Bearing witness to the baroque clusterfuckery of the world is no longer voluntary. We are all forced to watch. Every possible catastrophe vibrates in our pockets, demanding to be witnessed. A busboy in Tulsa with a below average data plan now holds more of the world in his head than Alexander the Great. The human burden continues to increase and empathy begins to seem like something belonging to a nostalgic past, like a handwritten letter or sex on a train. The classic response to this predicament has been a figure of ironic detachment, a well-groomed young man drinking out of a red plastic cup at a rooftop party. He explains with a smirk why the good thing is actually bad, the bad thing actually good. But now Alex Cameron approaches with his righthand man, Roy Molloy. Cameron knocks the cup from the young man’s hand and Molloy threatens him with his life.
With Forced Witness, Cameron’s solution to the difficulties we face is a danceable and dangerous earnestness, a sense of honesty that heals and relieves even as it cleaves us or makes us laugh in self-defense. He’s offering portraits of misfits’ views of the world, presented without illusion. Recorded in Berlin in an old East German radio station, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, and produced by Cameron along with Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado, these tracks at first seem shamelessly entertaining, the driving rhythms and rousing melodies embellished at every turn by Molloy’s warm hornwork. But the love songs and anthems contain as much raw humanity as they do a savvy grasp of the impossible loneliness of the times, especially apparent in the song “Stranger’s Kiss” — Cameron’s affecting duet with the American singer Angel Olsen. The defiantly bloody knuckles in “Runnin’ Outta Luck” and the grime of wet dreams in “Country Figs” occupy the same space as the great sadness of the internet in the catchy and contemplative song “True Lies,” in which Cameron sings about that buzzing hive of randomized sexuality where we can either submit to the stirrings in our own laps or let our fragile hopes catfish us. Alex Cameron details penultimate track “Marlon Brando” as “a character portrait, a study of a man in the hopeless pursuit of a woman. He is a familiar character in the world, a self-assured jock, a dullard, a low grade human who uses a specific kind of language when he finds a situation outside of his control. In examining this character, the song’s lyrics present an honest, eye witness account of an angry man, a damning indictment of homophobia and misogyny and their genesis in toxic masculinity.”
If there is darkness in these songs, it is not because taboos can titillate but because Cameron knows that confession has a redeeming power and that people are often at their most vivid when their skies have fallen. These songs are alive with the rich detail of life lived and the radical distinctiveness of the stories they tell feel universal. In these chaotic times when we aren’t able to look away, Cameron is offering us a pure account of the world as he’s seen it.
There is something enduring about great love songs, and Briana Marela’s Call It Love wraps its wide arms around the subject, invoking all its complexity. From the getgo, Call it Love opens with a reflection on a new love. An unfurling, ambient hum builds slowly, articulating that unmistakable head-in-the-clouds feeling that accompanies early love, before giving way to an uptempo melody and a clattering, joyful chorus. Layers and textures evoke its subtler feelings, while the lyrics speak frankly, holding nothing back. Deepening her songwriting and expanding her palette, Briana Marela has made her proverbial giant leap, to explore the sounds of love in beautiful, striking new ways.
Before writing the songs that would become Call It Love, Briana Marela was typically guided first and foremost by her instincts as a producer and engineer. Marela studied audio production in Olympia at The Evergreen State College, and her previous albums, Speak From Your Heart and All Around Us, capture that early spirit of exploration. Marela’s original vision for this album was to dig into the two poles of her songwriting styles: her ambient, ethereal side and her brighter, beat-driven pop leanings. She enlisted the production help of Juan Pieczanski and Ryan Heyner of the band Small Black. Instead of recording everything from scratch in the studio, Marela brought recorded stems for every song that then evolved and developed further in the studio. Pieczanski and Heyner brought a strong pe… rcussive instinct, weaving pop and polish into even the most spaced-out cinematic arrangements, and upon hearing their most recent self-produced album, Marela’s decision to work with them was almost instantaneous.
“Originally, I was trying to make this album have cohesive pairs of songs,” Marela says, “sister songs, where all the ambient songs would have a poppier match, and vice versa.” What followed instead was a fusion of the two styles, with Marela’s subtler, sweeter side crashing into her bolder, brighter one. “Give Me Your Love” explores what Marela calls “love’s immature, silly and selfish side. That eagerness, the feeling of lust and wanting more.” It begins almost as an electronic ballad, sweet and inviting, before crashing into a dance-floor rhythm and a winking, flirtatious breakdown. “Feel What I Feel” was first written about Marela’s first big breakup when she was barely twenty, but it bears a new sophistication in this recorded version; the lyrics dare the subject to jump back in, even as the music reminds them Marela doesn’t need their love to be happy. And then there’s the deep, dramatic centerpiece of Call It Love, “Quit”. Originally penned about a breakup with a longtime partner, and written with the idea that she could give the song away to another artist, “Quit” is powerful and revealing in Marela’s hands; the percussion crashes into her vocals, and the low-end acts like an undertow, wrestling and pulling at its beat.
If “Be In Love” is the sound of falling in love, “Farthest Shore” is the sound of looking inward, of reckoning with oneself. Inspired by the book ‘The Farthest Shore’ by Ursula K LeGuin, it is one of only two songs not strictly about love, instead exploring what makes our own lives worth living. “I have always had an intense fear of death,” Briana explains, “and this book inspired me to remember the magic in pursuing creativity, and that eternal life would actually be very dull.” It is an intricate, cavernous song, setting a deceptively pretty melody over ominous, hazy drones and skittering percussion. And here, again, the contradictory becomes complementary.