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Review: FKA Twigs, “LP1” (Young Turks)

Tahliah Barnett’s first full-length record nearly falls apart just as it should be settling in for the long run. After an intro and two great songs that fill out Barnett’s previously restrained sound, no less than three additional writers and four producers show up for “Hours,” each one contributing to a bloated, awkward middle that feels out of touch with everything Twigs has ever touched.

The guilty party includes Eminem and Lana Del Rey producer Emile Haynie, Florence and the Machine cohort Dev Hynes, instrumentalist extraordinaire Michael Volpe, aka Clams Casino, and Arca, who was Barnett’s primary co-conspirator for EP2. With a bevy of bakers like that in the kitchen, “Hours” can’t help but sound aimless and over done, languid even. And unfortunately Twigs does little to help out as she lays some of her weakest, most blandly provocative lines over the top: “How would you like if my lips touched yours / and they stayed close baby till the stars fade out / How would you like it if I sucked before I bite? / But it wasn’t too hard so it felt alright.”

Paul Epworth, probably best-known for producing and co-writing “Rolling in the Deep” with Adele, surfaces next, notching a writing and production credit of his own into the liner notes. Unsurprisingly, his contribution gives LP1 a borrowed, polished, and radio-friendly sheen, one that veers disappointingly close to cheap AM soul-funk territory with its over-slick, faux-seedy guitar and keyboard licks.

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Review: FKA Twigs, “EP2”

Ambiguity hangs from every word that comes out of 25 year old Tahliah Barnett’s mouth. She sings about sex, love, craving, deception—and sounds direct enough doing it—but what she leaves out of her songs is just as important as what she keeps in them. Her accomplice, producer and Yeezus collaborator Arca, couldn’t be more sympathetic. He matches her terse, enigmatic professions and weightless melodies with a magic show of slow-motion rhythms and phantom effects, making the best possible use of repetitious forms to emphasize and heighten the drama in her lyrics. EP2 is a pop record, but FKA Twigs and Arca pull it off so spectacularly that it sounds and feels like more.

In interviews, FKA Twigs admits that she likes to work quickly. “I don’t like to labour over things,” she says. “In my experience, the first idea is usually the best one.” That dedication to immediacy is most obvious in her lyrics. On opener “How’s That” Twigs sings a total of about six lines, most of them delivered in fragments: one question, one incomplete thought that could be read sexually or spiritually, and five moaned exclamations, which are repeated incrementally over a voluminous bed of chromatic noise. With every repetition Twigs and Arca add a level of intensity to the sung lines, giving mundane statements like “you know everything” a cathartic insistence and a special emphasis.

That is basically how the duo operates for the entirety of the record. Arca builds a house of mirrors around Twigs’s sparse lyrics, anchors it with a heavy low end, and adds bits of psychedelic color to help play up the uncertainty and immediacy of the written lines. There’s lots of pitch-bending and lurching rhythms, pulses that build pressure and then fizzle out, and awkward movements that stutter and hesitate before finally getting in line. When the strong climaxes do come, they seep into the mix like an injection of molasses. “Papi Pacify” practically explodes during its chorus; strings spasm and double over the top of each other; the wavering melody of the verse turns suddenly confident and dark; the rhythm picks up a thumping persistence, and Twigs’s voice rises to match Arca’s wave of noise.

It all sounds ecstatic, but Barnett avoids the usual love song clichés and digs into the meat of her subjects, pulling out absurdity, contradiction, and bathos for the attentive. She plays on the violent connotations of pacification, leaves the usual inside-outside dichotomy to be read either perversely or transcendentally, and pens a strange encomium to free love, which might also be a condemnation of objectification and prostitution—sexual or otherwise. Her videos, most of which are either directed or co-directed by her, reinforce that multiplicity. In “Papi Pacify” it isn’t clear whether she’s being dominated physically or secretly pulling the strings, and “How’s That” treats the human form like an obstacle to something altogether more fluid.

Nothing is as it seems, which is actually a nice summary of the EP. Twigs and Arca are working with a formula everyone knows. It’s pop music. But the way they handle their material disguises that fact. They know the shape and extent of their art, and rather than playing by the rules or trying to bust it wide open, they’re walking a middle path, finding smart ways to stretch, dye, and warp it. It’s tempting to call EP2 experimental, but it’s clear that FKA Twigs knows exactly what she’s doing.

EP2 is available on Young Turks
Review originally published at Brainwashed.com, with links to the full songs.


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Song of the Day: “How’s That”

FKA_how's_that_largeEP2 might be the only new pop record I’ve given a damn about all year. Released on Young Turks, it is FKA Twigs’s second 12″ and her first collaboration with Yeezus producer Arca. Her debut record, titled EP, was quietly self-released and sold out very quickly, thanks both to word of mouth and four very strong videos posted to Youtube. Digital copies, once available from Bandcamp, have now vanished, hopefully because a physical re-release is imminent. EP2 can currently be downloaded from places like Boomkat, but physical copies are becoming rarer and rarer.

As with EP, FKA Twigs has worked with a team of directors to produce videos for each of EP2‘s four songs, all of which feel as integral to the music as the music itself does. I’ve posted Jesse Kanda’s body-distorting video for “How’s That” below. From there It should be easy to find links to the rest of her videos, including those produced for her first EP (don’t miss “Ache,” it’s awesome).

Also worth checking out is Emilie Friedlander’s feature over at The Fader. Friedlander briefly analyzes Twigs’s treatment of sexuality in her videos and uses it as a foil for the argument between Miley Cyrus and Sinead O’Connor. She rightly emphasizes the ambiguity in Twigs’s work, which I think is big reason her music is so great, and makes a strong case for a middle ground between the two superstar extremes.

Check out all of Twigs’s videos (just be aware that “Hide” contains nudity), get a feel for them, and then read that article. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen written about her. I’d only add that it’s worth paying attention to how she handles movement in her videos, and how that parallels the way she manipulates her lyrics and vocals, especially on “How’s That.”