned, but at its heart, it’s a revolt, a message delivered at a purr rather than a howl, elegantly gliding past military censors.

At the time, the album struck a balance between the polemics of communism on the Left and the crushing military might on the Right, sloughing off the nationalism and patriotism on either side while embracing a love of country in the shadow of the American Empire. And at the center of it all was Veloso and his supple, silken voice, a Bing Crosby croon delivered with a glint in his eye and Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries surreptitiously tucked into his back pocket.

The seeds of Tropicália’s revolution were planted the year prior when Veloso submitted “Alegria, Alegria” (“Joy, Joy”) to the TV Record Festival. Featuring a burst of fuzz guitar and electric organ it became Veloso’s first anthem, his self-described “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” It’s also his Breathless, his “Chicken Noodle Soup,” at once a critique and embrace of 20th-century pop culture. Veloso drinks Coca-Cola, quotes Sartre, name-drops Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale, all while slyly quoting fellow Brazilian pop star Chico Buarque’s “A Banda” and shrugging his shoulders at the end with the line: “Why not?” It set the themes for the movement to come in Tropicália: courting mass media, distancing themselves from the Left and silently protesting the powers that be. As Veloso later told the New York Times: “It was against the dictatorship without saying anything about it.”

The success of “Alegria, Alegria” emboldened Veloso as he worked on a new album. During lunch at a friend’s house one day, he sang some of the new songs, including one that still didn’t have a title. Brazilian film producer and screenwriter Luiz Carlos Barreto suggested the name of a recent piece from visual artist Hélio Oiticica, an installation that required the viewer to follow a path through sand, lined with tropical plants, until they ended at a television set. “Until I could find a better title the song would be called ‘Tropicália,’” Veloso wrote. “I never did find a better one.”

“Tropicália” opens with Dirceu’s recitation about Brazil as a “tropical paradise,” shouted amid a clatter of jungle drums, tympani, shakers, agogô bells, and the piercingly high frequency of flutes imitating bird song, before the orchestra strikes up and Veloso ambles in like a giant surveying all of Brazil:

Over my head the airplanes
Under my feet the trucks and trains
And pointing out the highland plains is my nose
I organize the movement, too
I lead the carnival.

As expansive, outsized, and hallucinatory as Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” as insouciant and word-drunk as Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Tropicália” is allegory and absorption of all the contradictions of Brazil: its baião rhythms against suave orchestral surges, its colonial opening against the overstuffed modernist lines of Veloso. In the chorus, Veloso praises the sophisticated and urbane song form of bossa nova yet rhymes it with “mud huts.” Throughout the dense lines, Veloso swings from jungle to city, from swimming pools to sea, referring to fellow Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) singers like Elis Regina, Roberto Carlos, and—at the last refrain—to Buarque’s “A Banda” again. Though this time, Veloso adds a twist, rhyming it with the lady in the Tutti Frutti hat, Carmen Miranda.

By that point in the ’60s, Miranda was perceived as kitsch, the Brazil of old, even though early in her singing career, the “Brazilian Bombshell” was her country’s first full-fledged pop star and one of the highest paid entertainers in Hollywood. But Veloso was sincere in his embrace of Miranda, and in teasing out the last syllable of her name, he also nods to Dadaism, melding colorful camp and the avant-garde in just a handful of syllables.

“One characteristic of Tropicália… was precisely the broadening and diversification of the market, achieved through a dismantling of the order of things, with a disregard for distinctions of class or level of education.” So Veloso wrote in Tropical Truth, adding that one goal of their movement was “to sort out the tension between Brazil the Parallel Universe and Brazil the country peripheral to the American Empire.” It was a fine line to straddle, embracing both their own heritage and American pop culture. It meant admiring the colorful cartoonishness of the Kool-Aid Man but neither buying nor drinking the Kool-Aid, all while not falling for the consumerism being offered up religiously since the junta took power.


The American poet Elizabeth Bishop traveled to Brazil in the early ’50s. A two-week voyage turned into an 18-year stay in the country, where her aristocratic spouse, Lota de Macedo Soares, fed her access to the upper echelons of Rio society. Bishop found herself with a bird’s-eye view of the coup d’etat that would soon grip the country. She marveled at its efficiency and the support it appeared to engender, writing that these displays of anti-communism were becoming “victory marches [with] more than one million people marching in the rain.” From her perspective, it was simple: “…all in about 48 hours, it was all over…The suspension of rights, dismissing lots of Congress, etc… had to be done—sinister as it may sound.” But for the Brazilians who weren’t in positions of power and prominence, those in the favelas or those in the working classes who would not stand to profit handsomely, something far more sinister loomed.

In the United States, a group of economists began to impose a debilitating economic plan around the world through means of torture and suppression. Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine traces this nefarious economic shock therapy from Iraq in the 2000s back to Indonesia in 1965. But its earliest iterations took place in South America. In 1962, Brazil had elected João Goulart, who Klein writes was “committed to land redistribution, higher salaries and a daring plan to force foreign multinationals to reinvest a percentage of their profits back into the Brazilian economy rather than spiriting them out of the country and distributing them to shareholders in New York and London.” It was a dynamic attempt to close the gap between the rich and poor in the country.

But less than two years later, the U.S.-backed junta ousted the president and—with an economic policy scripted in the White House—instilled a plan “not merely to reverse João Goulart’s pro-poor programs but to crack Brazil wide open to foreign investment.” In just a few short years, most of Brazil’s wealth was in the hands of a few multinational corporations and the income gap widened, never to be narrowed again. That inequality remains today, exemplified by the Olympic Games in Rio. The political corruption and abject poverty lie just beyond the colorful walls erected to keep the favelas out of sight on our television screens.

And as the people took to the streets to protest the economic hardships befalling them, it was these same corporations behind the violent repression that soon followed. In Brasil: Nunca Mais, a book that detailed the dictatorship’s torture record from 1964 until democracy was restored in the 1980s, the extralegal forces that brutalized unions, student groups, and other dissidents were funded “by contributions from various multinational corporations, including Ford and General Motors.”

These nefarious forces at work were neither observed by the ’60s counterculture in the United States (then protesting for civil rights and against the Vietnam War) nor for most of the Brazilians themselves. As Veloso noted of the time, “Almost all of us were unaware of those nuances back then, and even if we had been, it would have changed nothing; we saw the coup simply as a decision to halt the redress of the horrible social inequalities in Brazil.”

But even if the young Veloso wasn’t consciously aware of the corporations sucking his country dry, his lyrics suggest an awareness of something terribly amiss. It’s a line that runs through the work of all who gathered under the banner of Tropicália: fellow Bahian Gilberto Gil; the psychedelic wunderkind trio Os Mutantes; bossa nova singers Gal Costa and Nara Leão; the wry, live wire Tom Zé; Rogério Duprat, the producer who studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen. While Tropicália earned the ire of the Left by not writing overtly political songs, in tapping into the collective disquiet of the time, their songs became all the more resonant.

Mocking his corporate overlords and their thirst for profit, Veloso made a tangy MPB album perfect for public consumption his first time out, his artful pop becoming Pop Art becoming agitprop. “Paisagem Útil” (“Useful Landscape”) scans as a string-laced bossa nova that toys with the title of Tom Jobim’s “Inútil Paisagem” (“Useless Landscape”). It’s an ode to Brazil where Veloso offers up a love of Rio’s city lights and speeding cars, his lovers kissing under the glow of an Esso sign, a romantic scene set in a simulacrum of nature under the auspices of that multinational oil company. The speedy “Superbacana” is a frevo as penned by Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The titular hero “Supercool” battles Uncle Scrooge and his battalion of cowboy minions and uses advertising lingo for shiny new products like “super-peanut” and “biotonic spinach” and—amid the dizzying blur of slogans—“economic advances.”

Translate the title of the jaunty “Soy Loco Por Ti, America” and it reads as “I Am Crazy for You, America.” And at the time, the Tropicálistas were eagerly absorbing as much music as possible from their neighbors to the north. “We were ‘eating’ the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix,” Veloso said of their influences at the time. “We wanted to participate in the worldwide language both to strengthen ourselves as a people and to affirm our originality.” They fervently spun albums from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa, and more, but rather than simply mimic the trends to the north, they made these influences bear out the music of their half of the hemisphere. So on “Soy Loco,” Caetano isn’t being cheeky about loving America, it’s just that he means South America. The song playfully dances between a Colombian cumbia and a Cuban mambo, sung in Portuguese and Spanish, with Veloso hoping for a united South America rather than the North American Empire. The lyrics toy with the notion of naming, be it the name of America or the girl he plans to bring to the beach (Marti), but then Veloso pivots and he sings of a nameless country.

Fun enough beach fare, until Veloso signifies a dead man whose name can’t be said. He continues to land on this figure: “The name of the dead man/Before the permanent night spreads through Latin America/The name of the man/Is the people.” Less than a year prior, on the other side of the Brazilian border in Bolivia, Che Guevara was captured and killed by CIA-assisted forces. It would be decades before Veloso would admit that Che Guevara was the dead man at the center of the song, but with his death, the prospects of a united Latin and South America were imperiled. And in the years ahead, Brazil remained under the heel of the American Empire.

As Tropicália grew in popularity around the country, Veloso began to see more attention from the authorities. A performance with Os Mutantes for Festival Internacional de Canção in September of 1968 became a riotous confrontation with the audience. Soon after, another show featuring Veloso, Gil, and Os Mutantes was staged under another piece of art from Hélio Oiticica. Only this one featured a man recently shot dead by the police with the slogan “seja marginal, seja heroi” (be a criminal, be a hero) written on it. 

By the end of the year, both Veloso and Gilberto Gil were arrested by the military police and detained two months in solitary confinement without being charged with a crime. After being allowed to play a farewell concert, they were then exiled from Brazil for the next four years. Living in London and then in Bahia upon his return in 1972, Veloso continued to record albums that were by turns exquisite, experimental, and introspective.

Veloso recalled an interrogation from an army sergeant during his imprisonment: “The sergeant was revealing that we tropicalistas were the most serious enemies of the regime. But in that little room of the army police, I did not have the strength to feel proud: I was merely afraid.” None of that fear can be heard here. Instead, bravado and bold assurance run through every number. At the center of it all is Veloso, with his swagger and full belief in the power of his songs to dance around the tanks and petroleum companies, to triumph over both the CIA and Uncle Scrooge. Amid the album’s blinding color and tropical fronds that would make Carmen Miranda proud, Veloso made a stand against the dictatorship without saying anything about it.

Watch OutKast Perform at the Dungeon Family Reunion

Watch OutKast Perform at the Dungeon Family Reunion

The Atlanta rap collective Dungeon Family—which produced OutKast, Goodie Mob, Organized Noize, Killer Mike, and many more—reunited as headliners at ONE MusicFest 2016 in Atlanta tonight. Watch some footage from the OutKast performance below (via Atlanta rapper T.I.) and other clips alongside Goodie Mob. Andre 3000 performs his verse on Goodie Mob’s “Black Ice” and Goodie Mob perform “Dirty South” with Big Boi.

Read “Angelic Wars: Revisiting Goodie Mob’s Soul Food.

Three Stacks performing Black Ice. #OutKast #OMF2016

A video posted by Desmond Hardy (@dstinguishedgentleman) on

What you know about the dirty south?!?! #OMF2016 #GoodieMob

A video posted by Desmond Hardy (@dstinguishedgentleman) on

#gitupgitoutandgitsomething #ceelogreen #outkast #southerplayalisticadillacmuzik #omf2016

A video posted by Cassandra Parks MS Psy, CLC (@cassandramparks) on

Watch OutKast Perform at the Dungeon Family Reunion

Watch OutKast Perform at the Dungeon Family Reunion

The Atlanta rap collective Dungeon Family—which produced OutKast, Goodie Mob, Organized Noize, Killer Mike, and many more—reunited as headliners at ONE MusicFest 2016 in Atlanta tonight. Watch some footage from the OutKast performance below (via Atlanta rapper T.I.) and other clips alongside Goodie Mob. Andre 3000 performs his verse on Goodie Mob’s “Black Ice” and Goodie Mob perform “Dirty South” with Big Boi.

Read “Angelic Wars: Revisiting Goodie Mob’s Soul Food.

Three Stacks performing Black Ice. #OutKast #OMF2016

A video posted by Desmond Hardy (@dstinguishedgentleman) on

What you know about the dirty south?!?! #OMF2016 #GoodieMob

A video posted by Desmond Hardy (@dstinguishedgentleman) on

#gitupgitoutandgitsomething #ceelogreen #outkast #southerplayalisticadillacmuzik #omf2016

A video posted by Cassandra Parks MS Psy, CLC (@cassandramparks) on

Masika Kalysha, Nikki Mudarris, & the Cast On Televising Childbirth | Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood

Yandy Smith did it, Amina Buddafly did it, and now Masika. The cast of Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood chime in on whether on not they would put their baby's delivery moment on TV.

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Masika Kalysha, Nikki Mudarris, & the Cast On Televising Childbirth | Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood

Angelo Badalamenti: Twin Peaks OST

As fans of the early-’90s television series and film well know, “Twin Peaks” is a staging ground for conflict between two supernatural locations (or “lodges,” or something). In a famously wigged-out dream sequence, at the the close of the show’s third episode, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper hears an early clue suggesting the nature of this mysterious peril: “One chants out between two worlds: ‘Fire walk with me.’” But by then, the show’s soundtrack has already revealed that this town in rural Washington is being manipulated by competing forces. The contest between them is demonstrated every few minutes, thanks to a sweetly naive motif (“Twin Peaks Theme”) that can quickly give way to an unsettlingly morbid riff (“Laura Palmer’s Theme”). One goes heavy on the piano’s white keys; the other meditates over some black ones.  

As the show’s mix of humor and tragedy unfolds, these two compositions guide a viewer’s ability to perceive which mood is holding greater sway. A pleasant moment may end with a startling musical suggestion of horror. Or two characters locked in mutual grief may suddenly find something to laugh about. Situated like the narrative itself between the two worlds pulling on the town of Twin Peaks, the music of the show is eternally with the characters—and the viewers.

Series co-creator David Lynch has always displayed a musician’s facility for nimble, suggestive sound arrangements, going back to his first feature film, Eraserhead. But the potency of his soundtracks hit a new level after the director crossed paths with composer Angelo Badalamenti in the 1980s. Badalamenti contributed original compositions to Lynch’s Blue Velvet and played piano during the performance of the titular pop song. For the first season of “Twin Peaks,” he wrote all the music, with Lynch providing lyrics to tunes sung by Julee Cruise.

In addition to the two mood-setting triumphs that anchor the first season soundtrack to “Twin Peaks,” Badalamenti also came up with brilliant evocations of the show’s various dramatic modes. The bluesy “Freshly Squeezed” defines the show’s approach to seduction. “Dance of the Dream Man” captures the finger-snapping swing of its surreality. Some of the tracks serve multiple purposes, like “Audrey’s Dance,” which starts out as an accessory to chic sleuthing, then stretches out into a dreamy organ drone punctuated by blasts of saxophone and a lascivious clarinet. In these performances, the composer’s keyboard is frequently the star, though jazz drummer Grady Tate’s rhythms are another consistent highlight. Without his subtle, driving percussion, Badalamenti’s mixture of vintage pop and jazz sonics—at once familiar and plenty strange—might not have come off nearly so well. 

A great score doesn’t have to play well as an album on its own terms. But this one does. Its tunes are so appealing, Lynch sometimes rips them from their status as commentary on the show’s action and places this music directly into the narrative world. Badalamenti’s pieces show up in jukeboxes that the characters use and in performances by local musicians at the town’s watering holes. When Agent Cooper tries to remember a portion of that crucial dream, he snaps his fingers to the rhythm of the music that originally accompanied the images in his head.

If the characters get to listen to the music all the time, why not fans of the show? During the first wave of “Twin Peaks” mania, its opening theme won a Grammy, while the soundtrack album charted on Billboard. The new edition—licensed by Warner Bros. to the boutique Death Waltz label—features a new vinyl remaster by Tal Miller. Compared to the first CD edition of the album, this version gives greater definition to all the parts of a collage-style piece like “The Bookhouse Boys” (which blends in a bit of “Dance of the Dream Man”).

Elsewhere, the vinyl remaster is more subtly useful than it is revelatory. Which is as it should be, since this music has never sounded thin or in need of help. The vinyl packaging promises a forthcoming reissue of the soundtrack to the movie—Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me—that followed the show’s cancellation by ABC. Equally needed are new editions of the show’s second-season soundtrack, as well as Julee Cruise’s album Floating Into the Night (which overlaps with the first-season album a bit, and also contains material from the show that didn’t make this set). But since the “Twin Peaks” revival is still in its early stages, ahead of Showtime’s planned third season in 2017, there’s still plenty of time to obsess over those recordings, down the road. For now, the first soundtrack’s deft combination of romance and menace provides a stunning reminder of everything Lynch and his co-creator Mark Frost dreamed up the first time around.

Banks & Steelz: Anything But Words

If you squint hard enough, a collaboration between RZA and Interpol’s Paul Banks makes a certain kind of sense. There’s a complementary starkness between Interpol’s icicled post-punk and the hip-hop RZA perfected with Wu-Tang Clan. It’s even possible to imagine Banks’ aura of gloom re-sparking some of the wilder, more macabre impulses of RZA’s Gravediggaz days. At their respective peaks, these two might have created a gnarly, gothic spectacle of a rap record together.

That’s not the record they made because they aren’t those artists anymore. Rather than carry on as the same shadowy figure of those first two Interpol records, Banks has revealed himself to be a pretty normal guy who likes normal guy things: hip-hop, clubs, and the good life in general. He’s covered J Dilla and released a rap mixtape titled Everybody on My Dick Like They Supposed to Be. RZA, meanwhile, has spent much of the last decade softening his image and broadening his horizons beyond rap. He’s starring in a biopic about a porn star Venessa Del Rio and did a track with James Blake. Both artists have proven themselves to be richer, more complex figures than they introduced themselves as—and yet, paradoxically, less interesting figures. Each fought to escape the very box in which they did their best work.

Maybe that restlessness is what drew them together. There’s no great story behind their partnership, no unlikely shared acquaintance or serendipitous meet-cute at the backstage of a festival. RZA’s manager suggested the two get together, so they did, and after bonding over noodles and chess they set about recording this extremely workmanlike album as Banks & Steelz (Julian Plenti & Bobby Digital didn’t have the same ring to it, apparently). Banks had been a longtime Wu-Tang fan, of course, while RZA only began to explore Banks’ work after their initial meeting. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he cited not Turn on the Bright Lights or Antics, but rather 2007’s Our Love To Admire as the Interpol album he connected with the most. That’s hardly the consensus pick, but it checks out because it’s the album that mostly closely mirrors the transitional one Wu-Tang put out that year, 8 Diagrams. Both works expanded the group’s templates in ways that, in general, their architects found a lot more rewarding than their fans did.
And so with Anything But Words, both jump on the opportunity to branch out. These sort of rocker/rapper collaborations tend to be lopsided, with one party, usually the rocker, carrying the work load while the other phones it in (anybody interested in seeing this dynamic in action should watch the strangely fascinating making-of documentary for Linkin Park’s Collision Course, which features more footage of the band in the studio waiting for Jay Z to arrive than it does of Jay Z actually in the studio). To their credit, though, Banks and RZA are each so engaged that their project always feels like a true partnership. Banks’ guitars and synths amicably share space with RZA’s tidy beats, and every track judiciously reserves equal space for both voices.

Run The Jewels, the tag-team duo fueled in equal parts by righteousness and friendship, initially feels like the aspirational model here. On opener “Giant” RZA even channels some of Killer Mike’s bulldozer conviction (“Fuck CNN, this is ghetto editorial!” he fumes.) His rhymes still have a disjointed quality that becomes tedious in large exposures—he rarely carries a thought for more than a few bars—but it’s been years since he’s sounded this fired up. For anybody raised on those first few Wu-Tang records, his unmistakable lispy bark will always elicit a Pavlovian endorphin rush.

Banks, however, couldn’t sound more out of place. Instead of singing in the focused baritone on Interpol’s first records, he leans on his higher registers, so much so that he even approaches howling, Adam Levine, “Just like animals, animals, like animals oh” territory. It’s as if he set out to make a rap album for people whose favorite part of Graduation was Chris Martin. And since nearly every song rigidly sticks to the same RZA verse/Banks chorus dynamic, all that mewling grows old fast.

Anything But Words’ best moments are the ones offer some relief from that endless back and forth. Kool Keith lends his weird energy to “Sword in the Stone,” a satisfying enough bit of fan service for hip-hop heads who have been waiting for a RZA/Keith team-up, while Florence and the Machine’s Florence Welch capably channels the spirit of contemporary R&B during her guest turn on “Wild Season.”

There are also decent verses from Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Masta Killa, but those outside voices aren’t enough to break up the often cloying monotony of an hour-long record that tries to repackage two cult artists as a mass-appeal pop act. Banks and RZA spent three years on this record, adding layers upon layers to the tracks and polishing them to an arduous sheen, then releasing it with the full backing of a major label. In interviews, they give off the sense that they’re hoping Banks & Steelz becomes something more permanent than just a one-off dalliance. But at some point during that all that tinkering, and all their efforts to mimic the chorus-centric template of Top 40’s tackiest crossover rap, the record lost whatever scrappy charm it might have held. Anything But Words is the rare side project that might have been better off if both parties had cared a little less.

Lisa/Liza: Deserts of Youth

To listen to Deserts of Youth, Liza Victoria’s proper debut album, is to eavesdrop on moments of quiet intensity. Devoid of reverb or overt production effects—a radical choice, in the age of atmospheric GarageBand records—Deserts’ seven songs are comforting yet arresting, effortless while intricate. At times, the Maine-based songwriter’s feathery falsetto is barely audible, a wisp of wind blowing through a deserted street; other times, it’s powerful and clear. Her lyrics, when you can decipher them, feel mostly like conduits for her unusual vocal patterns, less a means of communicating thoughts than establishing setting and mood. Throughout, Victoria seems most keen on satisfying herself; after all, as she sang in an early recording, “I am the friend that I need the most.”

In line with her 2014 release, The First Museum, Deserts of Youth begins as a light, psychedelic affair. The jazzy “Century Woods” opens the record with a lilting breeziness. On the ghostly “Another Window,” she counts to four without falling into a steady rhythm, speeding up and slowing down as she recounts observations literal (“Your keys are lying on the floor/At the bottom of the bed”) and abstract (“It’s the shadow of the morning… Watch the light breathe where the shadows began”). Although Deserts retains the simple guitar-and-vocal structure of Victoria’s early work, it is a sizeable step forward in songwriting and vision, a haunting, emotional experience that’s most effective as a whole.

The album’s scope is captured neatly in its stunning centerpiece, “Lady Day of the Radio.” Although all the songs on Deserts hover around the five-minute mark, “Lady Day” feels especially epic. It boasts Victoria’s most evocative guitar playing yet as she shifts between sad, broken fingerpicking and a stirring climax, the closest she has tread yet to a genuine guitar solo. Situated right in the middle of the album, “Lady Day” is a song so commanding that it seems to dictate the record’s structure; the opening tracks builds up to it, and the closing numbers slowly resolves its cathartic rush.

The self-contained world of Deserts of Youth makes the album feel more like a long song cycle than a collection of various pieces—a quality aided by Victoria’s penchant for ending songs abruptly in the middle of lines and writing familiar variations on her melodies. In “Wander,” a stirring ballad that plays like a heartbreaking coda to “Lady Day,” Victoria’s aimless narrator mirrors the music’s meandering quality. “We walk around the old part of town,” she sighs, before reaching one of the album’s most memorable refrains: “I never know where to go with new love.” A moment later, she amends the lyric to address “old love” as well, tying them together into a single entity, removed from time. It’s the record’s purest attempt at a singalong chorus and a lyric that’s emblematic of the album as a whole: a daring new work of strange, intimate beauty that already feels like an old favorite.

Okkervil River: Away

Away is the first Okkervil River album without Okkervil River on it. Will Sheff’s backing band has been a revolving door for a while now, yet even as new faces came and went, they’d always conducted themselves as a real band, especially on the road, where their live shows remained as feverish as ever. But after a tumultuous few years marked by loss and even more lineup changes than usual, Sheff was left questioning whether he even wanted to continue the group. The frontman approached Away like a solo project, writing it on his own and cherry-picking session players to help him record. And as part of that new approach, Sheff turned his back on the frothy rock‘n’roll that had previously driven the band’s finest moments.

To start, on Away, Sheff has said that he tried to avoid working with rock musicians. “I’m not as interested in rock‘n’roll as I used to be,” he said. “I don’t really think of this as rock.” And so for Away he went full Astral Weeks, stacking the deck with jazz, folk, and classical musicians, including members of the orchestral ensemble yMusic and Marissa Nadler, who lends harmony vocals throughout. Drummer Cully Symington is the only carryover from the last incarnation of Okkervil River, and from his featherlight, Connie Kay-esque brush work here, you’d never guess he’s the same guy who’s been drumming for Cursive for the last few years.

Sheff ratifies his fresh start by symbolically killing off the band on the album opener “Okkervil River R.I.P.” “They had some great songs/Must have been a great time so long ago,” he sings on the nearly seven-minute elegy to his past, his creaky voice rising to an early-Dylan sneer as the song is hugged by some familiar Wurlitzer organ. Those woozy organs have been an Okkervil River signature since the very first song of their first record, but here they serve as a callback to something lost, a little more kindling for the funeral pyre.

A nearly seven-minute opener could be an album’s flagship statement, but Away is packed with so many songs that approach or pass the seven-minute mark that none carries more weight than any other. A modestly fit listener could run a mile in the time it takes to get through the gentlest number, “Call Yourself Renee,” a soft parade of strings and woodwinds with the hushed quality of Nick Drake. The twinkling “Judey on a Street” is even longer and in less of hurry. Sheff frames it as a lesson about the virtues of patience: “I’m gonna wait for my girl to come,” he sings, “She always takes a little time.” And so do these songs.

Away’s unflashy, lyrics-first approach marks a correction from Okkervil River’s production-centric last couple of records, 2011’s prickly I Am Very Far and 2013’s openhearted The Silver Gymnasium. The latter album was pitched on a clever gimmick: Sheff took on the big pop aesthetics of his childhood, tapping the same vein of ’80s nostalgia that made Netflix’s “Stranger Things” such a sleeper hit this summer. It was a play for a wider audience, and a spirited one, but the public didn’t bite. Now, a songwriter who once passed himself off as so indifferent to the spotlight that he made an entire record about it—and then a sequel—fears being shut out. (“I’ve been up and down in my career, and I’ve spent time worrying about it,” Sheff admitted to NPR.) Those anxieties come across on “The Industry,” the closest Away comes to a rock song. “I thought that it was us against the world,” Sheff croons, “but now it’s me against something so big and abstract that I can’t tell what it is.”

Sheff isn’t really interested in sour grapes, though. Instead of griping about an industry that’s no longer working for him, he made a change and tested out a new direction. Away doesn’t aim for the rafters the way Okkervil River did on their best albums, when Sheff was unabashedly playing to the crowd. But there’s a sense that he’s making the record for himself, and an attendant thrill that comes from eavesdropping on that. Away’s scope may be personal, but its takeaways are universal. It’s a touching album about moving on, about the satisfaction of leaving the past behind before it leaves you.