Ultra Mono, by IDLES 2020, Partisan Records. Producer: Adam Greenspan and Nick Launay
(2 minute read)
After Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Boltcutters and Naomi Wolfe’s Uncomfortable, this record was my favorite of 2020. IDLES is a British punk rock act called the most aggressively positive band around, and they make loud, violent songs in which singer Joe Talbot sings (shouts?) about peace and kindness and acceptance and love. It’s a juxtaposition that, surprisingly, works really well!
I first caught them on YouTube as part of NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series, and they were unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard. I immediately identified them as right up my alley. The belligerent tone, the pounding beat, the cool guitars … I wanted more. Then I looked up their lyrics and found they align quite nicely with my own UU-ish ethos, and, well, I was on board. IDLES takes on hatefulness, toxic masculinity, class, immigrant rights, and other social topics, and on Ultra Mono they pound the ideals of love and kindness into your head with ferocity.
A perfect example is “Kill Them With Kindness,” a song espousing radical caring of others set to a smashing thump. On “The Lover,” the band comes close to a dance beat while Talbot defends his compassion with the words “Fuck You! I’m a lover!” He stated, “It’s like a defiant smile in the face of assholes who can’t just accept that your love is real. It’s like, ‘I’m not lying. I am full of love and you’re a prick.’” IDLES want to turn this aggressive positivity into action, too. “Mr. Motivator” implores us to “all hold hands/ chase the pricks away!”
Many songs on Ultra Mono make the case for change. “Carcinogenic,” an infectious groove, shines a light on the plight of the working poor. “Model Village,” another bouncy number, takes a close look at the social tyranny of conformity and hatred in small town life. “Ne Touche Pas Moi,” with guest Jehnny Beth, attacks misogyny and sexual harassment, particularly in the mosh pit at shows. IDLES slow things down a bit with “A Hymn,” another ode to love and kindness. Other songs include “War,” “Grounds,” “Anxiety,” “Reigns,” and “Danke.”
It might sound from my description that the songs are very heavy, or emotionally taxing, but drummer John Beavis keeps things moving and danceable, while guitarists Mark Bowen (a practicing dentist in his spare time) and Lee Kiernan are as inventive as they are aggressive. Bassist Adam Devonshire provides terrific low-end support, and together IDLES sounds like a sonic force. Why not shake your fist and dance and rage about love and kindness? Ultra Mono makes it happen.
(New Releases is a different feature for 100 Favorite Albums – just a couple paragraphs about some new stuff I’m listening to.)
This was my favorite release of 2020, six indie-pop songs written and sung by Naomi Wolfe. Her producers, Jesse Trepiak (@shedwisemusic) and Williams Goldsmith (@futureartistwilliams), co-wrote some songs and act as her scorching backing band. And while each song has a new take on the term Uncomfortable, Wolfe sounds perfectly at home behind the mic.
“Stop My Heart” is a soulful, upbeat pop song about losing someone. “Favorite Color,” with its 90s alt-rock feel, is an “are we friends, or what?” song. “6 Feet Tall,” an unrequited love song, sounds like it belongs in a smoky jazz club. “Slide,” my favorite on Uncomfortable, is a sparse, funky track with great drums. It’s about moving on if you’re not getting what you need. “Laugh” is a beautiful, soft acoustic number about dealing with heartbreak. “idk,” an epic closer, again oozes heart and soul as it builds to a powerful ending.
Naomi Wolfe is a fresh singer/songwriter who’s made a great EP, and I hope she has more music on the way. Her voice is deep and warm and personable. She really connects with the listener. The backing band is incredibly talented, and the production is great. There’s nothing uncomfortable about Uncomfortable!
Fetch the Bolt Cutters 2020, Epic. Producers: Fiona Apple, Aimee Aileen Wood, Sebastian Steinberg & David Garza. In My Collection: Spotify, 2020.
IN A NUTSHELL:Fetch the Bolt Cutters has a unique style of music – rhythms and melodies that sound almost made up on-the-spot, produced by instruments that aren’t usually considered instruments. (Instrumentation credited on the record includes, among others, “metal butterfly,” “harp thing,” “water tower,” and “breathing.”) The lyrics are wise and kick-ass and funny, and the whole thing is just really fun to listen to!
THEORETICAL PLACE IN A FUTURE TOP 100 LIST I’LL NEVER WRITE: Top 10.
There was a time I would’ve hated a record like this. I mean, just look at my 100 Favorite Albums. It’s mostly filled with dudes with guitars playing loud, melodic rock. That description (basically) works pretty well for my Top 13 Beatles albums, as well. Regarding lyrics, while it’s true that The Clash, who sit at #1, were brilliant lyricists chronicling profound cultural and socio-political issues of the day, artists such as R.E.M. and Steely Dan and Stone Roses are better known for their cool-sounding inscrutable words than for heavyweight philosophizing. Even tremendous lyricists like XTC, The Replacements and Tom Petty, generally sing about personal relationships, not the larger world.
So, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in producing this website it’s that my favorite music tends toward a definite “type.” That type is NOT a woman singing strange, percussive songs that comment brilliantly on both her personal life and the society around her, accompanied only by piano, bass, drums, weird noises and barking dogs. And that’s why this is the first record I picked after all those other ones. I like to know I can still expand my horizons even as a 53 year old man.
To be fair, Fiona Apple is certainly not an unknown quantity to me. Her 2005 album Extraordinary Machine is #73 on my Top 100. Both her 1999 album, When the Pawn …, and her 2012 album, The Idler Wheel …, were not far outside my Top 100 when I made the list in 2014. So when I heard she had a new record this spring, I was very interested. Apple’s always had a great sense of melody, and she mixes up styles on her albums. If there’s a second thing I’ve learned producing this website, it’s that I love melodies and variety. (That pretty well describes London Calling.)
Fetch the Bold Cutters opens with the lovely “I Want You to Love Me,” which builds on Apple’s simple, evocative piano riff. Her voice is incredible – rough and tough yet sensitive, reminiscent of Michael Stipe’s. The lyrics very much straightforwardly describe the title. On the bridge she uses the Bob Dylan/hip-hop move of heavy internal rhymes that deliver a satisfying sense of surprise to the listener. Apple puts this tactic to great effect throughout the album. The song ends with Apple’s kooky dolphin sounds, which, well, look, I guess artists just have to go for it sometimes, so good for her.
“Shameika” is the song for anybody who was a nerd and teased or bullied by the popular kids. Once again the piano underpins the song, this time a percussive riff accentuated by a brushed drum kit. The found sounds throughout the album are cool, but the star is Fiona’s incredible voice. Speaking of found sounds, they really come to the forefront on the title track. On this one, she uses the internal rhyming in a near-rap, and the lyrics do the work. They’re a reflection on her life, and where it’s led her, and her desire to move on despite it all. “Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long,” she sings in a lilting, catchy melody. (Apple’s dogs, Mercy, Maddie, Leo, Alfie and Little, all credited on the album, make their first appearance on this one, but as with all backing vocalists since the dawn of recorded music, it’s really tough to distinguish who’s who).
I love “Under the Table” because it’s sung by someone who I wish I was, able to speak my mind in all situations. Her voice is amazing, and it builds in power and energy. (“I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me.” Nice!) “Relay” is sort of a summer camp chant interrupted by jazzy vocals and bass. It expresses both an anger at the douchebags who hurt us, but also a desire to not give in to the temptation to pass that anger onto others. “Heavy Balloon” is one of my favorites, a song with a sort of jungle beat and cool harmonies. Apple’s voice hits a variety of tones, both musically and emotionally. Like “Under the Table” and “Relay,” its lyrics are all about personal strength.
But the album’s lyrics are at their best when they’re dealing with the uncomfortable, challenging issues of personal relationships. “Rack of His,” is a reference to all the guitars an ex had, guitars he treated better than her. It’s a jaunty number where Apple shows off the jazzy side of her voice. I love “Drumset,” another swirling harmony vocal workout, with lyrics that say maybe she should stop dating musicians. “Cosmonauts,” has a spare, slow groove that builds to a raucous finish. It suggests that maybe there is a hope for couples willing to accept the heaviness of commitment.
I love the set of songs that address the topic of how heterosexual women interact with one another in relationship to the men in their lives. “Newspaper” is a great song, dark, creeping and intense, with multiple voices and sounds building on each other. It’s sung from the perspective of an ex-girlfriend to the new girlfriend, saying, essentially, we should be friends – we have so much in common! (Obviously there’s more to it than that.) “Ladies” is another slow, jazzy number. (I’d love to hear her sing some standards!) It calls for unity among women, with the excellent lines to the new woman in his life: “And oh yes/ There’s a dress in the closet/ Don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it/ I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine/ It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine/ She left it behind with a note, one line, it said/ ‘I don’t know if I’m coming across, but I’m really trying’/ She was very kind”
The song “For Her” opens with an Andrews Sisters-style harmony, and it’s sung beautifully. Accompanied throughout by only drums, the voices swirl and build to an angelic closing. It’s about sexual assault, but calling it a ‘Me Too’ song really denigrates the power and the meaning of the song. Fetch the Bolt Cutters closes with “On I Go.” Similar to “Relay,” it’s a sort of meditation on strength and persistence. There is a vocal screw-up about 1:50 that was left in the mix. That goof adds to the song. It demonstrates that we can persevere through the bullshit that might otherwise slow us down. In fact, I think if I were to sum up the album in one word, I think it would be: Perseverance.