Music

Magnet: The Simple Life

Here's an astutely arranged fusing of acoustic instruments, electronic textures and captivating melodies.


Magnet

The Simple Life

Label: Filter US
US Release Date: 2007-09-18
UK Release Date: 2007-09-18
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There's a brilliantly amusing exchange in the film Fight Club when Brad Pitt's character tells Edward Norton's character that he is very clever and then asks how such a trait is working out for him. Norton responds, "Uh…great."

Assessing the newest album by Norwegian-born singer/songwriter Even Johansen, recording as Magnet, seems an exercise somewhat akin to Pitt and Norton's conversation. The Simple Life is certainly a clever affair. The record is an astutely arranged fusing of acoustic instruments, electronic textures, and captivating melodies. In the case of The Simple Life, were one to try and measure how being clever is working out for Johansen, the answer might not be quite as glowing as "uh…great", but it would at least be "uh…well enough."

You see, The Simple Life suffers just a bit from what is, probably, a good dilemma to have: Johansen sets the bar high right at the outset, establishing the album's tone and musical conventions on opening track "The Gospel Song". However, Johansen hits his target in a far more certain, far more winning fashion on "The Gospel Song" than on the rest of the record. The track opens with a catchy mix of handclaps and hums before Johansen delves into a really, really charming melody that is instantly engaging. The song could be a feasible candidate for any critic's list of the top pop/rock songs of 2007.

Such praise for "The Gospel Song" should not be construed in such a way as to suggest that the rest of the record is a wash, however; there is certainly high-quality material throughout. Unfortunately, it's true that nothing else quite compares to the record's opening moments.

A list of other exciting and charismatic tracks on the album has to start with "You Got Me", a song marked by a laid-back sensibility, both in its rhythmic groove and Johansen's vocal melody. "Count" opens with a gorgeous legato passage led by a string section, and as Johansen layers his melody on top of the sustained beauty, the song fills out even more and attains a true richness. One of Johansen's chief strengths is his ability to craft a really appealing melody that draws the listener into the song and places them squarely in the middle of a particular musical vision.

Other standout cuts include the banjo-driven, ambling "A Little Happier", and "Slice of Heaven", which, despite opening with a strange mashup of orchestral instrumentation and hip-hop shuffle, evolves into quite a nice piece of music again featuring some beautiful legato string figures.

At times, The Simple Life feels a bit too shiny and polished for its own good, as if Johansen might have a sense of his own cleverness. A few rougher edges here or there might have given the album a more enduring quality, rather than just trying to settle for an endearing quality. For example, "She's Gone" proves poppy to a fault; the overly bright whistling and faux-reggae rhythms come off a bit shallow, not quite accomplishing the contrast Johansen seeks to establish with his broken-hearted lyrics. Tracks like this one and the title cut seem poorly executed versions of Jason Mraz or Maroon 5 songs, respectively. Johansen shows the potential to be more consistently innovative than these artists and so these occasional missteps are disappointing.

The Simple Life is worth a wide listen for: 1) the pure joy that comes from experiencing "The Gospel Song", and 2) providing the opportunity to encounter an artist who has a world of ability up his sleeve. When Johansen maximizes that ability, the results are terrific. When he doesn't, they at least hint at how clever he might one day become.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

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.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

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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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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