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Geeked Up: The Art Of Not Screwing The Pooch

Processing hip-hop melancholy, discovering a shoulda-been alt-rock gem, and meeting an heir to Bowie’s ethereal spirit

I’m transmitting (barely) live from a crumb-encrusted, makeshift desk setup somewhere in a virtual swing state jammed with post-Stuxnet deathcode, patriotic internment facilities, weaponized disenfranchisement, mortgage-lending SWAT teams, mosquito militias, cargo-shorts consumer hordes, and virtually no summer songs that don’t feature Drake or one of his cynical minions. So, yes, there is a heightened state of anxiety out here! We’re taking fire from all sides. We can’t see where it’s coming from next. And in the midst of all this chaos, we need music that’s calmly abiding or defiant or unshakably witty or artful. For example: When asked last month about the emotional scrum of touring, Speedy Ortiz frontdemon Sadie Dupuis offered this sly haiku titled “Meeting Kathleen Hanna in Cleveland OMG”:

spilled tea on my dress

of course it’s totally stained

oh well, i still shred

Inspired by Dupuis’s deadpan verse — which was written after Speedy opened for The Julie Ruin in Cleveland the night before the Republican National Convention — the theme for this week’s column is “not screwing the pooch.” That phrase, which originated as blackly comic military slang for not fatally blundering or losing your composure in a stressful situation, was popularized in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book The Right Stuff, about NASA test pilots and astronauts. In the following songs — all of which chronicle the risks and demands of space exploration; KIDDING! — emotions become increasingly pressurized but never break into, say, rage or sorrow. The artist’s performances don’t flinch or break down, they just intensify.

Daniel Wilson, “Wedding Daze” (Zap)

Before he sings, Daniel Wilson’s expression is solemn, his eyes staring at a far-off point or simply downcast. He can seem both fragile and steely, and that impression lingers even as his searing falsetto suddenly pours out like a light that’s been shuttered away for years. It’s a voice that’s hypnotic in an almost blinding way, with a relentlessly implacable force that is always striding forward. On “Wedding Daze,” it gains strength with every verse, and that power is only reinscribed by the song’s halting rhythm and blasts of orchestral brass. You’re caught up in an artful push-pull that casts the lyrics as bracing gasps. Wilson declares, thrillingly: “I’m getting married, mama, it’s the last thing I’ll do!” Whoa, why so confrontational and final? Why does he explicitly refer to making a deal with the Devil? (His upcoming EP is unsubtly titled Sinner of the Week.)

Wilson spent 10 years singing in a gospel choir in Ypsilanti, Michigan, started his solo career in 2013, and released two EPs (Boy Who Cried Thunder and Young Rubbish) that experimented with various electronic-soul backdrops he created on a laptop in his mom’s house. According to family lore, he got the nickname “Little Luther” due to his voice’s similarity, from an early age, to late R&B icon Luther Vandross. With Sinner of the Week and “Wedding Daze,” Wilson’s vocal virtuosity is almost as startling as Vandross’s was on his first hit, 1981’s “Never Too Much.” You hear it when Wilson unfurls a dazzling run — like the part where he trills, “I'm glad, it's funny, all smiles, I'm sunny, it's a wedding daze” as the music falls away. Yet there’s always that steely vulnerability. As the lyric goes, he’s gonna get married, but is he sealing his fate by doing so? The forcefulness of his voice and the fatalistic scenario insinuate countless possibilities. Is Wilson’s partner-to-be a problem, or is it just the whole “getting married” thing? Who’s objecting to his do-or-die betrothal? Is this all Wilson’s attempt to project his own self-definition? The singer put it this way: “The song is about freedom and ... learning to love yourself. Finding people who will love and accept you fully, without condescension.” Whatever the case, Wilson’s untrifling sense of purpose builds nobly, free of theatrics or mad melisma. And with a white face-paint triangle around his left eye, he possibly signifies as more: Could he be an heir to David Bowie, an enigmatic, ethereal outsider reborn as a gospel rock star? Maybe so, but more likely, he’s just the best young singer you’ll hear all year.

Nots, “Entertain Me” (Goner)

A young Memphis band with no doubt at all about what they’re doing, Nots come out swinging — and sneering and squalling. Natalie Hoffman rails against the Trumplandia info-dump of “American news” that buries us in nonstop nonsense, but the band’s most powerfully combative manifesto lies in the seven minutes of partially improvised, exactingly focused racket that constitutes “Entertain Me.” Hoffman slashes and scrapes at her guitar, Alexandra Eastburn stealthily sets off a post-punk/no-wave/psych drone with synth squeals and whorls, and the almost motorik rhythm section never relents. It all sounds like an exceedingly well-planned stampede that’s coming to save you from tedium and apathy.

Noname, “Casket Pretty” (Self-released)

There’s gonna be a lot said about Chicago rapper Noname’s new album Telefone, which is how it should be, since she’s rapturously gifted and the album’s a poetic testimony. For now, though, I’m meditating on this less-than-two-minute immersion into her city’s fog of black death, intoned over a deceptively prim, brightly flowing jazz-funk groove of electric piano, finger snaps, and what sounds like a gurgling infant. A spiritual sister of Digable Planets’s liltingly tough MC Ladybug Mecca, Noname surveys the bodies piling up, her world under siege from abusive cops and economic violence. “I hope you make it home,” she whispers, “I hope to God that my tele don’t ring.” Strings swoop as images flood her mind: badges and pistols rejoicing, teddy bears lying outside, bullets in chests, “babies in suits” crowding funerals. And again and again, the delicately brutal refrain: “All of my niggas is casket pretty / Ain’t no one safe in this happy city.”

Pylon, “Volume” from Pylon Live (Chunklet World Industries)

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: I attended the 1983 show where this was recorded, at the Mad Hatter club in Athens, Georgia. (And no, feckless indie dorks, it’s not the Mad Hatter bar that currently exists in Athens; the joint in question was a fairly large, unhip venue away from downtown that booked a handful of national touring bands, none of which I can remember at the moment, so jog on, I’m old as fuck!) And, oh yeah, Pylon were the most formative group of my feckless young life — especially live — chipping rock songs down to their starkest rhythmic components like producers dissecting lush disco tracks and piecing them back together into hauntingly crisp edits (credit bassist Michael Lachowski as the throbbing core of the band’s aesthetic and dancefloor moxie). “Volume” is Pylon at its ritualistic best, reeling you in with a restless yet stolid 4/4 and Randy Bewley’s melodic Krylon-spray guitar, which is somehow simultaneously dank and sparkling, while singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay transforms language into a series of sophisticated spells, primitive gut punches, and joyous hoots. Godlike.

Warehouse, “Reservoir” (Bayonet)

The main reason, until now, that I’d paid attention to this Atlanta band was Elaine Edenfield’s viscerally growling voice, which sounds eerily like Pylon’s Vanessa Briscoe Hay (whether Edenfield kinda sounds like a quavery Michael Stipe at other times is too freaky to ponder right now). But on the first single from their second album, Super Low, Warehouse untangle and reorder their shambolic, art-punk jangle as guitarists Alex Bailey and Ben Jackson lock into an insistent groove and resist wandering off. Edenfield, despite her harsh snarl, doesn’t bemoan or declaim against anything; she’s simply trying to comfort a reeling lover (which is never simple): “I’ll be here when loss confounds you / To gesture a way out / Picking up the pieces of your life.” To be honest, Edenfield sounds more committed than reassuring, so it was no surprise to learn that she was inspired by T.S. Eliot’s bleakly devoted The Waste Land. She sings like she’s on a near-religious mission to reconcile life’s fucked-up-ness. Godspeed.

Lil Yachty feat. Partynextdoor, “Buzzin’” (Quality Control)

Produced by Migos collaborator and blonde Ontario bro Murda Beatz, this is a fuzzy, piano-tinkling, autotuned nursery-rhyme plaint just like Yachty fans like it. “You never stunted till you met a nigga like mee-eeee,” the Atlanta moppet wails. Obviously we are not talking conventional street-life realness. More like a bedroom-pop reimagination of street life — silly, willy-nilly holiday dreaming, but still rife with drug, gun, and gang talk. All that realness is hard to process or reconcile. Melancholy always lingers an instant away, menacing. You have every right to hate his style and feel old as fuck when you hear it. Keep Yachty Weird.

Purple, “Bliss” (PIAS America)

I’ve been putting off writing about this song for months because I didn’t really know what to say about it, except that ... it’s fucking exquisite. Like a great lost mid-’90s alt-rock radio hit, it’s all bittersweetness that turns into giddiness via low-slung swagger that turns into dream-pop levitation. It pounds, it exults, it floats into your world on a goddamned cloudburst of joy. I’ve played it about 100 times since February and remain amazed by its perfection. Led by drummer/singer/whirlwind Hanna Brewer, Purple are an unpretentious Beaumont, Texas, trio who grew up playing Red Hot Chili Peppers covers while Brewer worked through her Gwen Stefani and Dave Grohl phases before she eventually got into Trina and Houston rap beats. They prioritize “beer, weed, and adventure.” Their first album is called Bodacious. It doesn’t suck. But this track is bliss.