Album Reviews – Fiona Apple, TOPS, Organ Eyes and more
Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters (New York City)
With the turbulent life Fiona Apple has seen, it's no wonder her music is so unique, though this kind of vision has meant it's been about eight years since a studio record. But if that's what it takes for a concept album this wild and tight, I'd gladly wait another ten to hear such a stirring record again. After a slow-burn intro of unruly arrangements, "Shameika" rolls in like a jittery storm, with rolling pianos and every instrument, including Apple's voice, diving between melody, rhythm and harmony like at 12-jazz ensemble trying to play pop. Calling back to some singing rounds like "Hot Knife" from her last record, "Under the Table" plays with loose beats and swaying vocal harmonies to create a song that is both experimental and close to a traditional at the same time. Ultimate it's this constant sense of chaos but inherent catchiness that makes this record so satisfying to hear. Even the deceptive simplicity of "Ladies" opens the door for Apple to let out her attitude in so many fun ways, while her storytelling just completely goes off the rails too. Despite the subversive switch in tone on "Drumset" you fall in with it like every other track here, as Apple's sense of soul to each song remains as a solid through-line and one that drives the pounding sound to a higher place. The whole record sounds like eight years of ideas colliding in perfect harmony, and it feels like it will be one we'll be dissecting for a while.
Organ Eyes — Spirits on Acid (Ottawa)
With a strange and unnerving density to their production, Organ Eyes drop you into a foreign world of synthetic danger. This is immediately apparent in the menacing grooves of "The Quicksand" as you're pushed back and forth between the fuzzy drums and ghost-like vocals. There's a more metal-riff-driven approach on "New Jack" as a grimy electronic energy pushes out of the haze for a fiery listen. The creepy disjointed vocals floating around on "Stay Gone" further these dark vibes, though the track plays out as a more theme-like entry compared to the pop of the record. An experimental bit of drum-and-bass lets "Shatter" feel like its own unhinged mix of Death Grips and something just pop-focused enough to grab your attention.
Pokey LaFarge — Rock Bottom Rhapsody (St. Louis, MO)
Pokey LaFarge was able to inject a charm back into vintage music that felt like lost records that still worked today, but one always wondered when he'd turn a corner. With a sonic luster of a clever production and some subtle arrangements to really enhance the feeling of his songs, LaFarge has taken his next big step as an artist. Wondrous strings subside and the claps of "End of My Rope" drive it out with a strange hope and darkness that blend in ways Pokey usually strays from. With the piano and a slamming beat bringing out a sass in the simple sway of a song "F*** Me Up" instantly lures you and blows out every potential novelty of LaFarge's sound for a church-like experience in song writing. And LaFarge really plays with the mic on this record with a reckless abandon that's fun to hear. The light touches to the aesthetics of the record makes the romanticism of "Lucky Sometimes" feel completely new, and sound like a "Toy Story" theme we never got. And with the jagged delivery of "Fallen Angel" it seems like LaFarge is excited to push the envelope more in the future to create weirdly era-less classics that feel of a time but are far too dark to be oldies.
Margaret Maria — Flights of Angels (Ottawa)
The layering of strings on Margaret Maria's latest effort is a magic in itself, and it's not often in ways you'd expect. Right from the outset of "Snow Angels" is this abrasive and unusual disconnection in parts that comes together only for a moment before punching in with a furious sense of tension. Even the less low-end-filled sounds of "An Angel For Mama" can feel like they're drawing from a horror score as often as a drama. It's interesting by contrast what the more traditional sounds of "Breathtaking Light" sound like in Maria's hands, as they boom and swell with overwhelming levels of heart. And in this way the more chaotic flow of "Be Love" sees all these elements playing off each other for a soothing but never quite peaceful song.
TOPS — I Feel Alive (Montreal)
The glistening psych tones and pop of TOPS have been effortlessly fun to hear for ages, but each record makes that feel more and more like a classic we forgot about. As they slowly drift into a Fleetwood Mac level of pop-rock perfection, the band lays out harmonies and glossy music you'll blast on repeat. This sunny tones of "I Feel Alive" are dangerously infectious, as the band manages to layer in so much sadness and euphoria in a single moment, while the harmonies build to accent every inch of this feeling. You can feel like you're within an '80s music video with the smoky notes of "Colder & Closer" ringing out, but TOPS lean into that feeling to create a airy and groove-powered bop that uses the sounds of that era to make you want to dance. The vocal play is so wavering all over "Witching Hour" it's hard to tell where vocalists are modulating themselves or switching out (if there even is another vocalist on this track for that matter), and it's the rising frustration in its bones that really makes all these changes feel like part of an exploration of the self. Short and sweet, "Looking to Remember" takes dozens of hooks into one place and sees TOPS at their apex as pop song writers throwing hooks at your ears that never miss.