Written by Travis Shosa
It’s been a quiet year for music writing from me, for a number of reasons: the foremost of which is that I had attempted to place a focus on freelance work this year in an effort to fuel a sort of symbiotic relationship between that and the writing I do here at S/P/P. This has, as you might suspect, not gone according to plan. There are things coming that I’m incredibly excited about simply from the perspective of “wow, I can’t believe this place is going to let me write about that for them.” But these are few and far between and, amid the frustration, I’ve essentially lost track of this place.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to receive the jobs I have, given my relative fresh face in the world of freelance music writing, and given the essentially collapsing state of the field in the year 2023. Even ignoring the near constant staff layoffs, shrunken freelancer budgets, and somehow still increasing competition in a field fueled almost solely on ill-advised passion (I am pointing the finger at me along with so many others here), it doesn’t take Observational Haki to notice the diminishing impact of music journalism. On some level, this is a good thing. Pitchfork no longer has the sway to destroy the career of another Travis Morrison, nor does it have the power to convince the masses that the incredibly bad CEO Trayle album from last year is any good. The role of publications as consumer guides is dead with the bittersweet advent of the streaming subscription: we deal in affirmation or dissent, and, if we’re very lucky, discovery. Usually, it’s smaller sites such as Rosy Overdrive or Various Small Flames that manage to be so lucky on any sort of consistent business. Elsewhere, even at the sites with thoughtful and talented editorial staff and writers with true passion, everybody is talking about the same damn things. And it’s something I find a bit frustrating, even when I generally agree that an album is worthy of discussion.
Still, there is this subtle, persistent pressure to participate in The Discourse. Historically, I just tweet out vibes. Quick, shallow thoughts on what everyone else can’t seem to shut up about one way or another. However, I am pathetically bad at tweeting, and I’m not a real writer unless I actually publish something: whether it be affirmation or dissent, thoughtful critique or petulant rant. So this is what Vibe Checks, this new, borderline pointless column is about: glorified tweet threads, self-published on a website with scores attached, so as to presume some thin illusion of comparative legitimacy. I will say whether the thing everyone thinks is good or bad is good or bad according to my biased standards, perhaps provide a couple of examples as to why I feel this way (if I feel like it), and then onto the next. This is not good criticism: you want a well-written, detailed piece on Rat Saw God, go read Grace’s review for The Alternative or Rob’s review for PopMatters. This is your $9.99, 50-piece McNugget meal of critique: we all know real ones just scroll down to the scores anyways (I’ve put them at the top here as a boy of the people). Shouts to Matty Monroe and the Low-Effort Review for the indirect inspiration, here’s a bunch of dumb fuckin’ thoughts and opinions.
This Is Why – Paramore
Let’s get this one out of the way: new Paramore album is real bad. I’ve never been Paramore super-fan, but up until this point, I feel as though they’d consistently matured. Self-titled was a bit bloated and long-winded for what it was but at turns went into some cool places, and I genuinely really enjoyed After Laughter.
I am a slut for new wave, but if that album were merely pastiche, I’d have been more annoyed than anything. No, they did a great job of modernizing the sound and making it their own, and the juxtaposition between the bright tones and depressive lyrics scratched my brain in just the right way. These lyrics were usually centered around personal stress without much connecting them to specific experiences. This could be seen as a cop-out, but I wish they copped out harder here.
This Is Why is a COVID-era album through and through, positively littered with all the canned phrases, empty platitudes, and self-centered reflections all of your most annoying friends who complain about how all of the suffering that orbits but never touches them makes them feel. This album is every bit as immature as “Misery Business”: it simply cuts a different angle. Wow, the news is so sad: I will make turning off the news into a rallying cry. Damn, I’m experiencing so much ennui as the world crumbles around me: I should go see my chiropractor. I’ve heard “this is why I don’t leave the house” emerge from so many irksome faces these past few years that I’m tempted to carve my ears off and throw them in a furnace. Paramore provides no thoughtful examination on the hellscape in which so many toil: they simply echo and bank on the public’s willingness to relate to the sentiments that have been stolen wholesale from them. And when art uses relatability as crutch instead of a tool, that art sucks.
Technically, most of the songwriting is fine, barring the hook on “C’est Comme Ça,” which is an earworm for all the worst reasons. However, unlike After Laughter, This Is Why‘s composition is pastiche and Paramore more or less lose their identity between all the Bloc Party bits, the Radiohead bits, the Dry Cleaning bits. Even when calling upon the energy of bands such as Talking Heads or the B-52’s, After Laughter was still their own spirit bomb. This is more a ratty, quickly stitched quilt of UK bands past and present: functional but deeply un-cozy.
Was looking forward to this, was massively let down.
10,000 gecs – 100 gecs
Conversely, I was not looking forward to 10,000 gecs and ended up pleasantly surprised. Dylan Brady and Laura Les have been apparently talented since the incarnation of their partnership, but if you ask my out-of-touch ass, they were using their power for evil.
1000 gecs is a fucking brokeNCYDE album: better produced, occasionally funny in small doses, and not without a couple sharp hooks, but mostly just painfully obnoxious. I might be easier on it if didn’t become revered as some revolutionary, zeitgeist-pushing work of genius instead of the viral shitpost it was, but we can’t ignore context, now can we? Fast forward and these two are signed to Atlantic for the big major label debut. Everyone’s anticipating it with bated breath for a long time. They drop a pretty lame EP in Snake Eyes and when this drops, some dig it but are underwhelmed and others declare that hyperpop is dead because 10,000 gecs didn’t push the zeitgeist.
I mean this with my whole bussy: fuck the zeitgeist.
10,000 gecs is good precisely because it debunks the myth that 100 gecs is important, instead just reveling in a bunch of silly ideas: snack zolo, frog ska, and a bunch of fun, purposeless samples that probably cost Atlantic way too much money to clear. It’s not a brokeNCYDE album, it’s a Cheem album: those who get it, get it. Rather than trying to focus a form and evolve it, to meet “cultural expectations,” it follows a “if it feels good, do it” philosophy that plays so much more earnest to my ears. It’s music meant to entertain themselves first, listeners second, and impressing anyone is at the bottom of the priority list. Incidentally, I’m impressed. Brb, gonna spin “Hollywood Baby” for the billionth time.
Like Dying Stars, We’re Reaching Out – Runnner
I wrestle with a severe case of mental disconnect when it comes to Runnner. This is a group that pops up in discussion from time to time, enough so that it’s difficult not to be aware of their existence, at least in this little sphere. They’re now signed to Run for Cover, which isn’t the smallest indie label around. But little about the discussion around Runnner could prepare me for the fact these guys net 900k+ monthly listeners on Spotify.
Those are big boy numbers: well more than three times what Wednesday pulls. I compare them both as indie alt-country acts, despite how wildly different their approaches are, simply because it’s interesting to consider how much more discussion Wednesday seems to generate while “losing” the numbers game. This likely boils down to two things: Runnner is very easy to listen to, and very difficult to have a compelling discussion about.
You know when, at the end of an episode of Scrubs, Zach Braff’s doing his narration over a montage of all the plot thread resolutions and there’s usually some tepid little singer-songwriter tune that limps along underneath? Like Dying Stars, We’re Reaching Out is an album of those tunes: soft, mushy things. This is Scrubs-ass, Garden State-ass, Zach Braff-ass music. If both this album and Damien Rice’s O were high schoolers, O would be shoving this album into lockers.
Hardly anything sticks here, instead opting to pleasantly and inoffensively drift by. A good bit of the lyrical material falls under the category of “vulnerable about not being vulnerable”: among the most unfulfilling of subject matters. The melody on “I Only Sing About Food” draws more attention than most here but the track is ultimately marred by the conscious declaration of how pathologically closed off it is. Runnner acknowledges feelings but doesn’t wanna get into the weeds of emotion: that’s too spooky. There are some pretty arrangements and nifty quirks that’ll pop enthusiasts of intimate recording, but there’s just not much meat on the bones when it comes to the songs themselves.
Like..? – Ice Spice
This is pretty fun! Blah blah industry plant, blah blah psyop, blah blah who gives a shit either way? Heads seem to hate this girl and it’s not as though I’m completely baffled as to why, but hip-hop never needs to adhere to specific set of rules. Ice Spice isn’t really catching on because her bars are hard or her flow is great and that’s fine: it’s the ear for hooks, the beat selection, and how the cadence of her voice and mellow delivery compliment those beats. She’s occupying a pretty fresh niche in drill, “Bikini Bottom” is built around a SpongeBob SquarePants sample, she rhymes “lose” with “chose.” This shit is cute. Take yourself less seriously.
Like..? is short and sweet at just six tracks and there is the sense that if it went on too much longer, fatigue would begin to set in. That said, I’ve got a custom version going that slaps “No Clarity” on the front end and “Boy’s a Liar Pt. 2” on the back and it plays real good. She’ll want to switch up her flow more if she plans to dump the typical overlong rap album on us in the future, but she could also just not do that, keep projects in the sub-30-minute range, and everything will be kino.
So Much (For) Stardust – Fall Out Boy
Not a great album, but a much better one than what could be reasonably expected of post-Mania Fall Out Boy. It’s completely impossible for Stump, Wentz & co. to not be ceaselessly corny at this juncture (or maybe any juncture, if we’re being entirely honest with ourselves), but listening to these middle-aged lads turn back the dial but then press forward in a new direction is endearing. Even as the theater kid bombast threatens to be overbearing, the sheer enthusiasm is infectious. These guys are trying and I appreciate it.
This starts strong with the opening trio of “Love From the Other Side,” “Heartbreak Feels So Good,” and “Hold Me Like a Grudge,” suffers a pretty brutal vibe kill with “Fake Out” and never fully recovers. Despite this, the occasional remnant odor from Mania, and the ridiculous interludes (one of which samples a Reality Bites monologue like what the fuck lol), So Much (For) Stardust is worth giving a shot if you’ve got an appreciation for camp. If not, sprint the other fucking way fast as your legs will carry you. A return to form? Yeah, kinda, sure, why not?
Portals – Melanie Martinez
Bro: this is just Billie Eilish for lolicons.
Melanie Martinez’s hyper-sexualized toddler-core has consistently given horrendous vibes over the past decade, but even when skeptical, I always try to give artists the benefit of the doubt with each new project. There are too many examples of massive growth leaps to dismiss anything out of hand, and hey, this was marketed as something of a reinvention, yeah? Welp, it’s same shit, marginally different aesthetic, and no aesthetic is gonna take the edge off someone attempting to sound like a four-year-old as they sing “Flutter my wings while I pout / Push your penis into your mouth.” Special shout-out to “Nymphology” for being the most cursed five minutes of music I’ve heard all year.
Self-Titled – Liquid Mike
Score: 8 Pollenate Me!
This absolute gem cropped up about a month ago on Wisconsin tape label Kitschy Spirit, and while it took a little bit before the hype to truly build among Thee Online Circle of Very Smart and Talented Writers and Musicians, the hype is now here and well-earned. Found out about this one when a tweet from Keegan Bradford (Camp Trash) popped up in the feed. I played it out of curiosity as I often do when he likes something, and then I played it again, and then I played it again, and then I… you get the picture.
Then Eli Enis wrote this piece digging into just what makes bands like Liquid Mike so precious, namedropping numerous beloved power pop acts for reference (Superdrag, Fountains of Wayne, Joyce Manor, etc.). I 100% subscribe to the idea that one of the best ways to get somebody to try out a relative unknown is to compare them to just a bunch of baller shit, so I am directing you to that write-up. Personally, I’m just gonna make one comparison: Liquid Mike’s Self-Titled is kinda like Sugar ripping through a 100% speedrun.
Liquid Mike comes to you from Michigan and these are explicitly Midwestern jams: you listen to enough of this stuff and “Born 4 Nothing Good” kicks in and you know that is not a fucking California riff (all due respect to the west coast: you got your own thing going on, it’s just not the same as this). Mike Maple even kinda sounds like Bob Mould at the peak of his anthemic power, from the tone to the way he soars his phrasing.
And I say “100% speedrun” because this chunky, buzzing baby whirs by in just about 18 minutes while still managing “completion.” Brevity in power pop has become a trend and, in theory, it sounds pretty good to write pop music with an economical mindset. But nearly everyone, from Tony Molina to our beloved Guided by Voices, can often fall into the trap of undercooking their stuff. And Liquid Mike doesn’t really have this issue. Each of the nine songs that crack a single full minute is deeply satisfying and “Silverado” works beautifully as something of a sketched acoustic epilogue.
One of the best albums of the year so far. It rips, it rocks, it shreds, it fucks, hell yeah. I missed the tape, so Kitschy: if you’re reading this, dupe more you cowards.
Rat Saw God – Wednesday
Score: 8 Pollenate Me!
Rat Saw God is something of a miracle in that, no matter where you look, almost nobody thinks it sucks and almost everybody is getting it right. Sam Sodomsky’s Pitchfork review gets it right, this beautiful essay from Rose Smith for Merry-Go-Round gets it right, Grace Roso and Rob Moura’s respective reviews for The Alternative and PopMatters get it right. Hell, even the RateYourMusic community is mostly getting it right.
And at this point, there’s not much to add beyond another ringing endorsement to the already towering pile. Rat Saw God is the increasingly rare, massively hyped indie rock record that feels undeniable. We maybe got two or three of those all last year, and here’s the first of 2023. Karly Hartzman’s songwriting and sense for tone are as gorgeous as they are scuzzy: her poetry as absurd as it is heartbreaking.
This bottoms out at “what if Big Thief rocked harder and were better hangs?” and tops out with desperate screams of “Finish him!”: a simple Mortal Kombat reference that takes on two meanings, both of which are devastating. Wednesday is for the jokesters, the noiseheads, the racing fans, the cowboys, the overthinkers trying in vain to hammer out the thoughts in their head with a 24-pack of Natty Ice, and the people who are falling apart and powerless as they watch the people around them fall even harder amid a scenery forever stained by unpleasant, embarrassing memories. Maybe Wednesday is for you.
The Record – Boygenius
Boygenius’ The Record is, indeed, a record. Beyond this, it is rather non-descript. But we cannot accuse it of false advertising and this is at least something.
Now, what we can wag our fingers at is how major music press has approached the topic of Boygenius: with a level of mythologization where it’s now seen as foolish to back down and even more so to double down. The Record, like any piece of art ever made by anyone ever, had the potential to be absolutely incredible or painfully awful or any of the many possibilities in-between. With that said, I’ll admit that just like everyone else, I have my own preconceptions going into many of these socially canonized releases.
I went into The Record with the loose baseline expectation that it was going to be alright, but that I would be unlikely to fall in love with it. This is how I feel about most of the material from Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, and Phoebe Bridgers’ respective solo careers (though I have slightly more affinity for Dacus as a lyricist, Baker as a personality, and Bridgers as a musician), and this is how I feel about the supergroup’s 2018 EP. Unfortunately, The Record does not meet this expectation.
The value of The Record has been insisted upon due in large part to the mutual appreciation shared between three prominent LGBTQ+ singer-songwriters. And while I certainly do agree that there is value to the existence of Boygenius, to the members personally—evident by their very charming Over/Under documentary—and culturally, when removed from this context, The Record shows itself to be thinly conceived.
Context is valuable when it is reflected in the art itself, but little about this album truly reflects the bond that has been presented at the forefront of the recent press cycle. Rather, this collection of generally meandering tunes seem less the product of three talented people coming together to enforce each other’s strengths, and more an assortment of solo material from each woman that would’ve otherwise been left on the cutting room floor.
The moments where the three come together in a meaningful way—notably “Not Strong Enough” and “Satanist”—are enough to spark ideas of where Boygenius could go as a project, and these ideas are kinda exciting. But right after “Not Strong Enough,” you get “Revolution O” and “Leonard Cohen,” which play into the worst impulses of Bridgers and Dacus.
I will not explain why “Leonard Cohen once said / “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” / And I am not an old man having an existential crisis / At a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry / But I agree” is a clunky verse that reeks of smug self-satisfaction. But I will point out, as others have, that the Cohen song Dacus (Dacus, the one I think is best at words!) quotes here was released in 1992, years prior to Cohen’s monastery stay. What is cringe is subjective and will always vary from person to person, but like, your timeline is out of wack? We got dates and stuff?
When people were criticizing these lyrics, the fan response from some was along the lines of “well, why aren’t queer women allowed to be funny and clever?” They are! I’m begging for this to be funny! You ever heard of CMAT? She released one of the best albums of last year and she’s hysterical. Why didn’t Rolling Stone talk about CMAT last year? Perhaps this isn’t really about queer representation. Maybe it’s more about anointing connected, marketable faces as benefactors of specific demographics. Maybe a perfect score for Phoebe Bridgers’ supergroup is an early Pride Month Instagram sticker.
I’m starting to go off the rails so I’m calling it here. Power to you if you dig this but I dunno, maybe demand better. On the off-chance you haven’t already, check out this Constantly Hating write-up: far and away the most interesting thing anyone has written on The Record.
Scaring the Hoes – JPEGMAFIA x Danny Brown
Before I get into the reasons why I like Scaring the Hoes, as well as the reasons why I’m not head over heels in love with Scaring the Hoes, I should preface all of this with my belief that Danny Brown is the single best active rapper, and JPEGMAFIA is pretty cool. I value Atrocity Exhibition and XXX as the two best rap albums of the past 15 years, and I’d place even his comparatively more humble releases such as Old and uknowhatimsayin¿ above the vast majority of hip-hop in recent memory. Danny’s a visionary and I will blow smoke up his ass until I’m face down dead.
I like Peggy. Found out about him when Veteran dropped like most did and was initially skeptical, but it grew on me. Cornballs was more immediately enjoyable but my appreciation has faded slightly over time. And LP! ruled: one of the best rap albums of 2021 and I still feel that way in 2023. I appreciate Peggy as a writer, producer, rapper, and as the guy that keeps on dropping wrestling references in his music. He’s great.
I’m just personally a bigger Danny Brown fan, and this is a JPEGMAFIA album more than it is a Danny Brown album.
This isn’t at all surprising and it’s not even really a bad thing. Peggy’s beats go crazy (the mixing debate is probably right on both sides: the style is intentional, usually it’s really cool, sometimes it’s a bit off) and there are dozens of quote-worthy bars. This is an incredibly fun rap record. It just also slightly suffers from what I’m going to refer to as “Run the Jewels syndrome.”
When I think of iconic rap duos, my mind goes to Tribe, OutKast, UGK, Clipse and the like. It never goes to Run the Jewels, because ultimately, I am always going to think of them as El-P and Killer Mike before I think of them as Run the Jewels. And it’s not that they have such poor chemistry that it ruins their cuts, but their approach is to trade bars rather than weave them together. And particularly when one rapper dictates the direction of the sound, there’s just a slight, additional disconnect. Danny Brown never sounds uncomfortable on Scaring the Hoes, but he does sound less comfortable than Peggy.
And just as a Run the Jewels record never quite carries the thematic gravitas of the best of El-P and Killer Mike’s solo stuff, Scaring the Hoes lacks a bit of the weight that propels albums such as Atrocity Exhibition, XXX, and LP! to greatness. It’s a blast of a side project, but it still has side project energy.
This probably sounds a bit harsh for something I’m slapping a 7 on, but it really just comes down to the benefits reaped and concessions made when two very distinct voices collaborate. I’m enamored by the novelty and, for the most part, the results as well. It’s bold and fun, occasionally corny (“fuck Elon Musk” is a “he just like me fr” moment but Peggy knows enough about wrestling to understand what a cheap pop is) but one of the most unique things you’re likely to hear all year. I just don’t ever see myself holding it quite as close to my heart as their best solo work, and that’s ok.
Travis Shosa is the founder and editor-in-chief of Stamens/Pistils/Parties. Formerly the runner of COUNTERZINE, he has bylines at Pitchfork, The Alternative, and Post-Trash among others.