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Bartees Strange: Farm to Table Album Review

Bartees Strange: Farm to Table Album Review

Bartees Strange’s album from 2020 Live forever was a bubbling declaration of freedom, and few rock debuts in recent years have filled me with such a desire to stand up and cheer. Weird spit rapvers, emo choruses with belts and trampled on his scrambling box with a conviction bordering on insanity: Look at everything I can do, almost screamed the album. Wading into the boundary that separates rock and rap has long been a quick way to get entangled in barbed wire, but Strange effortlessly skipped police barriers that caught countless artists in front of him. “Genres / Keep us in our boxes / Keep us from our commas”, he rapped on “Mossblerd”, probably the clearest manifesto on an album full of them.

Live forever started his career, got him on year-end lists and got him signed to 4AD. The reason for any kind of sudden star status is a question: How well do you cope with being noticed? Based on his second album, Farm to table, his first for 4AD, Strange is well noticed. On Farm to tablehe says many of the same things he said about Live forever, but more with his chest, with his feet planted even further apart, his gaze more in line with ours. The genre leaps in his songwriting have become more confident and, if anything, even broader – “Mulholland Dr.” opens with a pure jumble of emo guitars, and then goes up in a chorus that is massive enough that you can remove it from your home terroir, swap arrangements and sell it to Adam Levine. The chorus on “Wretched” meanwhile sounds like one actual Maroon 5-hit, synths and side-by-side beats explode overhead like fireworks over a stadium.

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Strange only works in large turns, and the contact height of his music is partly from his own audible elation when he connects. He likes sweeping movements and reliable pleasures, which he uses with power and conviction. Check out the big horns on “Heavy Heart”; you can almost see him cheering cue them with his arms over his head. On “Black Gold”, he retells the journey from Oklahoma to DC in lines wide enough for an MGM musical: “Now it’s city lights for a country mouse”. His writing mixes emotional extremes until they begin to fade into each other: his lyrics are full of painful excuses that sound like bravado, heartbreaking statements that sound like cries of despair.

Strange’s genre leap lands so purely because of his remarkable voice. As a child, he sang opera, and he can do pretty much anything: spin into a falsetto, scale up an octave to hit a Broadway-sized high note, unleash soul cries. On “Hennessy”, he flexes melismatic lines over a lo-fi acoustic guitar setup, and it sounds like someone took D’Angelo on an iPhone. He recalls the loneliness of his traveling upbringing as a child by an air force engineer on “Tours”, and rasps “I’m your son” with a poison that is surprising, almost vengeful, and overshadows a tender ballad with eerie and primal undertones.

When he works as a black man in indie rock, he is alive to the political dimensions of stylistic choices, and the songs find subtle ways to exploit them. With his ragged, meandering Auto-Tune vocals, “Cosigns” is very close to a straight Future song, except instead of bragging about sleeping with models or driving cars with a push button, Strange boasts of hanging out with record labels Big Thief and 4AD founder Martin Mills. The song starts to feel sly – a big plate-flex on an indie budget – but ends up digging out the circular pathology behind his ambitions: «How to get full, it’s the hardest thing to know / I continue to consume, I can not give up / Hungry as always, it’s never enough. ” In the same way, the soft, lawnmower beer groove for “Escape This Circus” reminds of Real Estate approx. Atlas until it becomes clear that Strange is not singing about sunsets in New Jersey, but rather about late capitalist collapse: A man with a hole in his shoes mumbles to Strange about cryptocurrency while he thinks about starting a war that could “end the news”.

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The most overtly political moment is also the simplest – “Hold the Line” is a prayer for Gianna Floyd, the daughter of George Floyd. It is a power ballad, essentially, a slightly wobbly in the form of “Purple Rain”, with slide guitar solos shouting out between the verses. Strange does not have much to say, strictly speaking, about seeing a young girl talking on camera about her murdered father. “Can not imagine what is flowing through her young mind now,” he sings in a full voice. In another Bartees Strange song, this moment would rule out the explosion – an outburst of guitar distortion, a vocal leap. But here he lets the guitars track off in silence. It is the most subdued music he has ever written. So much of Strange’s music is driven by statements – about power or need, about pain or love. But in a catalog full of confirmations, “Hold the Line” is his first unanswered question.

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Bartees Strange: Farm to Table

Bartees Strange: Farm to Table

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