Born Lost: Rat Boy chooses his fate

ratboyBorn 10 years after Licensed to Ill and just two before Hello Nasty, the UK rapper Jordan Cardy is too young to claim first-generation Beastie Boys standom. Thank God for YouTube. As Cardy puts it, he was “born lost,” aimless and adrift, his only inheritance a chip on his shoulder and a pervasive sense of disenchantment. He sought solace in the skate park, passing long hours laughing and talking and smoking with his friends, eventually falling down a rabbit hole of 90s rap videos—the Beastie Boys his gateway to an omnivorous, genre-curious aesthetic with pop, reggae, and punk among its tributaries. What started as a boondoggle quickly became a regimented apprenticeship: Before making Internationally Unknown—a joyful and pugnacious record released under the name Rat Boy—Cardy built a studio space in immaculate imitation of the Beasties’ famed G-Son; he invested in 90s-vintage recording equipment; he even got a Dust Brother in the studio to shepherd him through the album’s creation. It’s hero worship elevated to an art form, but the masterstroke of Internationally Unknown isn’t that it gets the period details right; it’s that it rearranges those details into something that nods to the past while also sounding bracingly contemporary. To that end, Cardy also enlisted Rancid’s Tim Armstrong to keep things ragged and muscular, and the result is a boisterous set of songs that borrow equally from the dog-eared terseness of punk, the anti-authoritarian bent of hardcore, the good-natured slackerdom of skater culture, the loose-limbed storytelling of 90s hip-hop, and the prickly energy of second-generation New Wave bands like No Doubt, all filtered through the dankness and the lo-fi murk of the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head-era prime. It’s an album that reappropriates the DIY ethos of the 70s with the porous cross-contaminations of the 90s to tell a timeless story in a fresh way—a story of disaffection and alienation; of being young and maladjusted and having zero fucks to give.

Cardy proves his punk bona fides right out of the gate with “Chip on My Shoulder,” a barrage of choppy electric guitar riffs and pummeling drums that could almost pass for a Clash outtake were it not for Cardy’s scruffy patois and his clever interpolation of a lurching hip-hop beat. It’s a bottle rocket of a song, a flash fire of incandescence and rage that burns for a hot two minutes and then dissipates, and it sets the template for the album’s blazing hardcore intensity. Not that there’s anything formulaic about Cardy’s music, which exhibits boundaryless imagination even as he plays with familiar forms. He can be anthemic when he wants to be, as on the stadium-shaking title track, designed to have a crowd full of lads howling their alienation in perfect harmony. He’s just as compelling when he just lets loose with breakneck abandon, as on the thrashing “I Wanna Skate,” rapturous escapism manifest as pure speed. Elsewhere, he exhibits a gift for songs that are languid with atmosphere but also forceful and direct; the quasi-theme song “My Name is Rat Boy” is a warped take on dub, simmering with woozy organ, turntable hiccups, and double- and triple-timed raps, but what makes the biggest impact is its slamming momentum. He can handle lighter stuff, too: “Follow Your Heart,” a shimmering roller-rink confection, is almost featherweight; a sun-soaked horn section connects the song back to 90s ska bands, but what impresses the most is Cardy’s easeful way with a pure pop melody. His calling card is rowdiness that fudges the line between aggression and jocularity—“Don’t Hesitate” and “So What” are jock jams brimming with attitude, humor, and sly stylistic ambivalence—but the album’s sleeper highlight might be “Night Creature,” glimmering trap-reggae that demonstrates Cardy’s propensity for impressionistic studio effects. A hook from Aimee Interrupter channels prime Gwen Stefani better than Gwen Stefani has done in years.

These are songs of enormous freedom, yet Rat Boy’s narratives are mostly about feeling trapped. With a rangy storytelling approach that’s closer to Slick Rick than to the rollicking jokiness of the Beasties, Cardy weaves tales of young men who are born into cultural isolation and economic insecurity; “raised on a diet of free porn and stale bread,” inundated with “murder on the news,” “stuck in a dead town,” only ever going in circles. Cardy’s repping for a lost generation, and occasionally his perpetual middle finger to the establishment (“I never wrote a song for the businessmen!”) runs parallel to Joe Strummer’s revolution rock. And yet he’s no insurrectionist. Mostly, he just wants to skate and jam with his homies (“thank fuck we found each other”), maximizing pleasure even as he teeters on the abyss. His is a worldview where hedonism and nihilism are two sides of the same coin, and where the only real meaning is the meaning you create with the members of your tribe. In that context, the be-true-to-yourself sentiments of “Follow Your Heart” have a tinge of sadness to them; Cardy’s betting everything on his inner voice because all the other voices have let him down. “I Wanna Skate” posits motion as salvation and “No Peace No Justice” braces for a ruckus in the streets, but it’s “Don’t Hesitate” that best codifies the Rat Boy ethos. “We’re here right now so choose your fate,” Cardy admonishes, choosing joy even with the world burning all around him. He may have been born lost, but he’s learned to make the most of it; Internationally Unknown is where he finds himself.

Eternity and Other Drugs: Pedro the Lion dreams of home


“Perhaps home is not a place,” James Baldwin wrote, “but simply an irrevocable condition.” In a pungent new set of songs, the esteemed singer and self-chronicler David Bazan gazes back at a place he left a long time ago—and if he isn’t exactly reduced to a pillar of salt, neither does he sound like he ever fully metabolized the condition of his earliest home. The album, called Phoenix, is the first Bazan has made under his Pedro the Lion banner in some 15 years, the rising-from-the-ashes connotations of its title unavoidable and by no means inappropriate. But really the album is named for the city in Arizona, the source of Bazan’s preliminary childhood memories. Its songs—sketches, case studies, object lessons, remembrances that are really metaphors that are really glimpses of greater and invisible realities—play like a flickering highlight reel, some of the details washed out by time but many of them still burning in vibrant Technicolor splendor, formative and insoluble. Each one carries the weight of revelation: Of guilt from which Bazan was never assuaged; amends he never made; longings he never satisfied; epiphanies from which he never fully recovered. “How do you know when you’re finally home?” he asks on the closing “Leaving the Valley,” a sad goodbye from a man who still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. His album-length foraging through the family photo album might have ended with a Rosebud moment, but instead it reminds him of all the personal history he’s still reckoning with, even as it reckons with him.

Bazan recruited the wrecking crew of Erik Walters and Sean Lane to make Phoenix, both offering supple support, neither having appeared in any previous iteration of Pedro the Lion. Their presence is a tacit admission that this band has always really been a singer/songwriter vehicle for a guy who prefers his lyrics to spill out over the joyful squall of a power trio, and while you wouldn’t call the arrangements here imaginative, you could certainly call them primitive, howling, and loud, which turns out to be more than sufficient. Bazan leads the new cast through chunky riffs on “Clean Up” and pummeling thrash on “My Phoenix,” but the Pedro calling card is still slow-burners where the guitars scrape and the burr in Bazan’s voice conveys lyrics like bitter pills; listen to “Quietest Friend,” wave after wave of electric thrum, or to “Black Canyon,” which has the agitated gait of a man trying to work a pebble out of his shoe. The biggest formal shake-ups come with a pair of palette-cleansers: “All Seeing Eye,” awash in ghostly reverb, and “Piano Bench,” which returns to the synth adventures of Bazan’s Blanco and Care records, framing tight couplets with a hymnal austerity.

Sonically, it sounds more or less like nothing’s changed in the past decade and a half, but of course plenty has changed: This is the first Pedro the Lion album to be released in the wake of Bazan’s Curse Your Branches, his alleged divorce from the Christian dogma he was raised on. What Phoenix suggests is, maybe that severance isn’t so easy; these songs are tattooed with the religious vernacular of Bazan’s youth, and it sounds like he’s thrown the Almighty off his trail about as effectively as Flannery O’Conner’s Hazel Motes did. (Indeed, Phoenix may be exactly what O’Conner had in mind when she distinguished the Christ-haunted from the Christ-centered.) Consider the hard-charging “Clean Up,” where Bazan reflects that he sought answers in “eternity and a couple of other drugs,” a pithy de-conversion story that will resonate with anyone reared on a certain strain of fundamentalism; then again, you don’t need any kind of evangelical baggage to identify with the sing-song mantra to “clean up, clean up, clean up your stuff”—knowing full well that you can never wash, scrub, or Marie Kondo your life enough to feel innocent again. “Yellow Bike” captures the same freedom of movement that you hear in Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” only with a bicycle instead of an automobile as the means of escape. But it’s also a song about how it’s hard to find a friend, and about how “it is not good for man to be alone” (cf. Genesis 2:18). “My kingdom for someone to ride with,” Bazan moans, as though it’s as true today as it was when he was small. Both of those songs yearn, but others fester. Listen to “Quietest Friend,” where a young Bazan is a tongue-tied witness to injustice, his silent complicity still ringing in his ears after all this time, or to “Circle K,” where a prodigal son blows his inheritance on “candy and soda pop.” But the song that best captures the Phoenix aesthetic is “Model Homes,” about how the Bazan family used to browse track homes after church on Sunday—not to buy, but just to dream. The song highlights memories preserved in amber (“shuffling our shoes on brand new carpet/ freeze tag with static electricity”) but also lifelong desires that still exert a gravitational pull (“tired of where we live/ Hoping that it’s not if but when”). What Phoenix offers is a portrait of the artist still tangled in his past and still hooked on eternity; daring to dream there’s a home for him somewhere, and that he’ll know it when he sees it.

Ordinary Pleasures: Lifestyle music from Toro y Moi

outer peace

Streaming platforms haven’t just changed the way we consume music; they have imposed a new set of aesthetic assumptions on how music is produced, optimized to provide a sense of discovery but also a comforting familiarity. At its worst, this new set of values can metastasize into what critic Jon Caramanica derides as “Spotify-core”—a milquetoast mélange of tepid R&B, middle-of-the-road pop, sleepy electronica, and anonymous folk. It’s an algorithmic blend designed as lifestyle music—airbrushed eclecticism that can be turned on and then tuned out, the unobtrusive soundtrack to daily chores or errands. But what if there is a version of the streaming ethos that perfects the underlying value proposition, offering off-handed variety, glistening surfaces, and compositions that work as mood music but also reward closer scrutiny? And what if—and try to keep an open mind here—you could do it not with a playlist but with a traditional album, short, sweet, and to the point? Leave it to Chaz Bear—the synth-pop maestro behind Toro y Moi—to pull it off.

You could make an argument for Bear as an early adopter of the streaming ethos; as far back as 2011’s sublime Underneath the Pines, he seamlessly merged bedroom acoustics with wispy Beach Boys harmonies, DIY electronic effects, and an unerring instinct for earworms, camouflaging his playful invention with a shimmering, luxurious sheen. He’s been both refining his approach and trending pop-ward ever since, and the new Outer Peace feels as tight, as tidy, and as tuneful as any Toro y Moi record yet. It’s a modest but appealing confection that embraces the boundaryless nature of music consumption in the digital world, and its breadth and virtuosity hide in plain sight behind its placid exteriors. Bear’s gift is in retrofitting the porous ambiance of an effective playlist to the scrupulous construction of the album format, and the most conservative features of Outer Peace also happen to be its most bracing: Consider its 10-song, 30-minute programming, which feels like the relic of a bygone era; listen to how Bear ends the record with the piano-and-Autotune power ballad “50-50,” pop so earnest and straightforward it feels like a tectonic shift following all gentle weirdness that proceeds it.

That weirdness comes from Bear’s hodgepodge assembly of sounds and influences, pieced together with musical and emotional logic that help the album go down smooth. The ideal for any Toro y Moi song is something that works equally well as pop or simply as a vibe, and the best songs here land squarely in both camps. Listen to the carefully-orchestrated elevator exotica of “Fading,” where tinkling chimes and chintzy percussion offset the red-bloodedness of Bear’s ecstatic, Prince-ly woops and wails. “Ordinary Pleasures” starts from a place of zen—you’ll hear the calming sound of gently running water—before it settles into am amiable uptown groove. “Laws of the Universe” reveals a composer whose love of dance music runs through the populist nostalgia of Daft Punk, and whose crate-digging geekery leaves room for in-jokes about LCD Soundsystem. “Miss Me,” a haunted chillwave ballad with guest vocals from Abra, is a master class in evocation; it sounds like its decomposing in real time, the song’s bitter sadness consuming it from the inside out. And “Freelance” is a testament to how Bear makes even his quirkiest moments feel graceful; a vocal stammer provides the song with its indelible hiccup of a hook.

The album is too small, too unassuming, too caught up in its ordinary pleasures to qualify as a statement—and Bear doesn’t intend it as one. Think of it more as a Choose Your Own Adventure, a record that lets you decide how you want to use it. “This record is a response to how disposable culture has become and how it affects creativity,” he’s stated. “While listening, you might pay attention or ignore—either way that’s ok, this is music for a creative mind.” So, it’s a low-key party album for introverts, or a fecund marinade for wandering minds, or both—lifestyle music for anyone who wants the freedom to just let songs wash over them, crafted with enough detail and care to reward anyone who listens closely.