in Review

Bartees Strange – Live Forever

Speaking of more traditional indie rock, here’s an artist acutely aware of how to turn indie’s status quo on its head. Yet at the same time, Bartees Strange also seems just as aware of the power of a rip-roaring rock song, as most clearly demonstrated by “Mustang”, easily one of my favorite songs of the year. Much like Phoebe Bridgers’ “Kyoto” from earlier this year, it’s the kind of song that brought me back to a simpler time (like, say 2010) when an indie artist could have a crossover hit. I’m sure I would have been pretty pumped for just an album full of songs like this, but I’m just as intrigued by all the different genre-bending detours on Live Forever.

Granted, there are a few other more straight-forward rock songs on Live Forever, like “Mustang”‘s follow-up track, “Boomer”. But there’s also songs like “Kelly Rowland”, which sees Strange Strange melding these alt-rock sounds with modern R&B. The album also runs the gamut from heartfelt folk ballads to pulsating dark pop to even a little bit of hip-hop, which all feels a lot like where indie rock should be now instead of the semi-stagnant place its been the past few years. Of course, this is also reflected by the fact that Bartees Cox (whose stage name is Bartees Strange) is Black and working in a genre that has been a little slow to embrace diversity.

Listening to this album, it made sense to hear that Cox was influenced by earlier Black indie artists like TV on The Radio and Bloc Party, which couldn’t help but make me wonder why more Black indie bands didn’t come to prominence in the wake of these bands’ popularity in the ’00s. Though as is often the answer to these kinds of questions, it’s probably just racism, however subtle or unintended. It was a little more surprising to see that Bartees is also a big fan of The National, since earlier this year he released an EP of eclectic covers of National songs called Say Goodbye To Pretty Boy (which is worth checking out). This, of course, isn’t the first time that The National’s influence has recently found its way into unexpected places, as Taylor Swift just released another very National-sounding, Aaron Dessner-produced album last week.

Though, unlike most music posts on this blog, I’m not here to talk about The National. In a year that I mostly spent listening to artists that I already liked or are already well-established, it was nice to hear a debut album that kinda blind-sided me. It’s the type of album that takes a little bit of getting used to, due to the slight whiplash of bouncing from genre to genre on each track. But Bartees Strange’s voice is strong enough and there are enough interweaving musical threads flowing through each song that it all feels connected, even if things like labels are trying to tear it apart.

Favorite Tracks: “Mustang”, “Boomer”, “Stone Meadows”