Review: “Heard It In A Past Life” by Maggie Rogers

The record is teaming with life and joy in terms of the richness of its lyricism and musicianship.

FFO: HAIM, boygenius, Stevie Nicks, “After Laughter-Era” Paramore.

Singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has a modern version of a classic success story.  She did not grow up in a particularly musical family, but at age seven began taking harp lessons, and as her love of music grew, she expanded her instrumental pallet to include guitar and piano.  During high school, she attended a Berklee College of Music summer program and won their songwriting contest, spurring her to continue to focus in that area. 

Eventually she found her way into New York University’s prestigious Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, where she recorded and self-released a folk album in the vein of early Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens.  During this time, she studied abroad in France where she started listening to house and dance music, and after experiencing an extended spell of writer’s block, began creating new music that combined her folk melodies and lyricism with the backbone of the dance genres she fell in love with in France. 

Her real success came in the form of a viral video.  The legendary Pharrell Williams, an in-house musician at N.Y.U. at the time, visited a music production class that Rogers was enrolled in to critique the students’ work.  In the video, a visibly moved Pharrell tells Rogers that her song “Alaska” is basically perfect, saying “I’ve never heard anyone like you before.”  Coming from one of the most influential pop/hip-hop producers of the past two decades, this was about the best endorsement she could get, which launched a massive major label bidding war.  Now, nearly two years later, her debut full-length has arrived via Capitol Records. 

This context is necessary because it takes up a fair amount of the subject matter of the album.  In many ways, Heard It In A Past Life is the story of an introvert suddenly thrust into the spotlight.  One of the album’s lead singles, the folk-pop “Light On,” deals with this head-on in the first verse, “Oh I couldn’t stop it, tried to slow it all down / crying in the bathroom, had to figure it out / with everyone around me saying, ‘you must be so happy now.’”  It’s not angry or whiny, but a genuine expression of confusing emotions; her story is one that many dream of and strive for, but is terrifying when actually experienced. 

But the record does not wallow too long in this specific space; It is teaming with life and joy in terms of the richness of its lyricism and musicianship.  The Pharrell-approved “Alaska,” exemplifies the instrumental Rogers’ instrumental depth.  The beat is intricate and layered, with subtle syncopated synths adding a bass-layer of melody as Rogers’ voice floats overtop, “I was walking through icy streams that took my breath away / moving slowly through westward water / over glacial plains.”  The imagery shows her deep-connection with the natural world, which makes her stand out in the context of most pop musicians.  Elsewhere, she uses samples from nature that she collected on hikes; “Overnight,” sounds like it samples a bird call as a percussion instrument.  It’s fresh and creative while still being accessible to pretty much everyone. 

Despite the danceable beats and sugary hooks, Rogers remains first and foremost a songwriter throughout the album, with her lyrics as a central focus on the record.  Back-half highlight “Retrograde” features one of the album’s most passionate vocal performances, in which she belts the chorus, “Oh here I am, settled in on your floor / quieting all the world outside your door / and I am reckoning.”  It is authentic, passionate lyricism rarely found in much of today’s pop music. 

Ever since Lorde’s debut Pure Heroine in 2014, much of the pop landscape has been defined by cool detachment and cynicism, or simply over sexualization of the star.  Maggie Rogers requires neither of those things to be successful.  The way in which she throws herself into her music with such genuine love and passion is refreshing because it relies not on cultivating a pop image, but just in being her and sharing music that she is passionate about creating.  Rogers is clearly making music that she loves, and it is a joy to be able to breath it in with her. 

What holds the album back from being great is the major label-ness of it.  This is not to say that top-tear production is bad; I myself am a big fan of pop music, and high-end production is not a strike in my book.  But, there are moments when the album lacks a certain edge, when the crispness of the drums and guitars are a bit too crisp, and it feels a bit wrong.  It’s not inauthentic, but it holds some moments back from being as cutting as they could be. 

That said, the record remains a breath of fresh air for fans of pop and folk alike.  It is one of the only folk-pop records that I have genuinely enjoyed, because it’s not soft and dumbed down, but is a creative testament to what can happen when an artist takes genuine inspiration from the two seemingly opposed genres.  More than anything, it establishes Maggie Rogers as an artist to follow in the coming decade. 

Rating: 7.8 (Stand Out)

For info on how we score albums see our rating scale.

Release Date: Jan 18, 2019

Label: Capitol Records

Review: “Tomb” by Angelo De Augustine

Tomb leaves the listener feeling refreshed in the way one feels after a good, healthy cry.

          When someone experiences a significant breakup or loss of a romantic partner, there is usually a rush of conflicting feelings.  Sometimes they manifest in betrayal and anger.  Sometimes there is only shock and an inability to process the event.  But more often than not, the most overwhelming feeling is one of deep mourning over the fact that something that was once good and beautiful is now gone.  The mind spins trying to make sense of everything; relishing memories, attempting to sort out how we got from there to here.  On the title track and album opener of Angelo De Augustine’s excellent Tomb, he captures this initial feeling perfectly, at once evoking remembrances of a beautiful relationship, wondering how it is now gone, “I walked into your life at the wrong time / never quite been perceptive of real life / it was not your fault or a fault of mine / but it’s hard to let you go this time.”  It is more than mourning; it is a search for justification, a deep and resounding “why?” 

            Part of what makes these lyrics so powerful is the instrumentation.  In a soft falsetto comparable to Sufjan Stevens (his label-mate and owner), Augustine’s double-tracked vocals hover over soft guitar plucking, with subtle piano underlying the second half of the track.  The result is melancholy, melodic, and incredibly captivating.  However, this is not your run-of-the-mill indie-folk record.  The following track “All to the Wind” calls to mind a McCartney-penned Beatles track, with snappy piano-pop chords and subtle guitar parts providing more layers.  “I Could Be Wrong,” sounds like something from the Postal Service or Sufjan’s Age of Adz, with a simplistic electronic beat and minimalistic synth textures.  This album is no sleeper; at no point does the instrumentation feel mundane. 

            What makes this album stand out is the way it intersects beauty and pain.  The record was written in 2017 in five days – December 20th-25th.  The feeling that it evokes is similar to what many feel around the holidays.  For a lot of folks it is a time of reflection and reckoning with one’s place in life within the context of somber beauty.  The chorus of a stand-out track, “You Needed Love, I Needed You,” captures this reflective mood, “Life’s been hard and you’ve lived a few / did I give too much love to you? / I’m sorry but it’s what I had to do / you needed love and I needed you.”  It’s heartbreaking in that it recognizes the situation, but does not desecrate the beauty that once existed in the relationship. 

            This song also exemplifies effective songwriting in its use of images that are specific enough to give the listener a clear picture, but also general enough that most people can relate to them without being generic.  “Back in my hometown looking for a silver Honda / but there’s too many all around / and I fear I’ll never find you / so I walk around.”  Everyone in the civilized world knows what a silver Honda looks like, yet it’s a specific enough image that it feels real, allowing the listener to attach their own associations to it and cry right along with Angelo. 

            While much of this album deals with heartbreak, it also goes beyond it.  That is to say, the breakup is not isolated; it is contextualized in the songwriter’s world.  Hushed acoustic track “Kaitlin” invokes memories of family, “Mother left you in the night / my father faded into the same light / now we’re both hoping to find someone.”  The record has wide vision and it immerses the listener deeply into its world. 

            Tomb leaves you feeling refreshed in the way one feels after a good, healthy cry.  It’s not panicky or hopeless, but an honest attempt to reckon with loss that is just as normal and human as it is to weep for things worth weeping over.  It is appropriately named, as it is a monument to something that was at one time good and beautiful that deserves to be remembered in the minds of the artist and listener alike. 

Score: 8.8 (Best New Music)

For info on how we score album see https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

Review: “The Mystic and the Master” by Laura Stevenson

Laura Stevenson has been quietly making a name for herself for the better part of the last decade. After a stint playing keyboards for the now legendary punk band Bomb the Music Industry!featuring none other than the eternal Jeff Rosenstock, Stevenson embarked on her own as a singer/songwriter, releasing her first solo offering A Recordin 2010. Since then she’s released three more full lengths and garnered a modest, but devoted following on the back of her artfully introspective lyrics and emotive singing voice. Despite her real-world success though, Stevenson has largely flown under the critical radar. This is confusing not only because of her clear talent as a lyricist, but also considering she runs in the same circle as recognizable artists like Jeff Rosenstock and Chris Farren. Her predicament calls to mind that of Kevin Devine, another artist who is almost as talented as he is criminally underrated and whose situation seems to defy all prevailing logic. 

The Mystic and the Masteris the first new release from the New York songwriter since her 2015 full-length Cocksure.It is a two-song double single released on her mother’s birthday as a nod of appreciation for “enduring” the raising of her and her sister. In contrast to some of her prior work, both tracks are performed with only acoustic, strings, and voice. This stripped back arrangement feels even more intimate than usual for Stevenson, who makes use of the opportunity to deliver some of the sharpest and most nostalgic lines she’s penned yet. 

On the title track she paints a stunning portrait of her mother: “Cause she loves you ’til she shrinks and she thins / Like a violet in a violin / And she’ll paint you a shiny porcelain tooth / Like the one that hangs in hunch / From her second man’s sucker punch.” With each subsequent line Stevenson blows the dust from the family photo album, providing vivid if melancholic snapshots of family tradition, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. It’s storytelling through embodiment, unpacking the person of her mother into an engaging narrative. When she moves on to the second track, Maker of Things, she pivots into a more traditional storytelling method, but achieves the same effect. Here she juxtaposes a fight between her sister and her mother at a gas station during her childhood with witnessing the closing of the same gas station as an adult. Staring into the parking lot, surrounded by “for sale” signs, Stevenson trades her air of nostalgia for resolve: “I don’t feel small / I don’t wince, I’m not ashamed / I feel big, I push back, only time I did that.” 

Though brief, The Mystic and the Master double single is one of the most gripping releases from this December, a clinic on emotive storytelling and a reminder of the underappreciated songwriter’s superior skill with words. For those unfamiliar with Laura Stevenson’s back catalog it also provides an easy launch pad into her work; some of her most potent songs put into a succinct and accessible package. Hopefully this movement on her part foreshadows a full form return to new music, because with her writing the sharper than ever, 2019 could finally be the Stevenson breakout we’ve been waiting for.  

7.4/10 (Stand Out)

For more information on how our scoring system works see: https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/