Day three of the Music beat’s Album of the Year coverage continues with two meticulously crafted, synth-heavy albums: The light French EDM-jazz of French Kiwi Juice’s Self-Titled Album and the lush, nostalgic midwestern indie rock of the War on Drugs’ “A Deeper Understanding.”
French Kiwi Juice, “French Kiwi Juice” – Trenton Chang, staff writer
French Kiwi Juice (AKA FKJ) is a French electronic music producer, but you wouldn’t think that from his music. FKJ’s music is certainly EDM, but it sounds so organic that it doesn’t feel electronic. His self-titled debut album is a delightfully eclectic mix of jazzy jams, R&B inspired tracks and relaxing sounds.
The album opens with a single organ, improvising a small tune on its own, before it’s joined by a saxophone. The duet plays for a little while – and then the rest of the jazz combo arrives, drums and guitars and all, welcoming you to the world of FKJ.
The music is constantly in motion: it’s got the precision and beat-by-beat flow of EDM, yet it also has the freeform bubbliness of jazz. It’s not arrhythmic – every sound is meticulously placed and put in its place – but it is a dazzling mix of different sounds, demanding the listener’s attention at every moment. You hear everything clearly all at once – the subtle tinkling of the hi-hats and shakers, the sassy brass taking center stage, the weaving bass line and the harmonizing piano. And a trumpet, guitar or synth sometimes will suddenly announce its arrival, take control of the melody and run away with it loosely and freely. Then something else wrests control of the music, and we’re taken on another melodic run.
Behind all these workings is a bouncing, grooving beat that powers the tracks. If you listen closely, you’ll hear that “Better Than You” and “Blessed” turn the bass line into a melody unto itself: Shifting up and down, making its own statements. It’s not a walking bass line, at least not in the normal sense – it’s far too tipsy – but it swings forward beat by beat, kept in time by the omnipresent thump-thump of the kicks.
The music certainly isn’t minimalist: On the contrary, it’s filled to the brim with new sounds, but there’s still a mundane simplicity about the music. The brass or piano might be showy, but the music itself plays a soulful down-to-earth tune. That isn’t to say the music is unmemorable – in fact, it’s in these pure and simple songs that the album makes it mark. It doesn’t get too heavy or excited; you feel refreshed after listening, rather than exhausted.
The beauty of good music is its clarity. No matter how intricate and complex the music gets, the sound should never gets crowded or anxious. Perhaps that’s the greatest thing about this album: It feels so effortless. The music flows so naturally that I had, by the middle of the album, forgotten that I was actually listening to the music – it existed next to me, perfectly underscoring my evening of work. Self-titled albums are quite common in the music industry, but perhaps that was the only name this album could have possibly had. The music didn’t try to be anything; it didn’t want to be relaxing or upbeat or chill – it merely was those things. FKJ did not try to accomplish anything but to be himself, and that is the simple beauty of the album.
The War on Drugs, “A Deeper Understanding” – Jacob Nierenberg, staff writer
Adam Granduciel is living the dream. Three years ago, the songwriter behind The War on Drugs emerged from a prolonged period of anxiety and depression with “Lost in the Dream,” one of the best rock albums produced in my lifetime. Granduciel is a student of classic rock – if the influence of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Neil Young isn’t apparent from his songwriting, listen to his live covers of his idols – and with “Lost in the Dream,” he released an album that can stand with the best work of the legendary artists. In time, “A Deeper Understanding” may achieve the same status.
“A Deeper Understanding” is a different listen from “Lost in the Dream.” In some ways, I think it’s a bit more polished, even sterile, than its predecessor. But it’s every bit as monolithic and cathartic. These songs are crafted from lots of little pieces – motorik drum machines, bouncy synthesizers, shimmering pianos, blistering guitars – and when these pieces come together, it forms something propulsive and beautiful. In a way, they’re like cars: You can sit down and pick apart everything under the hood, or you can let yourself be taken along for the ride, because these songs charge along like a vintage Mustang.
I listened to “Lost in the Dream” on a daily basis back in my sophomore fall. At that time, I was going through a lot of what Granduciel grappled with when he made that album; if my darker, more depressed personality was an unwelcome guest, “Lost in the Dream” was a trusted companion. That dark part of me returned earlier this year, and I’m still working my way through it. But when that part of me came back, so did The War on Drugs.
Granduciel is still working his way through his own struggles too, as evidenced by song titles like “Holding On,” “Pain” and “Up All Night,” and it becomes even more apparent if you pay attention to the lyrics. “I met a man with a broken back/He had a pain in his eyes that I could understand,” he sings early in the album; on the album’s closing number, he pleads to a lover: “You don’t have to go/I want to make you stay/Goodbye, anyway.” But “A Deeper Understanding” isn’t without hope that things will get better. Consider “Thinking of a Place,” the album’s lead single and emotional centerpiece. Over 11 minutes of gently unwinding Americana, Granduciel takes us on a drive through the night, pledging to keep on moving through the dark until he finds that place he’s thinking of: “There’s a darkness over there, but we ain’t going,” he sings as the song unfolds into a beautiful coda. That song came out a couple weeks into my senior spring, as I was in the middle of my own long, black night.
And that’s what Granduciel has given us with “A Deeper Understanding,” really: Another hour of warm, wondrous music that lays bare its creator’s hopes and fears so that listeners can connect with them. It’s an album that’s as suitable for moments of introspection and solitude as it is for barreling down the highway. It’s built to last, just like that old Ford.
Contact Trenton Chang at tchang97 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.