Music

Jack's Mannequin: The Glass Passenger

Former Something Corporate frontman bounces back with what should be an outright celebration of his pop-rock skills as well as his defining musical moment, but is weighed down by its sense of self-importance.


Jack's Mannequin

The Glass Passenger

Label: Warner Bros.
US Release Date: 2008-09-30
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Blame it on the flip-flops.

Back in 2002, Andrew McMahon fronted a great little emo-pop band called Something Corporate, a Drive-Thru Records signee that got enthusiastically picked up by MCA, largely due to the fact that this small group of 20-somethings had immediately differentiated themselves from the rest of the post-millennial emo-rock pack. They put the piano front and center in all their tracks, displayed a strong sense of melody, and the group exhibited a remarkable sense of fun (which was evident in their videos for singles like "If You C Jordan" and "I Woke Up in a Car"). Yet it was McMahon, the group's heartthrob-worthy lead singer and songwriter, that wound up garnering most of the publicity... and for good reason: the kid could craft some incredible pop songs, and even with his lyrics occasionally succumbing to juvenilia, he still was leaps and bounds ahead of his competition in terms of sheer songwriting prowess. Oh, and, yeah -- he wore flip-flops... all the time.

Every once in awhile, an interviewer would pop a question about McMahon's favorite footwear, as this overtly casual dress style was somewhat atypical in the pop-punk scene at the time. McMahon never seemed to mind answering these questions, but his wardrobe worked. He inadvertently embodied the archetypal modern-day high school slacker, all casual defiance and smart-yet-snotty attitude. Yet every kid must eventually grow up, and Something Corporate's sophomore effort, 2003's North, exhibited a group that was slowly moving beyond their exuberant beginnings into something much more mature (think lots and lots of string sections). The group's sales never fully materialized -- a platinum disc with his name emblazoned on it is something that McMahon likely will not see in his lifetime -- but they had developed a fanatical, supportive following -- and for good reason too. Here was a band that actually had carved out a distinct identity at a time when a majority of bands that appeared on the Warped Tour were by and large interchangeable in terms of sound.

When you see McMahon today, however, you seem him donning Chuck Taylors.

Though it would be easy to gloss over this subtle wardrobe change, it actually symbolizes a lot of where McMahon is now in his life. After dissolving Something Corporate, McMahon formed a more "mature" side project that went by the name of Jack's Mannequin, and though the group's 2005 debut Everything in Transit should have been "just another album", it was McMahon's tragic circumstances that turned it into something more. Three months prior the disc's release, McMahon was diagnosed with leukemia. He was checked into a hospital, and he was informed that his condition was far from ideal. Fortunately, McMahon had endeared himself to the punk community quite strongly. News of his disease prompted influential sites like AbsolutePunk.net to organize a charity wristband drive that wound up raising thousands of dollars to help pay his medical bills -- and, in a nod to his past, even charity flip-flops were created on the Jack's Mannequin website. Though Everything in Transit was supposed to be just another album, McMahon's much-publicized trials turned it into something much more potent and galvanizing.

Now, three years later and with McMahon's leukemia in remission, we are finally greeted with Transit's official follow-up, The Glass Passenger, adorned with even more orchestral flourishes, towering choruses, and dramatic lyrics than ever before. By all means, this should be McMahon's moment of triumph, but, unfortunately, The Glass Passenger is a remarkably half-baked collection of songs that lose sight of McMahon's greatest strengths in favor of a grandiose sense of self-importance.

Things get off to a promising-enough start with "Crashin'", a mid-tempo triumph that proves to be as musically mature as anything McMahon has penned to date (note the "ah-ah" vocals that punctuate the chorus). It's hard not to interpret the lyrics as anything other than McMahon describing himself contemplating his own future as a musician following his medical battles:

And even if your voice comes back again

Maybe they'll be no one listenin'

And even if you find the strength to stand

It doesn't mean you won't go missin'

And the world will come crashin'

And the words will come crashin'

And the music comes crashin'

Down on me

Although McMahon spent a good amount of time emphasizing the power of music on Everything in Transit, The Glass Passenger is practically an ode to the art of songwriting. The track "Swim" even opens with the following lines:

You gotta swim

Swim for your life

Swim for the music that saves you

When you're not sure you'll survive

It is at this point when we realize that, lyrically, McMahon is pedaling over a lot of the same territory again only three songs into the album. "Swim" even turns into a muddled mess when the lyrics insist that you should swim for the lost politicians who "don't view their greed as flaw". Suddenly, McMahon's messages of hope and musical salvation are not only becoming redundant, but they're actually colliding with other topics that -- simply put -- just don't fit together, and it's not long before we're treated to songs where the choruses consist of nothing but clichéd lines like "Big hearts / Big hearts are for breakin'" ("American Love"). McMahon obviously wants The Glass Passenger to be a "statement" album, but, as time wears on, it's obvious that Passenger is instead an album that was crafted to satisfy other people's expectations -- not his own.

It's a bit of a cryptic challenge trying to decipher the meaning of songs like "Annie Use Your Telescope", in which the melody is solid but the lyrics are too vague to offer any sort of meaning, or -- in McMahon's case especially -- catharsis. It doesn't take long before the album simply becomes a game of finding highlights amidst a sea of half-hearted character studies (like how the fluttering synth in the chorus of "Bloodshot" winds up being the best part of the whole song), a task that you never had to do during when listening to either Something Corporate album. McMahon even gives in to the worst cliché of all on the sappy "Caves", in which his voice achieves a trembly falsetto that borders on outright parody. "Caves" -- quite obviously -- is intended to be the album's dramatic finishing statement, as it's designed in a shifting suite structure and given an overtly-long running time (eight-plus minutes), but McMahon shortchanges himself yet again by not actually ending the album with "Caves" -- he instead gives that duty to the absolutely innocuous pop fluff of "Miss California", lessening any cathartic impact that the disc could've had in its big built-up finale. The devil is in the details, and it's decisions like that that squanders any potential that The Glass Passenger had going for it.

On the late-album ballad "Hammers and Strings (A Lullaby)", McMahon actually sums up much of his current life in the first verse:

These hammers and strings

Have been followin' me around

From a box-filled garage

To the dark punk-rock clubs of 1000 American towns

And my friend calls me up

She says "How have you been?"

I say "Dear I've been well -- yeah the money's come in

But I miss you like hell

I still hear you in this old piano, yeah"

She says "Andy I know that we don't talk as much

But I still hear your ghost in these old punk-rock clubs,

C'mon write me a song, give me something to trust

Just promise you won't let it be just the keys that you touch"

It is in this verse that we see that McMahon has cast himself in the role of "the songwriter", a figure that other people turn to for trust and comfort. By placing his own name in the song, it's hard not to view "Hammers and Strings" as nothing more than a way for McMahon to immortalize himself, a move that comes dangerously close to outright pretension. Perhaps if these songs were served with a helping of irony, it would be easier to swallow, but as it is, The Glass Passenger crumbles under its own weight, largely due to the fact that McMahon is no longer writing songs just for fun the fun of it (as he did during his sandal-clad Something Corporate days) -- it's something that he has to do now, as it's the role that feels he's been given in life.

In essence: yeah, blame it on the flip-flops.

5

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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