I had a small realization the other day. I didn’t know a single Janet Jackson song. She’s one of the bestselling musicians in history, she has ten number one hits, and I can’t name a single one. I checked with my friends, neither could they. Despite everything 80s being blasted ad nauseam for the last decade, Janet has been almost totally forgotten. How did this happen?
Well, we all know how. In 2004 Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake invented the concept of nipples live on stage at the Super Bowl. The sheer shock from millions of Americans discovering that nipples exist made her a social pariah and resulted in a very literal blacklisting in the industry that lasts through today. I would be far from the first to point out the double standard that allowed Timberlake to walk out of the Superbowl controversy virtually unscathed. I’m also not the first person to point out that Janet’s legacy has suffered. I might be more original in suggesting that the stigma surrounding Michael Jackson as of late has done more damage to her career than his, even though she’s more or less kept her mouth shut about him since the 90s. But I’m not really here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about Janet, because as someone born in 2001, I had no clue what type of artist she was. Who was she before the backlash? What would the history books have to say about Janet had CBS not ordered her name be struck clean from the record books? Well, here’s my brief attempt at explaining this well-documented, yet forgotten, career arc for the Zoomers out there, because Janet Jackson is worth revisiting.
Faye Webster isn’t a huge star right now, but she definitely deserves to be. Her latest album is a triumph, and it’s exciting to see her get both critical attention and actual commercial success from it, as it’s currently on Billboard’s Heat Seekers and folk charts. So let’s get to know Faye Webster, and see what she has to say for herself.
Webster is, first and foremost, a country musician. Based out of the ATL, she has a very retro countrypolitan sound reminiscent of Emmylou Harris, Patsy Cline and Linda Ronstadt. 70s pop country is uncool both within country music, where it garnered a pretty big backlash for selling out, and outside of country where it’s mostly been written out of pop history. But for several years, country musicians were having number one albums getting multiple pop hits a year by being just aggressively sad.
Webster has forgone the pop hits and success, but boy can she be sad with the best of them. She takes the twang out of her voice and relocates to some deeply melancholy lyrics (and some great slide guitars). Her album “I know I’m funny haha,” is perhaps the best indication of what kind of artist she is. It makes her music engaging and beautiful, but in a way that’s not much fun to talk about. If you’ve heard any indie folk, you know what to expect.
Her last album, “Atlanta Millionaires Club,” however, yields a few more interesting details. The album is a tribute to the musical history of Atlanta, both White and Black. The default instrumental palate is a fusion of her countrypolitan aesthetic with classic 70s soul, a fusion that works so well I’m honestly surprised it’s not done more often. There’s even a token country rap song, which, despite not really blowing me out of the water personally, beats the heck out of Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan.
So, if you want to know where to start, I might suggest listening to a few of her top songs on Spotify, then hitting up the new album when you’re feeling a little blue. Fusions of country and indie are just getting better and better these days, and Faye Webster is an excellent addition to that trend.
Alright it’s time to shine a spotlight on one of North Carolina’s own, Kelsey Lu. Hailing from Charlotte, she grew up in a strictly religious household before attending UNC School of the Arts. In short, she’s about as Carolinian as a musician can be.
So, from the above album cover (cropped for nudity) you might expect an R&B singer, or perhaps some kind of melodic indie rocker, but at the risk of disappointing you, Lu fits somewhere in the realm of baroque pop. Yes, that UNCSA education was apparently in classical cello, because Lu is basically inseparable from the instrument. Her music weaves in a variety of strings including viola and violin, supplementing thoughtfully written songs that border on spoken word at times. One word that would not describe her, however, is orchestral, as her arrangements are incredibly sparse, rarely doubling more than one instrument besides her voice, and eschewing chords. The result is somewhat expiriemental, while remaining accesible
If classical isn’t really your thing, still give Kelsey Lu a shot, because the restrained conservatism of her upbringing and stylistic influences are not reflected in her music. She gave one anecdote of listening to 36 Mafia in her sister’s car in secret. Side note, while I can’t speak as to whether that story represents the community at large, it did make me laugh for how much it fits the profile of most Charlottean Jehovah’s Witnesses I’ve met. Her rebellious nature is not just targeted at her roots though; she turns a critical yet loving eye to the outside world. Her 2019 album “Blood” targets hippies, art school grads, and her parents’ generation all in the first song. Her music is in equal measure restrained and rebellious, and an excellent entry in our state’s cultural tapestry.
On June 18, mewithoutYou announced they were beginning their farewell tour. This tour was planned to take place through 2020, marking their final year as a band. However, the world had different plans. But now with COVID restrictions easing and cases coming down in general, the band made the decision to announce their tour with a teaser on their Instagram, announcing two Philadelphia shows – “The Beginning of the End” and “Brother, Sister 15th Anniversary Show.” Contrary to what many fans believe, these aren’t the band’s last shows. In fact, it marks the beginning of their final tour. While heartbreaking for many fans (especially newer ones, like myself), the members of the band made this decision to focus on their families and personal lives.
mewithoutYou formed in 2001, the original members being Aaron Weiss (vocals), Mike Weiss (lead guitar, background vocals, keys), Christopher Kleinberg (rhythm guitar), Daniel Pishock (bass) and Rickie Mazzotta (drums). While their style has changed greatly over their career, thematically and lyrically they’ve stayed consistent. Much of their lyrics take inspiration from Judeo-Christianity, Buddhism and Islamic philosophy, all delivered in a deeply personal spoken-word poetry style. Let’s take a deep dive into the musical world of mewithoutYou…
“I Never Said That I Was Brave” (2001)
This five-song EP is more of a sneak peek of what the group was capable of. Borderline “screamo” vocals, thick guitars, panic chords galore and percussion that puts many mainstream drummers to shame, this 15 minute EP leaves you almost no time to relax. Many of the tracks on here made it onto their first album a year later. This is our first look into Aaron’s deeply personal and introspective world of songwriting.
“Let us die, let us die!/Then dying, we reply/Oh, don’t you tell us about your suffering…’’ are the first words we’re greeted with. This album is reminiscent of their first EP, but is a lot more polished but still as, if not more, angry. This album has a common theme of heartbreak, loneliness, and questioning one’s faith. This album doesn’t end on a pleasant note as most do. The closest form of closure we get is in the final track “The Cure For Pain,” in which Aaron belts “The cure for pain is in the pain, so it’s there that you’ll find me.” This album is a desperate diary entry of a hurt soul, looking for some sort of relief.
Like their previous album, “Catch For Us The Foxes” is deeply emotional and personal, dealing with even heavier topics than before: reaching your rock bottom and having “no lower place to fall,” feelings of worthlessness and suicide. While “A->B Life” was more nihilistic and angry, this album has many semblances of hope, Aaron belting many lines praising his small triumphs in his improving mental health. This album has a more mature feel and explores many different sounds. Here, we see our first (Pt.2) song. These songs hark back to tracks on previous albums, sharing similar melodies and themes, but are typically more upbeat and hopeful. This track is “Four Word Letter(Pt.2).” While the original spoke lines of heartbreak, “(Pt. 2)” speaks of being healed, yet still skeptical of moving forward. This album ends with a poem of rebirth from a lonely self, lyrically burying this angry Aaron – “Six of my closest friends will dig up the ground, all my accomplishments gently lowered down…”
Arguably their best and most successful album, “Brother, Sister” is an album-long testimony of his journey of healing and self-love. As you would expect, this album isn’t sad or angry, however, it’s not 45 minutes of, “Hey everyone! Look at me, I’m happy now!” There are still a few songs that still deal with healing and questioning one’s self. You hear this as early as the third track with “Wolf Am I! (And Shadow).” We also see another (Pt. 2) song, “Nice and Blue (Pt. 2),” a song about not being completely healed, but improving nonetheless. Each stanza of “(Pt. 2)” contrasts the lines of the original, quite the departure from the angry, self-loathing lament the original track was. This album is all about contrast, songs like “The Sun and the Moon,” lyrical themes between tracks, the album art, heck, even the album name. Probably my favorite thing about this album is the interludes that are known by the fanbase as the “Spider Songs“ – “Yellow Spider,” “Orange Spider” and “Brownish Spider.” These songs (I believe) serve as a stark contrast to some of the heavier songs that come before or after them. The finale of the album, “In a Sweater Poorly Knit” shows that while Aaron is in a good place now, he knows that lows in life are inevitable and will eventually cycle back, but with that cycle, leads to more personal growth. If you listen closely to the end, you can hear rain – right where the first track begins.
“It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright” (2009)
The title being a near direct quote from the Islamic philosopher Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, this album explores many spiritual themes, not just Islam, but Christianity and Judaism, too. The sound of this album is nothing like they’ve done before – almost all the songs are folky and acoustic. Another common theme throughout the album is plants and animals, one of the tracks, “The Fox, the Crow, and the Cookie,” being a retelling of one of Aesop’s fables. Again, we see another (Pt. 2) song, “Bullet to Binary (Pt.2).” Like before, this sequel contrasts the original with a more positive and hopeful message, this time, a message about unity.
In my opinion, this album is their most overlooked and underrated. “Ten Stories” is a concept album about a train carrying circus animals, the elephant running herself into the side of the car she’s in, derailing the train and freeing all the circus animals. The elephant inevitably sacrifices her life for the good of others and is hanged in “Elephant on the Dock.” All of which is a metaphor for the crucifixion of Christ. Each track focuses on each of the animals’ experiences, but mainly follows the adventures of the fox and bear. Haley Williams of Paramore is featured on “Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume,” she has said in an interview that mewithoutYou is her favorite band (she has great taste!).
Between the release of “Ten Stories” and this album, Aaron and Mike experienced the loss of their father. Aaron’s lyrics became nihilistic and have seemed to have lost touch with his spirituality, which is mirrored in many of the tracks. Another common theme revolving around the apocalypse, referencing The Four Horsemen, The Seven Seals, divine judgment and death. Early mewithoutYou probably would have written a loud and angry album, but this more mature band wrote songs that are haunting and cold, but almost comforting. Here again, we see a very hurt Aaron, but he’s older now, and more mature. He drops the only curse in their entire discography in “Rainbow Signs.” In almost a whisper he sings, “Pale horse vows in a grave reply/Smile for the camera at the church nearby/Threw a mute curse at the Boise sky/For my f——d up Napoleon-of-St.-Helena-hairline…” The album ends with Aaron dreaming about seeing his father again, sharing an inside joke that only they understood.
”Like It’s All Crazy!..,” this album has many allusions to animals, many of the lyrics written as conversations between them. The first half is unapologetically aggressive, pushing you directly into the chaos with no warning. Lyrically and thematically, it seems that Aaron has come to terms with his father’s death and has gone back to his spiritual roots. “Another Head For Hydra” explores the worthlessness of material possessions. “[dormhouse sighs]” is a more positive look at the apocalypse – stemming from a revelation he had on a West Virginia highway. The second half, while still heavy, is more refined and not as chaotic. “2,459 Miles” is a song about being far from his home, wife and kids. “Micheal, Row Your Boat Ashore” is about the doubts and fears of being a new father. Personally, I think this album is Aaron’s best writing in a poetic sense. Each song is packed with metaphors, biblical references and clever wordplay.
I don’t think there will ever be another band that could hold a candle to the sheer complexity and beauty of mewithoutYou. Their lyrics are introspective, the instrumentals are layered and are like no other band I’ve ever heard. Their discography has a little something for everyone. Each album is a unique, near spiritual experience. If someone as iconic as Haley Williams holds them in high regard, maybe you should give them a chance. As current members Aaron, Mike, Rickie, Greg and Brandon ready themselves for one more tour, I wish them nothing but the best in their personal lives. Their music really has changed the lives of so many, including myself.
Russian musicians live with one eye over their shoulder. Music has provided one of the few remaining outlets for anti-government dissidence, but protest is a dangerous career, as three members of Pussy Riot found out in January. However, while many dissident bands prefer to keep a low profile, or remain entirely anonymous, the same cannot be said of Ic3peak.
Ic3peak are an experimental electronica duo consisting of Anastasia Kreslina and Nikolay Kostylev. They did not ostensibly begin with the intention of involving themselves in Russian politics. Until 2017, they sang entirely in English and toured Europe and Latin America, keeping a fairly low profile in their homeland. Their early music reflects the overall gothic and depressive state of Russian popular music and youth culture, an aesthetic sense Kreslina ascribes to economic decay, an unresponsive government and little hope for change. This attitude should be well known to anyone familiar with the myriad Russian Doomer post-punk playlists that overtook YouTube a few years back, but the rest of Ic3peak’s image might be a little more surprising.
Unlike their post-punk contemporaries, Ic3peak’s sound is brash and aggressive, formed on industrial hip-hop beats adapted from Witch House. This association with Russian hip-hop is, according to the speculation of NPR, likely what first landed them in trouble with the government, as hip-hop is seen as especially subversive and degenerate in the eyes of the President. However, it would not be Ic3peak’s music that would catapult them to fame, but their response to government pressure, particularly in the form of their absolutely insane music videos.
Music videos are a little bit of a lost art form, but Ic3peak wields them more effectively than perhaps any other indie band working today. The muted but cohesive color palates, violently macabre imagery and darkly comic political satire combine into videos that feel deeply pointed despite never making a precise political stand. Their visual art complements the dark, yet not explicitly abrasive music, using images that are too over the top and ironic to be scary, while retaining a sense of grounded seriousness.
This is the kind of video that can get you killed, but Ic3peak’s overwhelming popularity has likely helped insulate them. As Kreslina said in the video for “Death No More,” “I fill my eyes with kerosene, let it burn, the whole of Russia is watching me, let it burn” [translation from their closed captioning]. As their profile and music video budget rises, the whole of the world has started to watch as well.
The authorities have been unable to definitively silence Ic3peak, but that hasn’t stopped them from making their lives as difficult as possible. They have been caught in a wave of cancellations by local security forces, with live shows either outright banned or prevented by temporary detention. Government backlash has grown to such an extent that from the talk page of their Wikipedia article, the government appears to be paying third parties to edit in more flattering appraisals of the government reaction. This, in addition to being extremely petty, shows just how serious the threat this duo of 20-somethings poses is.
The label “experimental hip-hop” seems to now extend to more artists in the industry than it used to, but there’s no denying Death Grips helped found the genre and still remain at its center. Though Zach Hill is often noted as the leading creative of the group, Stefan Burnett, better known as MC Ride, is the vocal star. His punk, industrial-inspired delivery feeds on noise and electronic styles and production to create an unmatched sound. With Andy Morin also on keyboard and production, the music trio has put out six studio albums, a mixtape and six other miscellaneous projects.
Death Grips formed in 2010 and I’ve been listening since 2015. Considerably late to the show, I still found myself among very few fans in my area during high school. That being said, I spent my teen years in Wake Forest, NC. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Death Grips’ internet and streaming popularity were stronger than ever and continuously growing. I was a proud, but delusional, DG fan.
When you find a new project as inventive as Death Grips, it feels like stumbling upon gold. I thought I was nearly alone in this discovery and it took time for me to realize they were incredibly popular. As years passed and their popularity still grew, I found myself listening to Death Grips as often as I used to, but now in private. There was a certain embarrassment of Death Grips for me, and since talking to friends, I’ve learned for others, too. The embarrassment, perhaps stemming from a sudden jump of feeling special to being just a cog in the DG machine, was polarizing. Older listeners retreated to their rooms to partake while newer listeners were outwardly experiencing their newfound feeling of uniqueness.
Death Grips, despite their ever-altering audience, continue to put out music and I’ve noticed, both in myself and the people around me, the former DG embarrassment lifting. As people come to terms with liking music simply because it’s good and putting less concern into whether or not it boosts their individuality complex, I find that Death Grips is getting more public love from their long-time listeners.
As an ode to my lifted DG embarrassment, here’s a short list of some of my favorite Death Grips songs (in order of release):
Most people our age remember Sheryl Crow from when we were kids. She was pretty popular in the early 2000s, I was born in 2001, so that means her last hits were around five years old when I first started hearing the radio. This is the perfect interval for music to feel nostalgic, new enough that we remember it, but old enough that we had absolutely no critical eye to determine who a song was by or whether it was good. When I was old enough to think about music critically, I personally filed Sheryl Crow away in a category I now describe as “Mom Rock.” Yes, we have dad rock, and if no one else has come up with this joke yet, I know claim inventorship of mom rock. This category entails bluesy, spiritual rock music by middle aged white women that was all the rage from around 1996 to 2004, and artists like Crow, Kelly Clarkson, Nelly Furtado’s folky output, Liz Phair’s self-titled album, songs like “Bubly,” “Unwritten” and that one song about feeling the rain I can never remember because it came out when I was like two.
Now, I have personally been reevaluating a lot of mom rock. Partially because a lot of this music was dismissed specifically for appealing to middle-aged women, and I want to give it a fair chance, and partially because it’s a warm wave of nostalgia for me (and most other people our age). So, imagine my surprise when I find that Sheryl Crow was uh… actually really good? Okay, obviously Sheryl Crow was a good artist, she has plenty of classic hits, but Crow’s ’90s discography is good an entirely different dimension than I expected.
As it turns out, all of the songs I remember were from her 2002 album “C’mon C’mon,” which was something of a change in direction. That was a pop-rock album, I might call it a sell-out if it weren’t filled with front-to-back bangers. We aren’t here to discuss that today because you probably already know “Soak up the Sun,” “Picture” and maybe “Steve McQueen.” We’re here to talk about her first two albums, which were, to my eternal shock, alt-rock.
To be clear, Sheryl Crow was not making grunge. She fit in more with the rootsy acoustic side of alt-rock, with her auditory aesthetic being more akin to a pumped-up Hootie and the Blowfish or a less dense REM. Crow’s take on the genre is still recognizably her own though, mixing in her country fusion, eccentric songwriting, and an eye towards pop hits with the typical REM formula. Her first two albums had a combined 4 hits, none of which I have ever heard. Maybe I’m alone in never hearing Crow’s ’90s output, but I suspect that a number of you haven’t either, so check out her self-titled album. The music isn’t just good, as a lot of her music is, but was, as the title suggests, actually kind of edgy and out of the ordinary. She went way too hard for even the alt-iest of alt-country, but too grounded and feminine for alt-rock, so I do not know how much credibility she had at the time, but to me, it sounds pretty awesome.
Jack Antonoff is a musician, writer and producer, who has been a part of many corners of the pop music industry. From being the guitarist and percussionist in Fun., to producing the soundtrack for the film “Love Simon”, to heading two of his own bands (Steel Train and Bleachers), to writing and producing for artists like Taylor Swift, Lorde, St. Vincent, The Chicks, Lana Del Rey: Jack Antonoff has done it all. He has done a great job of not only making a name for himself but also creating a sound for himself. So what makes his producing and writing so great? Grandiosity, honesty and a whole lot of synths.
As summed up in a review of Bleachers’ second album “Gone Now” by Pitchfork, Jack Antonoff doesn’t create the sleek and palatable pop music that is typical of the Top-40 Charts. His sound, especially in his solo projects, is chock-full of horns, bright piano, synths and samples. The grandiosity of his second album, “Gone Now,” was compared to Elton John in a Rolling Stone review. This same larger-than-life sound coupled with a good hook makes many of the songs he writes/produces addicting. Some examples of this being “Cruel Summer” and “Out of the Woods” by Taylor Swift, “Green Light” by Lorde and “Strawberries and Cigarettes.” Not everything he produces is as extravagant as those though, he also knows how to produce a down-to-earth ballad as can be seen in “Crowded Places” by Banks and much of “folklore,” Taylor Swift’s eighth album.
There’s a certain honesty that comes with a song written by Antonoff. The best example of this radical honesty is, “I Wanna Get Better,” the hit single off of Bleachers’ first album, “Strange Desire.” Antonoff has been very open about losing his younger sister, Sarah, to cancer when he was 18. “I Wanna Get Better” is an autobiographical excerpt from that low period in his life. Many of the songs he writes and co-writes have themes of self-improvement and/or insecurity, “The Archer” by Taylor Swift and “Liability” by Lorde are great examples of this. Much of his work with Bleachers touches on themes of growing up in New Jersey, young love, childhood and heroes. It all feels very authentic, and, like the New York Times put it, sets him apart from the methodical and scientific approach to pop music others in the industry favor.
I’ve got something a little different for you today, an old fashioned punk band with a storied career: from underground darlings to this week’s savior of rock and roll to pioneers of the gender dysphoria blues, there aren’t a whole lot of bands with a career quite like Against Me! (Yes, the “!” is mandatory, so get used to it).
Against Me! has an early career that makes most punk bands seem like posers. A set of high school dropouts with felony convictions since the age of 14, brutalization by the police, anarchist leanings, and strictly independent promotion, you could hardly ask for a more nailed to rights punk story. However, their initial sound wasn’t quite as hardcore as you’d assume given these stories, they were really more like The Clash than Black Flag, and their debut album “Reinventing Axl Rose” is filled with drinking songs, dad rock, and political anthems that betray a surprising amicability with the mainstream. As a result, their albums sold shockingly well for a punk band in the mid-2000s with absolutely no label support, industry connections or nepotistic advantages. The biggest rock bands of this era were children of the industry (The Strokes, The Calling), holdovers from the 90s (Modest Mouse, Foo Fighters), or just straight up industry plants (Simple Plan, Limp Biskit). So expectations were high.
Then, Against Me! did the thing that no self-respecting punk band should ever do, they signed to a major label. Surprisingly, it went pretty well. Their style was already mainstream-friendly, so besides a clean production job and marginally less swearing, the album was authentically them, and it had the benefit of major label support. Granted, it was 2007, and rock and roll was truly dead, so their new album didn’t chart that well, but they had a few rock radio hits, and all the old school magazines like The Rolling Stone gave them absolutely rave reviews. Things were looking up, there was only one problem.
In the early 2010s, Against Me! was tired of major label bureaucracy, tired of touring, and their lead singer was tired of playing “the angry white man in a punk band.” Now, this is hardly unusual, as punk kids grow up and put their lives in a wider context, the freedom of a punk lifestyle starts to feel like its own restriction. The difference for Against Me! lead singer Laura Grace was that she was transgender, and tired of playing any kind of man in any band. The reasonable thing to do here would be brake up the band and move on to a new career in business or computer science or something like that, but you don’t get mainstream play as a punk band without having an excess of balls and a deficit of brains, so Grace tried something that to my knowledge no successful band has ever done in punk rock before: She transitioned while staying in the scene.
The machismo of traditionalist punk can at times make it an unfriendly place for any woman, much less a trans woman who until now had made music explicitly employing hyper-masculine imagery and attracting the kind of audience that connects with these symbols. In 2014, Against Me! released “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” where Grace, like many trans singers, continued singing in her original vocal range while unashamedly singing about her experiences and inner struggle. The album retains every bit of the fighting spirit of their early releases, with a new sense of vigor and direction. Their most recent album from 2017 is even better. I can recommend every album they’ve released without reservation. Whether listening to a 20-year-old punk kid reinvent Axl Rose, or a woman in her 40s fighting an entirely different kind of battle, it’s punk at its best: raw, real and ready to burn it all down to make way for something new.
Something I love about the counterculture movement is how far its influence could be felt around the world. Though it’s easy to have a very Eurocentric view when looking back at 1960s and ’70s rock, artists were experimenting with the blues, psychedelia and hard rock in every corner of the globe. Some of the most notable movements include Zamrock from Zambia (which you can read more about in DJ Chippypants’ recent blog) and Tropicália in Brazil. Japan also had an incredible psychedelic rock scene, featuring bands like The Mops and Flower Travelin’ Band. But one of the most iconic cult bands to emerge from the Japanese acid rock stages were Speed, Glue & Shinki.
Led by Shinki Chen on guitar, the trio only released two albums before they went their separate ways in 1972. Before their breakup, Shinki put out a fantastic self-titled solo album. Only being 21 at the time, his guitar skills gained him comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, and with good reason. “Shinki Chen” (also known as “Shinki Chen & His Friends”) is a revolutionary album. Though only seven songs long, each one is rich with fuzzy riffs and heavy basslines. Shinki’s powerful, raspy vocals flow across the entire record like smooth butter. After starting off with glittering, ambient strangeness in “The Dark Sea Dream,” Shinki quickly shifts between Sabbath-like force and sludgy blues throughout the album. It’s a great balance between the dreamy feeling of psychedelia and the intensity of old-school metal.
Oh, how I wish it were longer! The only downside to Shinki Chen’s solo work is that it was so short-lived, but I guess that’s part of what makes him such a special artist. Give him a listen!