FIDLAR – “Too”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “40oz. on Repeat” “Overdose”

With track titles like “Punks,” “Overdose,” and “Bad Habits,” it might seem like “Too” is more of the same from FIDLAR. Their first album, mind you, had “Blackout Stout,” “Wake Bake Skate” and “Cocaine.” It might feel like there’s a gambit in song titles that FIDLAR is quickly running through. But, their sophomore album is an album that some people, myself included, didn’t anticipate coming so soon – the conflicting, adult album. Most punk bands grow up sometime – Rancid’s “Life Won’t Wait,” Dads’ “I’ll Be the Tornado.” FIDLAR’s maturity is a very reluctant one – some tracks on “Too” feel like holdovers from still-recent partying years. But as the guys grow up, they’re begrudgingly accepting a more sober life.

One of the best qualities of FIDLAR’s debut album, a personal favorite of mine, was an underlying, barely visible sense of angst. It only came out in certain songs, when the guys were sober enough to see that there were far too many problems in the world. Through the more youthful and the more adult songs on “Too,” the unifying sense is still the slight angst. This time, it’s on a more personal level, as “Too” is heavy on self-reflection. “I don’t know why it’s so difficult for me to talk to someone I don’t know,” is sung on “40oz. on Repeat.” “One week sober / and I’m still hungover,” from closer “Bad Habits.” “FIDLAR” was a humorously self-deprecating album, but “Too” ditches the humor. Take the lyrics from “Bad Habits,” set them in an entirely different musical context, and they could fit nicely on an Alice in Chains album.

But they’re still at a crossroads, because there’s still party tracks. “Sober,” despite the title, is almost inarguably the strangest song in the band’s catalog, with the opening third of the song done almost in spoken word (think the beginning of “The Sweater Song”* but with the vocal melody of “Baby Got Back”). And the album’s penultimate track, “Bad Medicine,” is a >3 minute song that feels like one last punk blast, for old time’s sake, the inverse of Renton taking one last injection in Trainspotting.

As with their debut album, the band has an innate and unexpected ability to eschew any one sub-genre of music. The downside is that it leaves FIDLAR without a distinct sound, something important in punk. But the upside is that each song is going to sound distinct. “Punks,” originally (or perhaps erroneously) titled “The Punks Are Finally Taking Acid,” is a heavy song, centered on a guitar riff akin to a quickened “She’s So Heavy,” with pained, screamed vocals. But follow-up “West Coast” is the kind of bouncy sing-along you more expect from the band. It goes back and forth, often reflective of the lyrics, and it adds a cohesiveness to the album. The lyrics are well-rounded, so the music should be too.

“Too” does ask one question that it does not answer – who should FIDLAR’s audience be, now? Their first album was able to answer that question very, very easily – partying punks and skaters. It’s practically a Ten Commandments for SoCal late teens who are gradually becoming less aware of Mat Hoffman. But their second album was made more for themselves, and that’s a dangerous line to cross. Just because we’re being let on on FIDLAR’s internal struggles doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something we want to see. I’m genuinely not sure who the intended audience is for this record, as the partyers generally aren’t going to warm up to the sobering songs as much. There’s a mixed audience for the album, and it’s going to be divisive among fans. Still, there’s enough going on that it stands as a solid, and different sophomore release. I’m just worried about what the band is going to have to go through for the next album.

* – I saw FIDLAR a couple months ago in Boston and they covered “the Sweater Song,” replacing most of the verses with the word “meow” repeated over and over again. Inspiration? Probably.

If you like this, try: Perfect Pussy’s “Say Yes to Love,” another album where a punk band suddenly tightened up, but not without a total maturity.

Lana Del Ray – “Ultraviolence”

ultraviolenceGrade: A-

Key Tracks: “Cruel World” “West Coast”

“Ultraviolence” is a slow album. It’s easy to overlook the album as a long, long wick attached to a room full of fireworks, burning slowly and ending before the big bang. But to look at “Ultraviolence” like that is to ignore the music’s subtleties, and the complexity of the album’s subject matter. “Ultraviolence” is a dark record, one that examines a woman who tries to ride her way to the top, but never excels past being “The Other Woman” (as evidenced by the final track). Given Del Ray’s recent, questionable comments on feminism, the album isn’t a critique on women in society today as much as it is a semi-personal narrative. It helps to strengthen the cinematic quality of the album. And it doesn’t hurt that Del Ray’s vocals are stronger this time around, rationing out a few strong performances across the album.

The album’s opener, “Cruel World,” is also the longest, at 6:39. It’s a building and intricate song, one that sets the tone by really taking it’s time to get to an engaging climax. It’s a slightly captivating song, and an unexpected one to open an album, even for Del Ray. What follows is a number of polarizing songs – sometimes engaging, other times putting up a strong barrier. Nearly all of them are a medium tempo, which should be a distraction or even a boredom, but when almost every song has it’s own identity, it doesn’t even matter. The only real exception is the excellent “West Coast,” full of tempo changes and a low-key funk that isn’t present anywhere else on the record.

Del Ray’s lyrics focus on struggling to find your identity and struggling to find success, accepting defeat in both. They’re typically dark – with titles like “Old Money,” “Pretty When You Cry,” and, of course, “Fucked My Way to the Top.” They call back memories to the pratfalls of luxury in the 20′s-50′s, even with modern references and a decidedly more provocative and profane tone. And her vocals are stronger; she’s allowed herself to open up and expand her range. “Shades of Cool” finds her in a high pitch, alternating between beautiful and off-setting. “Money Power Glory” is another track where her voice flourishes in big, grand ways. She’s often cooled down, but the rare times when she wants to take control – she does. These rare moments highlight the album’s otherwise restrained times, both benefits.

The album is bolstered by fine production, as well, courtesy mainly of Dan Auerbach (singer for the Black Keys and producer of everyone). The production is borderline cavernous, adding a faint echo and an ungraspable dark feeling throughout. It’s slickly produced – but not to the point where it’s actually pop.

“Anti-pop” isn’t a phrase, outside of a long forgotten Primus album, but it’s almost something that could describe Del Ray. With meandering tempos, cinematic music, dated lyrics and often 5+ minute lengths, her songs aren’t designed for radio. Yet they’re distinctly pop, a type of dream-pop. It’s melodic, and catchy, but in a low-key way. It isn’t possible to dance to this (as we now know, thanks to SNL). Like Nico long before her, and Lorde shortly after, Del Ray’s pop music is one of depth and density, not one of rapidity and popularity. You probably have a strong opinion of Del Ray, good or bad, and “Ultraviolence” isn’t going to change that. But it’s a strong pop release, ripe for analysis, and an improvement over her still notable debut. Like her or not, Del Ray’s strongest quality has been her ability to establish a persona in no time. And “Ultraviolence” really runs with it.

-By Andrew McNally