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Music

London Grammar: Truth Is a Beautiful Thing

While compelling, London Grammar did not exactly sound wildly original when they first emerged in 2013. In 2017, it is even harder to find a context for their work.


London Grammar

Truth Is a Beautiful Thing

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2017-06-09
UK Release Date: 2017-06-09
Amazon
iTunes

London Grammar have long suffered from a bounty of comparisons, fair or otherwise. Even as they released their earliest singles leading up to their debut, 2013's If You Wait, listeners were quick to compare the English trio's cool, spare beats and skeletal arrangements to acts like the xx, and Hannah Reid's fluttering vocals to those of Florence Welch. This latter comparison is the more superficial and less enlightening of the two; while the similarities between the two vocalists' deep, soulful tones may indeed be striking, it ultimately tells us little about the kind of music London Grammar produce.

Charges of unoriginality start to land somewhat more convincingly upon examining the backing arrangements that frame her performances, courtesy of Dot Major and Dan Rothman. It is here that things begin sounding a bit too familiar, or more importantly, a bit too safe. Even more so than their debut, the band's sophomore outing Truth is a Beautiful Thing pushes Reid's voice to center stage, adorning it only with conservative pinpricks of Rothman's luminescent guitar lines, Major's sharp yet glacial beats, and demure piano and string arrangements. This is a wise choice insofar as her performances are the most incisive tool in their arsenal; it is hard to protest too much when Reid glides and twirls her way up her vocal register on "Rooting For You", for instance.

Beautiful as it all may be, however, the compositions as a whole lack something for innovation. Too often, the songs condense what were once the chicest trends in indie pop, R&B, and electronica -- yes, particularly those championed by the likes of the xx at the tail-end of the 2000s -- and package them in a big tent format, as though intended to alienate as few people as possible. On tracks like "Wild Eyed" and "Oh Woman Oh Man", the production atmospherics are cool without ever threatening to become too chilly, and the mellow soul-rock of the choruses brood briefly before evaporating weightlessly. "Non Believer" wields its darkness with somewhat more conviction, leading with punchier beats and concluding with Bon Iver-style vocoder processing. In general, though, the arrangements can come across as trendy but tepid, tasteful yet lukewarm, the lack of risks becoming a real liability.

Still, Truth is not without its strong moments, particularly when the band dares to step beyond its reserved melancholy and dabble in euphoria. "Big Picture" finds the trio sounding more self-assured than ever, with Major's muted 4/4 rhythms helping elevate the track into an anthem both somber and bright. "Don't say you ever loved me / Don't say you ever cared", Reid sings coolly, echoing Kate Bush's "The Big Sky" in sentiment if not quite in sound. The rousing beats of "Bones of Ribbon" likewise make the track more affecting than usual, and the second half of "Hell to the Liars" evinces enough confidence to jam out without Reid as a crutch, emerging all the more compelling for it. While Reid's vocals are the band's clearest asset, then, London Grammar's performances are at their finest when not so blatantly lopsided.

London Grammar have proven themselves more than capable of writing moving, resolutely human songs; the above-mentioned highlights, along with older tracks like "Wasting My Young Years" and their excellent 2013 Disclosure collaboration, "Help Me Lose My Mind", clearly demonstrate as much. The manner in which they present their material often leans too heavily on the tried-and-tested tastemakers of years past, however, dulling and dampening their impact. While compelling, the trio did not exactly sound wildly original when they first emerged in 2013; in 2017, it is even harder to find a context for their work. London Grammar's music remains gorgeous, but the band too often limits themselves with their own conservatism.

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Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

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Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

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