2 Sep 2015

Weekly Listening: Justin Bieber, Macklemore, Beach House, and more

9:51 am on 2 September 2015

A revolving cast of contributors showcase some of the best new music releases from the past week.


Justin Bieber - ‘What Do You Mean’

Seeing is bielebing and this week we were fortunate enough to be witness to the much anticipated return of pop’s favourite prodigal bad boy: Justin Bieber is back with ‘What Do You Mean’, and he’s the latest in a long line of male artists to ponder the paradoxes of contradictory verbal language and body language, much to the ire of some.

Yet, unlike certain predecessors, Bieber laments rather than celebrates this ambiguity and, as the title suggests, the track anxiously asks clarification of his mysterious sweetie. A wise move, and given lines like “First you wanna go left and you want to turn right / wanna argue all day, make love all night”, one can empathise with his frustration.

Politics aside, ‘What Do You Mean’ has been marketed as a comeback for Bieber and no effort has been spared in the mission to demonstrate his continued power and relevance. Performed with a controversial new hair-do at this week’s VMAs, where the rather raunchy video also premiered, and after a month of intense buildups, the track has emerged as one of Bieber’s best.

Catchy and electronic, yet also soulful and tender (and apparently for Biebs rather emotional), the song is a modern, mature and sharp addition to a perpetually undervalued body of work. Some of us have lost patience with the ever-troubled Justin, yet professionally and musically he continues to prove himself to be a sleek and canny machine. And for what it’s worth, I think his hair looks darling. - Katie Parker

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – ‘Downtown’

If you thought that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis had spent the three years since releasing 2012’s multi-platinum album The Heist meditating on how to make ‘credible’ hip-hop, you’re wrong. 

'Downtown’, the second single to break their radio silence in the past month, is literally a five-minute ode to mopeds that features a bike with a giant moose head, indie rock vocalist Eric Nally driving a chariot of motorcycles, and a lot - A LOT - of leather tassels. And, in a striking coup, he’s got two verses by 70s rap pioneers Kool Moe Dee, Melle Mel, and Grandmaster Caz. Three of the godfathers of hip-hop came together for the first time in history to rap on a song about scooters, written by two white boys. Say what you will about Macklemore, but the man has clearly got some believers.

In other words, it’s par for the course. After all, the outrageous wardrobe and subculturally-specific subject matter of the duo’s breakout hit ‘Thrift Shop’ wasn’t a gimmick; it was Macklemore doing Macklemore, the same way he’d been doing since 2005 with tracks like ‘The Penis Song’, only by then he’d found a genius producer named Ryan Lewis to bring along for the ride. Whether you make it past that first outlandish single to hear a more reflective or thought-provoking song about white privilege, marriage equality, or fatherhood is a different question.

It’s too easy to write Macklemore and Ryan Lewis off as white rap - either preachy or inauthentic, pick your poison - but that’s precisely why you shouldn’t. He’s keenly aware of his socio-political position in a subculture that originated as the language of the Black American narrative - sometimes to a fault, as with the infamous post-Grammy text to Kendrick Lamar. Whether a discerning hip-hop audience grants him legitimacy is up for debate; the credit that other artists are willing to extend to him is not. – Sarin Moddle

Beach House – ‘PPP’

Beach House haven’t strayed far from their usual conventions with Depression Cherry, their fifth studio album. This time around the band continues to experiment with organs, reverb and slide guitar. Its familiarity is soothing and accessible, though not terribly exciting.

Album highlight ‘PPP’ is lilting and lush, and sees the band try out a spoken-word part. Singer Victoria Legrand sets the tone for the song, asking an imagined lover, “Are you ready? Ready for this life?” 

‘PPP’ stands for ‘Piss Poor Planning’, perhaps a reference to the couple in the song who are looking to the future. The term is also used as a dynamic marking in music, standing for ‘pianississimo’ and meaning “very very soft”, which fits in well with the first half of the song.

Alex Scally’s slide guitar line that closes the song envelopes the vocals and makes everything feel full in a way that is so typical of Beach House. The duo have a unique ability to evoke a heart swell and you can see why Legrand describes Scally as her "musical soulmate". – Ellen Falconer

Chris Walla - ‘Kanta’s Theme’

Starting with a glitchy, fallawn soundscape, Death Cab for Cutie’s guitarist Chris Walla explores a new musical palate on ‘Kanta’s Theme’, an atmospheric piece which experiments with sound and warps musical structure. Layering across hollow piano keys which hang together to create a cohesive composition, each note is full of meaning, elegantly punctuating layers of noise.

The finished effect is an incredibly moving piece of music which swells with murky reverb and falls away into static quiet. The echoey, gliding piano gives this track momentum, and as the song slowly builds, it’s with a sense of purpose. - Elizabeth Beattie

Foxing – ‘The Magdalene’

In the past few years, many bands have found success in the ‘emo-revival’. Whatever the prerequisites for belonging to this movement are, Foxing meets them, and ‘The Magdalene’, off their upcoming album Dealer, is a raw and earnest song that unabashedly bares itself for all to hear.

The Missouri quintet have taken a new approach since their debut album The Albatross, with ‘The Magdalene’ layering together textured guitar with reverb soaked noodling, resulting in a sound much more understated than their previous offerings.

Connor Murphy’s lyrics explore his confliction between sex and God. On their website he explains this theme and its root saying, "I was raised in Catholic school [which] imposed a very difficult stance on the freedom of sexuality. When I lost my virginity, I felt like it was less about love and more about sin.” It takes courage to write about something so important to them, and maybe it’s this fervent passion which is characteristic of this so called revival.

Emo-revival or not, this track has certainly been a highlight of the second half of this year and if it’s anything to go by, Foxing could have something quite special on their hands. – Joshua Thomas

Miley Cyrus and The Flaming Lips – ‘The Floyd Song (Sunrise)’

The continued romance between psych-rockers The Flaming Lips and pop-star Miley Cyrus has baffled many. It started with Miley inviting Wayne Coyne on stage and climaxed with last year’s Sgt. Pepper’s tribute album. Even knowing Miley’s great music taste, the collaborations have still been bizarre.  It has had little to do with supposed different worlds, but rather the fact that both artists are batshit-crazy. Miley and her tongue, Wayne Coyne and his four-discs at once shtick.

Together, The Flmileying Lips brand is wackiness, the absurd and surprise.  Wackiness happens when the two film a drug overdose, absurd is getting matching tattoos, and the surprise this week was the dropping of a collaborative album. But even more surprising is the fact that it’s actually quite good.

Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz is plentiful in good tracks (and average tracks – it’s a long album), but the most personal is ‘The Floyd Song’, a track which references her often-photographed dog Floyd who passed away last year. Floyd was clearly loved, and the song is a genuinely touching description of Miley’s grief process. For somebody who is so prone to acting goofy, it’s admirable that she is able to let down her guard.

Miley is brilliant, but the input from The Flaming Lips can’t be missed. Wayne’s vocals are absent, but the sonic void that The Flaming Lips are known for is not. Miley’s mournful vocals are backed by ominous synth and shimmering but short guitar. A sound that has defined albums like Yoshimi and creates room for thought-process, something needed on a track about something so personal.

Miley and The Flaming Lips belong together – their personalities gel. However, it’s when they make music like this; rich in emotion and wonder, that their force becomes meaningful. – Alex Lyall

What's your song of the week? Tell us about it in the comments section.