Loretta Lynn, country music icon, has died at 90

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Jewly Hight, NPR Music Contributor

Loretta Lynn, the country music icon who brought unparalleled candor about the domestic realities of working-class women to country songwriting — and taught those who came after her to speak their minds, too – died today at her home in Tennessee. She was 90 years old.

“Our precious mom, Loretta Lynn, passed away peacefully this morning, in her sleep at home at her beloved ranch in Hurricane Mills,” her family said in a statement.

“The story of Loretta Lynn’s life is unlike any other, yet she drew from that story a body of work that resonates with people who might never fully understand her bleak and remote childhood, her hardscrabble early days, or her adventures as a famous and beloved celebrity,” Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a statement. “In a music business that is often concerned with aspiration and fantasy, Loretta insisted on sharing her own brash and brave truth.”

Born Loretta Webb, the singer was raised in a remote coal mining community in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. One of the biggest songs of her career, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” proudly recounted her background.

Lynn was barely a teenager when she started a family of her own with a 21-year-old former soldier, Oliver Lynn, better known as “Mooney” or “Doolittle.” They wasted no time having the first four of their six children, and migrated to Washington state. It was there that her husband heard her bedtime lullabies and pushed her to start performing publicly.

In a 2010 interview with Fresh Air, she insisted she wouldn’t have done it otherwise: “I wouldn’t get out in front of people. I was really bashful, and I would have never sang in front of anybody.”

Once her husband started scrounging up paying gigs for her, Lynn taught herself to write songs, says country music historian and journalist Robert Oermann: “She got a copy of Country Song Roundup” — a magazine that printed country lyrics and stories about the musicians. “She would read the country lyrics in the magazine, and she’d go, ‘Well that’s nothing. I can do that.’ And she could, and had been.”

Lynn and her husband drove around to radio stations, where she would introduce herself to the DJs and try to charm them into spinning her record. These efforts had begun to get Lynn noticed when the couple landed in Nashville in 1960. Artists like Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline — who became Lynn’s mentor — were having a lot of success with a lush, pop-sweetened production style known as the Nashville Sound. Lynn worked with Cline’s producer, Owen Bradley, but hung onto her unsoftened twang.

Country songs had often portrayed hardship from male perspectives, but Lynn wasn’t afraid to spell out the indignities endured in her marriage or the double standards she saw other women facing when it came to divorce, pregnancy and birth control. She found that Nashville wasn’t accustomed to that kind of frankness.

Loretta Lynn smiles while holding a microphone on stage in California in 1972.
Getty Images Loretta Lynn performs on stage in California in 1972. (Photo courtesy: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Fellow eastern Kentucky songwriter Angaleena Presley was raised on her mother’s Loretta Lynn records, and recognizes what they must have meant to women of earlier generations.

“I’m positive that there probably were many, many women in that time, especially in the country, who thought, ‘I’m not really allowed to say anything if my husband wants to drink. He works all day. He deserves to drink at night and come home and do what he wants. And I’ll clean the house and raise the kids,'” Presley said. “And [Lynn] said, ‘Nope. It’s not OK, and it’s OK for you to say it’s not OK.'”

Presley said Lynn’s perspective “contributed a lot to the feminist movement,” especially in rural parts of the country. “I feel like she was the voice,” Presley added, “even if she never spoke out actively as a feminist, her songs certainly did.”

No less than 51 of those songs became top 10 country hits on the Billboard charts. In 1972, Lynn was the first woman named Entertainer of the Year by the Country Music Association. She would later be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, in 1988, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008. She was also recognized with Kennedy Center Honors in 2003 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.

Though their relationship was complicated, Lynn and Doolittle remained married up until his death in 1996. (Lynn also made sure fans knew that her long-lasting musical partnership with Conway Twitty was all business.) Lynn continued performing and recording into the new millennium, attracting younger audiences through her collaboration with Jack White.

But it was essential to Lynn’s enduring appeal that she never lost touch with her identity as a simultaneously modern and down-to-earth country woman who could communicate that to crowds throughout her career.

“This idea that I might be up here on stage singing this song, but I’m not better than you. I am you,” journalist Oermann said. “That’s kind of the message. That kind of humility is a really powerful and good thing.”

That approach always informed her songwriting; Lynn’s gutsiness comes through just as clearly today in the music she left behind.

“I like real life, because that’s what we’re doing today,” Lynn told All Things Considered in 2004. “And I think that’s why people bought my records, because they’re living in this world. And so am I. So I see what’s going on, and I grab it.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Jessie Reyez plays with emotion (and a PBR can) at ‘El Tiny’

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From Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, Tiny Desk is celebrating Latinx Heritage Month with an “El Tiny” takeover, featuring Jessie Reyez, Susana Baca and more musicians from all corners of Latinidad.

Anamaria Artemisa Sayre, NPR Host, Alt-Latino

Beer cans and hair brushes may not be typical percussive tools, but typical is as irrelevant as tradition is amorphous when you’re an immigrant-raised, Colombian-Canadian kid whose music is as much about navigating life on your terms as it is about holding your head up in the rip current of love.

Jessie Reyez’s legendary layers — vocal dynamism, cross-genre playfulness, unapologetic realness — were on full display at her El Tiny concert. Complete with strings, horns and musical direction from Tiny Desk alum Matthew Burnett (whose credits also include Daniel Caesar’s Tiny Desk), Reyez deftly danced between tracks with the assuredness of a true reina harnessing her vulnerability on stage.

Reyez opens the performance with “MOOD,” the starting track of her newly released second album, Yessie. Here, she uses her room-altering belting prowess to rearrange the chorus, relegating the recorded melody to the background vocals and positioning her sample of the timeless track “Los Caminos de la Vida” at center stage.

Transitioning to a mash-up of “MUTUAL FRIEND” and “FIGURES,” she delivers a heart-shifting, string-driven performance of the two. Then, she seamlessly navigates a musician and formation change-up as she glides through the playful “ONLY ONE” and heartfelt mash-up of “FOREVER” and “IMPORTED.” Circling back to the second half of “MOOD,” she easily slides into a more upbeat, cumbia-infused rendition of the soulful track.

Picking up her makeshift güiro — a PBR can — she melds joy in dance and pain in song with the kind of effortless and expert execution of a woman who intimately knows in-betweenness and, better yet, understands how to bask in the beauty of its nuance.

Set list

  • “MOOD” (Pt. 1) 
  • “MUTUAL FRIEND” / “FIGURES”
  • “ONLY ONE”
  • “FOREVER” / “IMPORTED”
  • “MOOD” (Pt. 2)

Musicians

  • Jessie Reyez: vocal
  • Heather Crawford: guitar
  • Santino DeVilla: drums
  • Mark James: keyboards
  • Simon Siala: bass
  • Olivia Ivory Jean Walker: vocals
  • Danielle Deimler: vocals
  • Refilwe Tshepiso Morake: vocals
  • Sherri Zhang: violin
  • Ashley Parham: violin
  • Jerome Gordon: viola
  • Joelle Arnhold: viola
  • Johnny Walker: cello
  • Omar Martinez-Sandoval: bass
  • Andrew Velez: trumpet
  • Dylan Vessel: trumpet

Tiny Desk team

  • Producer: Anamaria Sayre
  • Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin 
  • Director: Kara Frame
  • Editor: Joshua Bryant 
  • Series Creator: Bob Boilen 
  • Series Producer: Bobby Carter 
  • Videographers: Kara Frame, Michael Zamora, Joshua Bryant, Maia Stern, Alanté Serene
  • Audio Assistant: Neil Tevault
  • Production Assistant: Jill Britton
  • Tiny Desk Team: Suraya Mohamed, Marissa Lorusso, Hazel Cills, Ashley Pointer
  • VP, Visuals and Music: Keith Jenkins
  • Senior VP, Programming: Anya Grundmann
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Cool It Down’ is an exhilarating yet unhurried return

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— Stacey Anderson, NPR Contributor

The audacity, to be an artist who waits nearly a decade to release a project — to sit out the conversation that long. The news cycles that whirr by, the social feeds left to rot on the vine. The refusal to chase the currency of constant, insistent relevance. It’s jarring nowadays.

And when that artist is, say, a beloved rock band that’s demonstrated near-pathological urgencies — to wail the most stirring choruses, to plumb the deepest melancholies and the raciest elations, to spray beer in your face and leave you begging — it’s an even louder vacuum. But when you’ve built up faith in an artist’s vitality, when you believe they’ve spent a silence curating rather than idling, it can feel gratifying to follow their lead.

That’s an even rarer trust a creator can inspire; we don’t see it often. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy comes to mind — three films that each waited nine years between release, dropping in on its loquacious heroes Celine and Jesse at pivotal moments in their romance, their conversations always shooting out sparks.

In the third installment, Before Midnight, Celine marvels at how strange it is to have a conversation with Jesse “about something else than scheduling, food, work,” as they amble through impossibly photogenic Greek ruins. But, given our investment in them already, we’re certain these characters (and the creatives behind the camera) haven’t spent the past years entirely mired in domestic tedium; their sharp minds have been deliberating, stirring, building toward this substantial dialogue. And though we may have been eager to reunite with them, really, we wouldn’t have wanted to eavesdrop on them any sooner.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs waited nine years, too, before releasing its fifth album, Cool It Down. And though each member of the trio stayed busy with various consuming projects — from bedroom-pop LPs to avant-garde jazz labels to children — this sabbatical clearly compiled a pressure they’re now releasing, thoughtfully and after much personal scrutiny.

Brian Chase, Karen O and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs pose in suits in front of a concrete wall.
The first new record from Yeah Yeah Yeahs in nine years is a product of fearless evolution. (Photo courtesy: Jason Al-Taan/the artist)

Cool It Down is a short, thorny record that confronts environmental ruin and pandemic-era isolation, ending at a vantage of hope that sounds like it took all the intervening time to reach.

To those who miss the microphone-gulping, yelping delirium of the art-punk group’s 2003 debut, Fever to Tell, and its legendary live shows: Though the band can clearly still harness that energy onstage, there are no glitter-smeared bangers here. But to those who’ve been following its fearless evolution — its growing embrace of silky production and meditative stillness, through which the band has grown while so many other early-2000s darlings faltered — this is both an intuitive and exhilarating step forward.

As New York hedonism once coursed through Yeah Yeah Yeahs, now Los Angeles pathos does. It’s where ever-riveting frontwoman Karen O now lives, along with every other person you once tore up Misshapes with. Drummer Brian Chase still lives in New York, and guitarist Nick Zinner splits his time between both cities; their long fealty to ever-sanitizing New York is quietly reassuring, like a diner with peeling linoleum and lukewarm omelets wedged between organic markets.

Los Angeles is also where the band partially recorded the album, shortly after a wildfire season that left skies red and raining ash. “It was apocalyptic,” Karen O told Vulture. “That really seeps into your psyche, especially after a year of total dystopia of the pandemic.”

That angst is explicit on lead ballad “Spitting Off the Edge of the World,” which laments the climate crisis while raising a fist with the young rebels meeting its encroach — the kids hocking into the void, middle fingers raised to the collapse they’ve inherited — in great, filmic swaths of synths and ominous percussion.

Karen O’s full-bodied wail braids with Perfume Genius’s shivering keen (his delivery of “she’s melting houses of gold” is particularly agonizing), and together they build slowly through this pain, ultimately embracing an aura of heels-down defiance, a faith in the path of resistance. What makes someone renewed for a long fight ahead, after years of despair? Perhaps more concentrated time with loved ones; perhaps institutions finally seeming to bow to public uproar. Or perhaps just enduring the natural timeline of grief, impassive to our desires that it hasten.

Cool It Down revels in constant synths and the patient noir soundscapes they conjure. On “Lovebomb,” producer Dave Sitek stacks them in pensive, rising hues, evoking palm trees slowly catching sunlight after warm navy nights; Karen O’s cratering gasps quickly settle into a sort of half-spoken intone, adding an ominous breeze.

Songs are remarkably unhurried and nonchalant, willing to mutate in a way the band hasn’t explored before: On “Wolf,” around lyrics that can dip hard into Duran Duran (not as hard as they once leaned on LL Cool J, but not far off), the keys start acerbic and squiggly a la M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, glacially blooming into a densely orchestrated New Wave sprawl primed to soundtrack a Hollywood car chase. If Keanu Reeves makes a wrong turn and the scene runs long, they can tack on the sinister piano opus “Burning,” the album’s spiritual sequel to “Sacrilege,” the bombastic centerpiece of 2013’s Mosquito.

Karen O broke through the testosterone of early-2000s New York with her ecstatic howl, which was every bit a show as her nervy stage antics, spiking dangerously against Zinner’s waspish riffs and Chase’s swingy cadences. It’s even more remarkable now to think of how fearless Karen O was then, as an Asian American woman in a music scene utterly devoid of them, in an era where Pinkerton was still scripture for neckbeards appraising our humanity.

Her impact cannot be overstated, and it’s delightful to watch her return, queenly, to a rock scene now filled with diverse young artists she helped kick open doors for. But her covert weapon has always been her singsong vocals; when she veers into nursery-rhyme delivery, it’s an instrument all its own, impish yet sincere.

It gets plenty of airtime on Cool It Down, starting with “Fleez,” the most boisterous dance track of the bunch; she lilts in cheery, familiar falsetto over crunchy bass and a chirpy electropop refrain that pirouettes inside a strange, leisurely pressure — never really resolving melodically, refusing to explode into the kind of big, cathartic chorus Yeah Yeah Yeahs could offer in its sleep. It feels like a path the group wouldn’t have considered previously. Why would they, with hooks like “Heads Will Roll” and “Y Control” in their back pockets? And as a result, it’s oddly transfixing.

Karen O’s equally playful on “Different Today,” the record’s dual emotional apex alongside “Spitting” and the symmetrical balance to that single’s furious valor; she revels in the grace of connection, the harmonies to hear in the world still rotating around her.

As she chants delicately, “I feel different today, different today / Different today ’bout you,” atop Zinner and Chase’s synth-pop pulse that is practically belching sequins, her peace is seductive; it feels hard-won, the kind you can’t reach without having, inexplicably, survived something that should have consumed you. Or so I hope? All I know is, walking in East Village the other day, I passed a tequila bar I frequented a dozen years ago, when they played the band’s “Zero” incessantly and I once nearly shattered the floor-length windows face-first at 3 a.m. Now, catching sight of my jutting, pregnant belly in its indifferent panes, it seemed miraculous we both were still intact.)

Cool It Down closes with “Mars,” a gentle little blip of naturalistic poetry, partially plucked from a conversation Karen O shared with her son. What does the sunset look like, she asks him? “‘Mars,’ he replied / With a glint in his eye.” Clearly, he’s inherited his mom’s romantic brio; the arriving darkness could be frightening to the child, but instead, he sees the potential of a new world.

May we all find such a farsighted gaze to carry us forward — through the next weeks, months, or nine years. Some things are clearly worth the wait.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Justin Vernon unlocks tracks and treasures on ‘Song Chest’ premiere

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“Welcome to the Song Chest Radio Hour. Whether it’s early in the morning or it’s the afternoon or it’s late night for you, we’re going to try and spread some joy and love and acceptance through playing some songs you may love or enjoy.”

With that, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon invited all of us to hang out for the first of many sonic variety hours. There were personal stories, poetry, documentary clips and songs pulled from every corner of the music galaxy — bluegrass and Americana, New Orleans jazz, rap, classic rock, electronic and more.

“We want to share a lot of music on this show,” Vernon explained. “Some stuff you might have heard before, some stuff you definitely haven’t and some stuff that isn’t readily available, and try to put the picture together of how we ended up where we are.”

You can replay the premiere and check out the episode’s playlist below, then get ready for a new one available this Sunday. Listen live at 5 p.m. CT by tuning to 88Nine in the Milwaukee area or streaming on our website and the mobile app.


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Episode 1 playlist

  • Mazarin, “The New American Apathy”
  • Mahalia Jackson, “These Are They”
  • Clip from documentary on James Booker (Bayou Maharajah), “the greatest piano player that ever lived.” “The epitome of New Orleans music.”
  • Harry Connick Jr. broke down what made Booker so great, NFL analyst style.
  • James Booker, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”
  • infinite bisous, “The Past Tense”
  • Phil Cook, “Belong”
  • Curtis Mayfield, “Billy Jack”
  • Mobb Deep, “Shook Ones (Part II)”
  • Gerry Rafferty, “Right Down the Line”
  • Alvvays, “Archie, Marry Me” (orig. by Flyte)
  • Womack & Womack, “MPB (Missin’ Persons Bureau) (Frankie Knuckles Paradise Ballroom Remix)”
  • Franz Wright, Selections from “One Heart”
  • John Martyn, “Small Hours”
88Nine Radio Milwaukee

Alex G makes his uneasy confessions on ‘God Save the Animals’

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Hazel Cills, Editor, NPR Music

With over a decade of released music behind him, Alex G has long taken a playfully distorted approach to songwriting, like he’s filtering his music through a funhouse mirror.

The 29-year-old artist often addresses or morphs into fictional characters: insecure teenage girls and children with names like Sarah, Alina, Sandy. Flashes of storybook innocence, and tales of guarded treehouses and stolen lunch boxes mingle alongside those of darker, adult self-destruction in his music.

He has a disorienting flare for layering, pitch-shifting and vocoding his vocals and those of collaborators into unrecognizable, childlike choruses and different personas, like Peanuts characters on varying levels of helium. On 2019’s “Bad Man,” he sang in an almost comically cartoonish country accent about the “bomb dropping” when he was 22, one strange cowboy emerging from the shadows of Giannascoli’s crowded artistic psyche.

It’s this styling — his character studies that render him an ageless narrator, the vocal contortion that can deliver soft indie rocker one second and screamo punk the next — that has often led critics to dub Giannascoli opaque, unyielding in biography or the meaning of his songs. And while his mutating musical approach, diverse just to the point of discohesion, has been critically acclaimed, it’s also felt at times like a barrier to making a singular artistic statement.

But on his latest album, God Save the Animals, that disjointed style finds a new power, as Giannascoli wields his wide-ranging musical quirks with focused direction.

A record wholefully concerned with morality, God Save the Animals careens between right and wrong, beauty and noise, with a religious devotion and a clarity aided by a new approach to engineering. It’s the work of an artist in the thrust of artistic and professional maturity, recreating in its varied sound the unease of someone trying to find and walk life’s right path — if such a path exists.

“People come and people go away,” Giannascoli sings on the album’s opener “After All,” his voice, intertwined with the artist Jessica Lea Mayfield’s, pitched into an angelic warble. “Yeah but God with me he stayed.” A current of religious references run through most of the songs on God Save the Animals, sometimes to the point where it feels like a record dotted with Alex G-penned worship songs.

“God is my designer, Jesus is my lawyer,” he sings through an electronic vocal effect on “S.D.O.S.” On the simple country song “Miracles” he sings, wistful, of possessing “better pills than ecstasy, they’re miracles and crosses.” He circles around themes of judgment and forgiveness, of seeking righteousness.

By the time you get to the album’s end, in which Giannascoli sings, “Forgive yesterday, I choose today,” over banjo and guitar with a vocal so forceful it sounds almost like he’s near weeping in parts, it’s clear the pious tones of God Save the Animals aren’t just a gimmick (the grungy, goofball shtick of the “Blessing” video notwithstanding).

A man of many voices

Frequently on God Save the Animals, he makes the tormented weight of his thoughts literal in the structure of the music, using different or manipulated vocals to emphasize in the margins of his music what the song’s narrator avoids singing in the song’s lead voice, like he’s speaking in a confessional booth of his own making.

“I have done a couple bad things,” he repeats on “Runner,” his voice warping in contrast to the steady curve of the rest of the song, before he explodes in a scream. On “Mission,” his shaken, yelling back-up vocal complicates the song’s stoic chorus about being “trained to stick to the mission,” so distant from the rest of the music it sounds like it’s booming from some crawl space out of the microphone’s reach.

He sings phrases that should be a comfort — needlepoint pillow-worthy fragments addressing life’s ease and its bountiful blessings — with the dark, hoarse whisper of a man unable to truly convince himself of such things. Even pairing the gothic horror of “Blessing” and the folksy “Early Morning Waiting” back to back feels designed to play with the listener’s assumptions, the shift in the tracklist like someone thrusting open the blackout curtains of a darkened room to let sunshine in and startle awake whatever tortured thing resides in there.

But for all of these quirks, God Save the Animals also feels like the clearest we’ve ever heard Alex G. In the process of making the record, Giannascoli, who has long preferred to write and record at home, enlisted a half-dozen engineers to give him the “best” recording quality for the album. And you can hear a stark clarity in a lot of the songs on God Save the Animals: the elegance of “Early Morning Waiting,” with its swooning string section, or the crisp tones of “Runner.”

Not an especially strong singer, Giannascoli’s vocals are often multi-tracked and layered — a move that has invited countless Elliott Smith comparisons — but he keeps his vocals surprisingly bare here on many songs. Gone is the Yosemite Sam of “Bad Man,” and in his place is whoever we hear on “Miracles,” singing of “beautiful sunsets on lost and lonely days” over sweet country.

The music often sounds as serious and naked as the heavy themes Giannascoli mines, even if not presented as straightforwardly confessional. Though a number of lyrics here that directly address the futility of songwriting and stories — “Hey, look in the mirror, ain’t gonna right your wrong with a stupid love song,” Giannascoli’s own girlfriend, the violinist Molly Germer, sings in the background on “Mission” — tempt a closer read.

Moving ahead

That seemingly small change in technique, and the professionalized sound it produces, is an important step forward given where Giannascoli has come from.

His early records were born from a moment in the 2010s when the bedroom had become an essential incubator to a new wave of indie rock, a space that lent his music an insular, lo-fi charm. But as he’s journeyed from teenaged Bandcamp oddity to a fixture on Domino Records with streaming numbers in the tens of millions and collaborations with Frank Ocean, he’s gradually let more people into the process.

Beginning with 2014’s DSU, Giannascoli began having his music professionally mastered, despite his nervous reluctance, each new release sharpening his impulses without paring down his eccentricities. But the high-concept styling of God Saves the Animals pushes the intensity and maturity of what Alex G’s music can sound like even more.

It’s fitting — for an album about parsing the intricacies of figuring out how to be a good person and make correct choices, of opening oneself up to judgment from all angles — that the production would be literally more illuminating as well, matching the shifting, multi-voiced perspectives of the album with a fine-tuned studio approach that’s similarly diverse.

The beauty of God Saves the Animals lies in its trippy combinations of high contrast — the way a song like “No Bitterness” can begin with the delicate strum of an acoustic guitar, but build by its end into hyperpop noise. Or how a lyric or sentiment sung with conviction one second can spiral out the next with the edited twist of a vocal, as if overcome with a sudden wave of shame and self-doubt.

All of it emboldens the album’s undulating tensions — those that are “half of love, half of death,” as Giannascoli sings on “Early Morning Waiting.” Within its 13 tracks, God Saves the Animals takes every little magic trick in Alex G’s discography and focuses them, for an album that bottles the sound of the self teetering on the edge of sin and absolution.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Musicians are back on the road, but every day is a gamble

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Nastia Voynovskaya, KQED

Last year was a career-defining one for Tia Cabral, the experimental singer-songwriter known as Spellling. With her 2021 album The Turning Wheel, she evolved from bedroom artist to maximalist composer, enlisting over two dozen instrumentalists to execute her surreal vision.

It caught on: The album got rave reviews, and by the end of the year, new fans from across the world had begun asking when they would see her in concert. Cabral had hesitations about pandemic-era touring. The infection rates for COVID-19 had returned with a force after receding that summer, and she knew that indoor gatherings of strangers are the exact setting where risk of exposure to the virus multiplies.

But she also sensed a moment of hard-won opportunity that would not last forever. “It was too hard to turn it down [because of] my eagerness to share the music that I spent so long writing,” the Oakland artist said. “I’m like, I just want to do it.”

She booked a short European trip for May and June 2022 consisting of outdoor festival gigs, which she figured would be safer than playing clubs. Things went well at first: Cabral and her band kept interactions outside their bubble to a minimum, wore masks as much as possible and agreed to test for COVID immediately if anyone felt unwell.

But the mood changed in early June, when they arrived in Barcelona for the sprawling Primavera Sound festival. “It’s called Primavera in the City — it’s literally all over the city. There are so many people everywhere you go,” Cabral said. “So it became really hard to avoid, and stick to our regimen.”

Finally, at a stop in Portugal, a bandmate tested positive. Cabral made the tough call to cancel her remaining shows and paid for her collaborator’s quarantine in a hotel. “It just isn’t right to move forward into the unknown and into this risk for ourselves and other people,” she said.

An illustration shows the musical artist Spelling surrounded by receipts, maps and travel tickets.
Spelling is just one artist to have their tour disrupted by COVID-19. (Illustration by Jackie Lay/Photo by Sharon Lopez/NPR/Courtesy of the artist)

Obstacles like the ones Cabral encountered are now features of life on the road. COVID rates in the U.S. stayed relatively high this spring and summer, and have only recently begun to dip (though the official stats don’t account for unreported home tests).

But beyond the numbers, many musicians have found a set of complex and wearying tradeoffs await them on tour lately. The maze-like logistics of COVID safety are theirs to navigate, with little support from governments or their industry. Mask mandates and similar risk-reduction policies have evaporated. And audiences, perhaps starved for social connection and a sense of normalcy, have largely reverted to pre-pandemic behavior.

For those operating below the very highest levels of success and infrastructure, the increased health and financial risks of mounting live music — and the burden of trying to avoid them — tend to fall hardest on the individual performers.

“We’re not health officials or experts,” said Panache Booking‘s Michelle Cable, who manages Spellling, Ty Segall, Mac DeMarco and others, and books tours for artists such as Bikini Kill and Ezra Furman. “It’s added a whole other extra layer of complication and stress to touring, which is already stressful without what’s happened in the last two to three years.”

Complications and repercussions

Brijean Murphy is one half of the Los Angeles disco-house duo Brijean and a touring percussionist with the bands Poolside and Toro y Moi. Prior to the pandemic, Murphy toured six months out of the year and was well-acquainted with the job’s common headaches: the busy travel schedules, cramped conditions and missed sleep, often without a huge financial payoff at the end.

But lately, even the more mundane parts of road life — like flying on planes, where masks are no longer required — now come with “financial, personal and spiritual repercussions,” she said

This year, the bands Murphy works with have avoided going on long runs like they used to; she’s played a few Brijean shows and some one-offs with Poolside. Despite masking and regular testing, she came down with COVID-19 in May after a string of European concerts and had to quarantine on the East Coast.

As if it weren’t enough to be sick, alone and burning money while stranded far from home, healing time from COVID can be unpredictable — the CDC estimates that nearly one in five U.S. adults experiences symptoms lasting more than three months — which can delay a musician’s return to the stage well after they’ve ceased to be contagious.

“There are just so many moving parts,” Brijean said, describing her stress. “And I think on top of everybody being worked so hard, your dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to.”

Brijean Murphy and Doug Stuart of the band Brijean stand against a neutral-colored wall.
Brijean Murphy with her bandmate in Brijean, Doug Stuart. (Jack Bool/Courtesy of the artist)

Indeed, inflation hit a 40-year high in June and has come down only slightly, adding more financial pressure as musicians attempt to bounce back from two years without performance income. And as the BA.5 variant spread, show cancellations due to COVID were commonplace throughout the summer.

Bikini Kill called off nearly two dozen shows when several members got sick. Blondie, touring in support of a career-spanning box set, canceled or postponed dates in Boston, New York and Connecticut. Rakim canceled his European tour, which was supposed to take place in August.

“After a month in which we have had several COVID cases in our crew and even more close contacts requiring quarantine, it is our sad consensus that extensive foreign travel (in my case by cruise ship) is neither safe nor logistically possible,” the rap veteran wrote in a statement.

A domino effect of financial losses

So what happens when shows are canceled due to COVID? If they aren’t able to reschedule lost dates, artists are obligated to refund tickets and, if applicable, give venues back their deposits. Cable says musicians who travel with a crew typically have agreements for how to compensate them in the event of cancellations; these vary, but a typical one might require paying everyone half their wages.

Travel may need to be rebooked, and quarantine hotels secured. Any money already spent on promotion is likely non-refundable. Additionally, if a show doesn’t happen, a booking agent like Cable doesn’t collect her commission after putting in as much as three years of work to make a concert happen.

If only to avoid these headaches, many artists take extra pains to keep themselves safe from COVID on the road as much as possible — although Cable says that even among musicians, that vigilance has waned.

When we spoke in June, she shared that it was common for artists to request that venues require proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test at the door, whether or not the local government had a mandate in place. As the summer progressed, she says, fewer clubs made this a regular practice, and performers began to follow suit.

An individual wearing blue medical gloves holds a vial of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Lisa Ferdinando Fewer venues and artists require proof of vaccination for entry. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Some of her artists still ask for signage requesting that showgoers wear masks and may even provide face coverings for audiences. But she says few patrons actually wear them, and those who do often shed them while eating, drinking, dancing or moshing.

Artists with bigger budgets may hire COVID compliance officers to ensure health measures are observed or travel separately from the rest of the touring party to further minimize exposure. These added precautions, of course, all come at a price.

“COVID tests are expensive, masks are expensive, extra hotel rooms are expensive,” Cable said. “When you’re checking at the door, it’s an extra expense of having extra people hired. … That comes out of the show settlement, meaning it ultimately comes out of the band’s payments.”

And there’s another, less obvious cost to these arrangements: Musicians who close off backstage areas and stay away from the merch table miss out on potential networking and connections that could lead to future work.

“A big part of being a freelancer and being in this field, like many fields probably, is that you can meet up with people, have social interactions, connect with people and then follow that connection,” Murphy said, “[whether] it’s working on an album together later or getting hired to go on their tour or collaborate on a different session.”

Independent venues struggle, too

Cultural attitudes toward the virus vary widely from place to place. Even in cases where the artist and venue are in total agreement on enforcing COVID safety, the social and political climate of the surrounding area can create its own hurdles.

In April 2021, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order making it illegal for businesses in his state to ask for proof of vaccination. In response, Tom DeGeorge, owner of the 300-capacity Tampa club Crowbar, got together with venue owners from his state and Texas — where there are similar restrictions — and discovered a legal loophole that enables them to request negative PCR tests from customers.

“We had to be very careful with the wording because if we screwed up, it was a $5,000 fine per infraction. So it was a risk in and of itself,” DeGeorge said. “But it did definitely help me get certain artists for shows that wanted a special requirement.” (Still, as cultural tides have turned, DeGeorge says he hasn’t had any artist ask him to check COVID tests since spring.)

In 2020, DeGeorge led a coalition called Safe & Sound, where Tampa music venues banded together to enforce masking and social distancing at their businesses. From about October 2020 to February 2022, DeGeorge said, he and his staff dealt with extensive backlash.

“My place was tagged up. I had my beer garden destroyed. One day I had a woman spit in my face at a concert,” DeGeorge recalled. “I would regularly come in to work and have voicemails on the phone telling me I was a Nazi and they were going to burn my club down. I mean, it was relentless.”

Steven Severin said he’s found the prevailing attitude to be more cautious in Seattle, where he owns the 650-capacity concert hall Neumos. Still, like the musicians they host, venues like his have to prepare for the unpredictable: “People keep pushing tours back or canceling them,” he said. “I can’t imagine being an artist and having to navigate this stuff.”

Although governments and private funders created some grants to help the live music industry at the beginning of the pandemic, most relief funding has dried up, even as professionals across the industry say it still needs institutional support.

DeGeorge and Severin are both members of the National Independent Venue Association, which lobbied for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), through which eligible venues could apply for emergency assistance.

Throughout 2021, the SVOG rollout hit numerous delays, and venue owners took on debt to keep their operations going or simply closed their doors. In June, a national coalition of mayors led by San Francisco’s London Breed and Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot called on Congress to support the arts and culture sector’s recovery, recommending that the U.S. Small Business Administration expand the time allowed for venues to use SVOG funding to cover costs incurred through March 2023.

“It will be at least till the beginning of 2023 before we get back to some type of normal,” Severin said. “That’s what I was saying, like, three months ago. And now I’m starting to worry that that’s going to push out even further.”

Musicians fend for themselves

As much as venues have struggled, there’s no comparable federal relief funding for individual artists, who are the engines driving the live music economy. Many grants from state and local governments and foundations are no longer taking applications. “I think there’s more of this attitude of like, ‘You have to deal with it. You took on this risk,'” Tia Cabral said. “That’s disappointing.”

Tia Cabral performs on stage in Barcelona, standing behind an electronic instrument while lights strobe behind her.
Tia Cabral onstage with Spellling at the 2022 Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona. (Sharon Lopez/Courtesy of the artist)

For now, artists and their teams are left to figure things out on their own.

Brijean Murphy is still pursuing her musical aspirations while also leaning into her second, more pandemic-friendly career as an illustrator and visual artist, a job she can do without stepping foot into a crowd. “I feel like I’m still just watching [the situation] unfold and seeing how people, bands, companies, venues are reacting to this wave that we’re in, this phase of what it is to be in entertainment today,” she said.

Being a live musician in 2022 “can be challenging, can be a grind, can be soul-crushing at times,” Murphy added. But there are also moments of transcendence. “We played in San Diego, and it was this outdoor venue on the beach. It was sunset, and it was sold out, and everyone was having the best time. So I feel like there are a lot of highs and lows still.”

Despite the lows, musicians are finding ways to stay motivated and push forward. Spellling is embarking on a headlining U.S. tour in late September that will take Cabral and her band to 15 venues from North Carolina to Oregon. This time, she knows the liberatory feeling of performing must be tempered with constant risk assessment and caution. But she plans to make the best of the situation by using what would have been social time for introspection and songwriting on the road.

“I just have to accept that there isn’t any cutting loose, and that’s OK,” she said, “and try to turn that into a creative meditation instead of this other picture of tour that is about dancing with strangers, crashing in people’s houses and, you know, sharing drinks and making new friends.”

Copyright 2022 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

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Girl Ultra puts her capabilities and command on display at ‘El Tiny’

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From Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, Tiny Desk is celebrating Latinx Heritage Month with an “El Tiny” takeover, featuring Jessie Reyez, Susana Baca and more musicians from all corners of Latinidad.

Stefanie Fernández, NPR

Girl Ultra’s music is never one thing for long. After coming up in Mexico City’s alt R&B scene, Mariana de Miguel built on that premise with experiments in house, bolero, pop and punk, fused with her own distinct glint. Her El Tiny performance is an effortless flash of all she is capable of and of the commanding performance she’s finessed over her career. Even the onomatopoeic chorus of house track “BOMBAY” translates seamlessly to the desk.

Slowed and acoustic as it is, the El Tiny version of “Punk” captures the frenetic rush of the original, itself an alt transfiguration of Gwen Stefani’s “Bubble Pop Electric” that interpolates its pop chorus and tailors it to the allure of going out in the south side of Mariana de Miguel’s hometown of Mexico City.

“Dime tú que voy a hacer con este feeling,” (“You tell me what I’m going to do with this feeling”) she asks, ostensibly of the person she’s singing about. But it’s also a question that speaks to the mutability of her performance: effusive and commanding, but never lacking a controlled restraint as it evolves. As she sings in “DameLove,” “feelings always come and go.”

She begins her El Tiny performance of that song by playing a few moments of the recorded version. Cuco’s voice and hers float in from the drum machine, warped, as she flutters her fingers in front of her face, cultivating mystery against the familiarity of the setting for a solo rendition of the song that feels even more intimate.

She describes the final song of her set, “Ella Tú y Yo” from 2019’s Nuevos Aires, as “about finding a third one in a relationship – which is pretty common these days.” Here, she reworks the R&B ballad into a simmering indie rock churn, its titular phrase whispered with a soft wince.

Just one album and an EP into her career, Girl Ultra has already commanded change — as necessary and sometimes difficult as it can be — as a driver of expression. Here, it’s thrilling.

Set list

  • “BOMBAY”
  • “Punk”
  • “DameLove”
  • “Ella Tú y Yo”

Musicians

  • Girl Ultra: vocals, guitar
  • Sami Mendoza: drums
  • Andrea Martínez: bass
  • Santiago Mijares: keys

Tiny Desk team

  • Producer: Anamaria Sayre
  • Audio Engineer: Natasha Branch 
  • Audio Mix: Josh Rogosin
  • Director: Kara Frame 
  • Creative Director: Bob Boilen
  • Series Producer: Bobby Carter
  • Editor: Michael Zamora
  • Videographers: Kara Frame, Joshua Bryant, Michael Zamora
  • Audio Assistant: Hannah Copeland
  • Production Assistant: Jill Britton
  • Tiny Desk Team: Suraya Mohamed, Marissa Lorusso, Hazel Cills, Ashley Pointer, Maia Stern
  • VP, Visuals and Music: Keith Jenkins
  • Senior VP, Programming: Anya Grundmann
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Allison Russell supported by Milwaukee’s SistaStrings at the Tiny Desk

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“I am grateful and I am proud for this circle of goddesses,” said Allison Russell during her joyful, rousing Tiny Desk set, reaching toward the six women surrounding her (which included Milwaukee natives Monique and Chauntee Ross, aka SistaStrings).

Russell has cultivated this band’s harmoniousness in the year she’s been touring in support of her astounding, unclassifiable album Outside Child. The LP tells the singer’s life story, from her childhood escaping abuse through an itinerant adolescence and young adulthood anchored, finally, by the love and community she’s found as a feminist and a music-maker.

This group — three string players, two guitarists, a drummer and Russell on her banjo and clarinet — embodies healing community, and its interplay and gospelized group vocals turbo-charged every song.

Russell, who burned a little palo santo wood, and placed portraits of Prince and Joni Mitchell nearby as talismans before performing, began her set by invoking the ancestors with “Quasheba.” She continued with the incantatory “4th Day Prayer,” a spell cast to undo the oppression of childhood trauma. The intense interplay of cellists Larissa Maestro and Monique Ross, and violinist Chauntee Ross undergirded the propulsive arrangement.

The blues-rooted “Nightflyer” followed; drummer Megan Coleman’s green satin angel-wing sleeves shimmered as she marked a beat that guitarists Joy Clark and Mandy Fer intensified. Then came “You’re Not Alone,” a song Russell originally wrote as part of the Americana supergroup Our Native Daughters, just rereleased as a duet with Brandi Carlile. “La musique nous réunit / Une famille,” Russell sang in Québécois French. “A family,” she repeated. That’s what her music makes.

Set list

  • “Quasheba”
  • “4th Day Prayer”
  • “Nightflyer”
  • “You’re Not Alone”

Musicians

  • Allison Russell: lead vocals, banjo, clarinet
  • Monique Ross: cello, vocals
  • Chauntee Ross: violin, vocals
  • Larissa Maestro: cello, vocals
  • Mandy Fer: electric guitar, vocals
  • Joy Clark: acoustic guitar, vocals
  • Megan Coleman: drums

Tiny Desk team

  • Producer/Series Creator: Bob Boilen 
  • Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin 
  • Director: Kara Frame 
  • Series Producer: Bobby Carter 
  • Editor: Joshua Bryant
  • Videographers: Kara Frame, Michael Zamora, Joshua Bryant
  • Audio Assistant: Neil Tevault
  • Production Assistants: Joby Tanseco, Jill Britton
  • Tiny Desk Team: Suraya Mohamed, Marissa Lorusso, Hazel Cills, Ashley Pointer, Maia Stern
  • VP, Visuals and Music: Keith Jenkins
  • Senior VP, Programming: Anya Grundmann
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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On ‘Hold the Girl,’ Rina Sawayama’s stadium sound obscures her signature appeal

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Laura Snapes, Music Editor, The Guardian

Rina Sawayama’s second album, Hold the Girl, is named after a term she learned in therapy. To help the British-Japanese popstar recover from the pains of assimilation, homophobia and sexual trauma that had cheated her out of being her true self since her youth, she would “re-parent” herself, reclaiming what had been lost.

Restoration is also the strategy that underpins her genre-clashing pop. In a recent interview, Sawayama explained that by bringing together “out-of-fashion” styles that no other artists dared touch, she could escape sounding dated and surprise listeners. It’s a funny idea given that music from every era is perpetually available and there’s no knowing what arcane curio or yesteryear hit TikTok might funnel down the pipe next.

That tactic worked strikingly on her 2020 debut, SAWAYAMA, filled with cheekily clever and often genuinely surprising hybrids that pilfered from Y2K pop and nu-metal, finessed by Sawayama’s sharp focus and clear wit. Songs like “STFU!” and “Dynasty” sounded as if Sawayama had written the abrasive, flashy hit to broker a truce between TRL-era foes Christina Aguilera and Fred Durst — albeit with appealingly knowing lyrics about microaggressions and intergenerational trauma.

Released in April 2020, that audacious record was enough to keep Sawayama’s fledgling star high even as the pandemic hampered her real-life progress. She was, as she’s often said, a late-starter in pop terms — 29 before she signed a record deal with Dirty Hit, the artist-friendly pop label home to The 1975, Wolf Alice and Beabadoobee — and raring to catch up.

In 2018, I witnessed an early headline set at a 300-capacity London basement where, just like at those apocryphal early Lady Gaga shows, Sawayama and two dancers performed flawless choreo to essentially a desk fan. She’s always given stadium-worthy performances and is revered as a superstar among extremely online pop fans; she’s collaborated with Elton John, and she was a must-see act at this summer’s festivals.

It all points to an unstoppable upward trajectory, and Hold the Girl scales accordingly. Here she spreads herself even more widely across genre to hoover up musical theater, country, CCM, goth, schlager, two-step and quite whatever it was The Corrs were.

Rina Sawayama at a launch event for new album “Hold the Girl.” (Photo courtesy: the artist’s Facebook)

Sawayama’s choices may be unusual, but her catholic sensibility isn’t really. Two of the year’s best albums have a studious and loving collagist spirit: Both Rosalía’s Motomami and Beyoncé’s Renaissance are full of deep personal and historical references; they’re thrillingly innovative and, most importantly, aggressive amounts of fun.

Pop’s experimental underbelly has long been about reveling in the grotesqueries of so-called bad taste. Just this month, British duo Jockstrap’s debut I Love You Jennifer B made a masterpiece of the form. In this competitively inventive field, Hold the Girl defaults on the mutant glee of SAWAYAMA: It seldom exceeds the sum of its parts and meticulously finishes every seam.

In that sense, it is surprisingly traditional for an artist with a huge online appeal, though parts of it also feel entirely of a piece with the call-and-response of shallow internet engagement: Hey, recognize this?

The riotous “This Hell” is one of the album’s more effective songs, about defying homophobes to readily swig Satan’s Apple Sourz on the path to “eternal damnation.” It has a great line-dancing-worthy chorus you can’t believe nobody’s written before, but it doesn’t stray beyond the brief “Shania meets Gaga.” And Sawayama’s sprinkling of namechecks — Paris Hilton, Britney, Whitney, Lady Di and The Devil Wears Prada — feel like empty pop-cultural gestures.

Where SAWAYAMA had a sleek integrity all of its own, Hold the Girl is rife with these ceaseless, attention-deflecting winks. “Forgiveness” is Frozen‘s “Let It Go” by way of ABBA and Sarah McLachlan. “Hurricanes” is theater-kid “Sk8er Boi.” Many of these songs feel rigid with intention, as if they were envisaged as set pieces for a spectacular live show.

The glitchy, towering “Hold the Girl” has a sentimental outro of gauzy atmospherics, pounding drums and a consecutive one-two of the album’s many, many key changes that invites you to picture a gymnastics duo reducing cold-hearted judges to tears with a moving athletic spectacular. “Holy,” a Eurobanger brazenly influenced by Depeche Mode, makes space for a showstopping drum breakdown.

Despite the last 30 years of mainstream U.S. pop clearly being the biggest influence on the album, there are stiff Americanisms — “I ain’t lo-o-o-ost,” she warbles on “Forgiveness” — that feel like someone else’s lines. It’s also aggressively overproduced. (Stuart Price and Paul Epworth join Sawayama and her regular collaborator Clarence Clarity here.) As with Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You, the extra-ness is, presumably, the point.

The album opens with “Minor Feelings,” a song named after an essay collection by the Korean-American author Cathy Park Hong about how being Asian American taught Hong to suppress what she called “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric and therefore untelegenic.”

As with the opener of Adele’s 30, “Strangers By Nature,” it’s a gently satirical overture: a lavish, fluttering reverie that takes a turn for the sinister as Sawayama reveals the damage of a lifetime of diminishment: “All these minor feelings / Are majorly breaking me down,” she sings, a cruel lick of distortion strafing her operatic delivery and almost turning her lament into a threat.

The gag is that the 12 songs that follow are extremely, outlandishly major. Almost every song proceeds at an exhausting intensity and is pungent with the distinct whiff of dry ice — it’s so much like sitting through Eurovision that you half expect the late U.K. commentator Terry Wogan to pop up between songs with a sly remark about Estonia.

Occasionally, Sawayama lands a sweet spot of intensity and innovation that puts her in the superstar leagues she’s clearly aiming for. “Catch Me in the Air,” an imagined anthem of healing sung between Sawayama’s younger self and her mother, has a soaring, hyper-oxygenated Celtic pop-rock chorus that delivers an exhilarating natural high.

The tweaky “Your Age” transcends its Nine Inch Nails cosplay with a wrenching chorus about reckoning with an imbalance of power in a formative relationship: “Now that I’m your age / I just can’t imagine / Why did you do it / What the hell were you thinking?” Sawayama seethes, her delivery bursting with defiance and anguish.

In another recent interview, Pitchfork critic Vrinda Jagota said to Sawayama: “Growing up in Asian families, there can be a lot of pressure to do things exactly right, which makes it hard to have a growth mindset where you value the process of trying and failing at new things, especially in creative fields.” Sawayama agreed: Undoing the “sense of obligation … that can come from parental pressure” had “let the creative juices flow.” You feel that sense of freedom in these songs, which makes the forced ones jar that much more.

The problem is less that Sawayama is drawing from so-called bad-taste sources than the fact that the disparate parts often feel like flavor profiles that don’t mix. The final song, “To Be Alive,” bridles fist-to-chest triumph to a racing breakbeat, dry, funky guitar, and Sawayama’s processed voice affirming the Insta caption homily: “Flowers still look pretty when they’re dying.”

It is often painfully cloying: “Phantom,” the second explicit song about re-parenting herself after the title track, is swashbuckling, saccharine X Factor balladry. Plenty is awkward but nothing is off. There’s no funk, no acid — the gut-busting earnestness of Hold the Girl sifts the grit from the oyster, too self-conscious for camp delight.

Perhaps the album’s greatest shortfall is how Sawayama’s dogged big-tent sensibility smothers what is obviously a personal record. The relentless scale of her major feelings grinds her nuanced story to a paste — in contrast, think of Charli XCX’s Crash, a self-professed genre exercise in playing the part of major-label popstar in which you still acutely felt the British popstar’s anxieties and pain come through her turbo-charged pop.

At her most specific, Sawayama sings with her whole heart about her radical vision of love as a 32-year-old: her reconciliation with herself, her mother; imagining the same for friends estranged from their families on “Send My Love to John.”

It’s admirably guileless, although fiercely mawkish. If you routinely skipped the SAWAYAMA ballad “Chosen Family,” then bad luck. Otherwise, the lyrics are heavy with concepts from therapy that fit clunkily in pop songs, rote allusions to weather (rain rhymes with pain, skies with eyes) and start-from-the-title songwriting (“Frankenstein”) that deny Sawayama the distinct language she flexed on SAWAYAMA.

For an album that’s about trying to reconnect with a stolen self, what’s surprising is how often you’re left searching for Sawayama in a noisy hall of mirrors that obscures her appeal instead of reflecting it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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British pop music has a fraught relationship with Queen Elizabeth

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Chloe Veltman, Correspondent, Culture Desk

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has elicited empathy from some British pop artists. Elton John, for instance, paid tribute to the queen at a concert last week.

But the relationship between British pop and the late monarch has long been much more fraught.

Until the 1970s, the Queen of England pretty much only made innocuous cameo appearances in British pop songs. The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” is a case in point, with the whimsical lyric, “Penny Lane, there is a fireman with an hourglass/And in his pocket is a portrait of the Queen.”

The sentiments changed after The Sex Pistols released “God Save the Queen” in 1977. The song, which the punk band released in tandem with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, equates the monarchy with a right-wing dictatorship.

“It really is an indictment of the system,” said Paul McEwan, a professor of media and communications at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, where he teaches a class on pop-music history. “By using the title, ‘God Save the Queen,’ obviously you’re invoking the national anthem and making it about more than just her.”

McEwan said a slew of songs that followed in the 1980s — a time of high unemployment and unassailable class divides in the UK — continued to attack the queen for her symbolic status.

“The Queen is Dead” by The Smiths pokes fun at Elizabeth, including a comical scene that references a real-life break-in at Buckingham Palace (“So I broke into the palace with a sponge and a rusty spanner/She said, ‘I know you, and you cannot sing’/I said, ‘That’s nothing, you should hear me play the piano'”). The 1986 track views the monarch as the figurehead of a dissolute empire.

McEwan said this wave of anti-monarchy music, largely driven by white people, subsided in the 1990s as this segment of the population’s economic prospects started to improve. “And so there’s a little less of that deep anger, much as there’s still plenty of poverty in Britain,” he said.

But the financial pressures and racism faced by the country’s many citizens with roots in Britain’s former colonies largely continued to grow.

A new batch of songs targeting the queen have emerged in recent years from the UK’s hip-hop community. These tracks are even more direct than their punk and alt-rock predecessors. Slowthai’s “Nothing Great About Britain” and “England’s Ending” by the band Bob Vylan criticize the monarch’s greed.

The Bob Vylan track begins with a direct, f-bomb-laced order to kill the queen and goes on to explain why: “‘Cause England’s ending, death’s still pending/Where’s that money you spent?/Work all week, still work on weekends/Still can’t pay my rent/Times are tough/I’ve had enough.”

Bob Vylan frontman Bobby Vylan (the other band member, who plays the drums, goes by the name Bob Vylan) said the late monarch still owes a debt to Britain’s Black and brown families.

“She never came to my house personally and took food out of my fridge,” the rapper and songwriter said. “But our families, our community, our ancestors suffered at the hands of this monarchy.”

Vylan said the band plans to perform the song on their upcoming U.S. tour this fall. Now that Elizabeth has died, they’re considering updating the lyrics to talk about King Charles.

Meanwhile, former Smiths frontman Morrissey still apparently espouses anti-royalist sentiments. The cover of his recent solo album, Low in High School, shows a boy holding up a sign that says “Axe The Monarchy.”

But pop-music scholar McEwan noted both Morrissey and John Lydon, the Sex Pistols’ singer (known back then as Johnny Rotten) identify with far-right-wing politics these days. Lydon has been a vocal supporter of former U.S. President Donald Trump. Morrissey has shown allegiance with the far-right political party For Britain.

“It’s an ugly turn,” McEwan said. “I don’t quite know what to make of it, that these two people who had these anti-monarchy songs both became, really unusually for pop music, right-wingers.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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