First Impressions: Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle

Julien Baker’s startling debut is raw emotion, one of the best albums of the year.


Music like Julien Baker’s could save us all.

I wanted to let that breathe for a second, because I can’t think of the last time I’ve felt someone’s music speak to me on such a visceral level.

In my mind, the closest analog for Sprained Ankle‘s emotional nakedness is the Hotelier’s last record, though they couldn’t be further apart sonically. The Hotelier is clearly a full band effort, with music swelling and crashing around Christian Holden’s broken shout like wind around a tornado’s eye. There’s barely a drumbeat on Sprained Ankle. Julien mostly lingers over looping Elliott Smith-like guitar figures, perhaps a spare piano or string instrument. Every moment feels purposefully restrained, like she’s wrapping a string tight around her wrist over and over until it draws blood. It’s catharsis by contraction instead of cacophony.

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Poem: “flight”



I don’t think when we die

that we go anywhere at all;

breaking down to sparest wisps

of dirt and seed.

It’s no different from the Leaf

who never chooses when to fall;

but only hopes his end is prolonged by

some revelatory Breeze.

So he can travel, ever-hoping,

to some field of no tomorrows;

breaking down the certain hand

of gravity.

And the same way that the Leaf

cannot curse the Hand that plucked him;

so as it goes for me.

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Recommended Tracks: Pell, Ellie Goulding, Julien Baker, & The Staves

Been working late a lot lately, so I wanted to do some quick hits on tracks that I’ve been loving to clear my head. Let me know if you dig any of them.

“Queso” by Pell
#1 Jam of the moment. The Latin-infused beat and hook remind me of D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha” in its left-field-proto-salsa charm. This song has so much more swag, though. It just goes, in a way that forces you to find new ways to dance. And I’ve found several: this little shoulder shimmy every time I hear those doubled vocals in the chorus; a weirdly fast head bop that looks like I’m trying to convince Pell to keep going; an involuntary singalong to the descending “I got, I got, I got”s in the song’s background that have gotten me way too many strange looks on my morning bus commute. Throw it on and shake.

“On My Mind” by Ellie Goulding
Such a percussive song to come back with as a first single. The verses and chorus just push, push, push forward at this clipped rate that you don’t hear much in pop music these days. I really love the way that the post-chorus vocal hook “you think you know some-boooody” is anticipated with a synth in the first two choruses, and the vocal drop builds tension without coming off as straight EDM cheese. Really good songwriting here (even if the video is a tad overblown). If the rest of her album has tracks this indelible, she’ll have a few more hits on her hands.

“Something” by Julien Baker
I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about Julien Baker all week. Her album Sprained Ankle hit me out of nowhere, with incisive, fragile songs that sound like pure desolation. Hopefully I’ll figure it out by next week, but for now I’ll leave you with one of the album’s more straining cuts. This live version of “Something” takes place in an empty parking garage, which feels appropriate to the way her lyrics echo into emptiness, more alone than you can imagine. If you give this video your full attention, you’ll be moved close to tears by the end. Or at least, I am.

“Sadness Don’t Own Me” by The Staves
I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the flawless vocal arrangements on the Staves’ second album, the perfect companion for days that are getting darker. If I Was is filled with harmonies that catch the light like icicles—crystalizing on top of each other and melting away again before finding themselves shaped anew. It’s partly a testament to Justin Vernon’s exquisite production (this is their first release on his label), but the lion’s share of credit has to go to the band of sisters who can conjure such stark, intimate beauty. Their three clear voices stack so close together that it feels like one person singing at times. The song’s got a lovely sentiment that befits a closing track on one of the year’s best albums about living with heartbreak. The closing atmospherics sound like they’re opening heaven.

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Poem: “hope against hope”

hope against hope

hope against hope

moonlight on my mind as I break through the turnstile
these underground boxes can’t keep me inside
I need to be out with the drunks and the beggars
hoping for change, though I know it’s a lie

and I’m caught up in phrasings these days
like how home’s not a place, just something I’m supposed to feel
and I’ve brought myself into a state
where I hope against hope I can find something real

dreams of breaking this plain, glowing, rising completely
burn up in the sky like a paper lantern
there are nights I believe I’m a piece that won’t fight right
laying forgotten ‘gainst my refrigerator door

and I’m recycling all my mistakes
like how love’s not a choice, just the way I’m supposed to feel
and I’ve broken some vows to myself
but I hope against hope I can find something real

you can’t tell me god doesn’t grant serendipity
a sermon through static or a song in your soul
so I hope that he finds me, I pray that he’s listening
because I’m lost and I have so far to go

and I’m open to making a change
find out life is worthwhile, it’s the way I’m supposed to feel
because you work in mysterious ways
and I hope against hope I can find something real.

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Review: Ryan Adams – 1989

When he finds new ways to sonically and emotionally inhabit Taylor Swift’s songs, Ryan Adams turns 1989 from a thinkpiece into an actual album.

Ryan Adams 1989 cover album taylor swift

Look, I was always going to at least LIKE this album. Ryan Adams has long been one of my all-time-favorite songwriters, literally the person I’ve patterned my own songwriting upon. And as most people who know me can attest, I’m also firmly in Taylor Swift’s camp. After spending a year with 1989, I’m completely comfortable calling it one of the best pop albums of the decade. So a situation where one of my favorite artists covers an incredible musical achievement? Catnip.

It turns out that finding the intersection point between Ryan Adams and Taylor Swift is easier than you’d think: they both favor the song. Continue reading

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Recommended Track: “Change Locations” by Drake & Future


By all accounts, Drake and Future’s joint album What A Time To Be Alive is a present. Recorded during a few productive nights in Atlanta, it’s essentially a tossed-off collection of tracks with beats that slot neatly into Future’s incredible three-project run from this year and raps that sound like…well, like they were tossed off during a few productive nights in Atlanta. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the record, but a collaboration between the two biggest rappers in the game is bound to yield some gold.

As much as this project feels like a minor work from both artists, there’s a chance that in the next few years we’ll look at What A Time To Be Alive as a legitimate turning point in both of their careers. And the hidden gem (sorry) on this project is “Change Locations”.  Continue reading

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When Did It Get Like This?

made in america band flag labor day philadelphia

6 months since my last blog post. Here’s where my head’s at tonight (music and article recommendations at the bottom):

Made in America has done a phenomenal job giving Philadelphia its own festival. 70,000 people a day took over the Parkway for two days, and the only possible complaint is that there’s not enough room to hold them all. Would love to see them expand further towards Center City and add a few more general attractions and art installations, but they’ve done a great job solidifying their lineup identity and bringing Philly on-board. Shorter lines on the food trucks would be good too.

Made in America performances were pretty tight across the board, though the Weeknd’s material probably would’ve played better in a club. First time ever seeing the Queen, and I loved how theatrical Beyoncé’s headlining set was—it’s beautiful that arguably the biggest pop star on the planet (give or take a TSwizzy) has IDEAS about what her art means. Continue reading

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