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Kevin Abstract - ARIZONA BABY Music Album Reviews

The BROCKHAMPTON star’s latest solo album is an often powerful document by a queer artist who has weathered life’s bruises.
In a move inspired by Shia LaBeouf’s bemusing catalog of durational work, Kevin Abstract recently endured 10 hours on a treadmill on a suburban street of his hometown, Corpus Christi, Tex. While running, the BROCKHAMPTON singer and rapper multi-tasked: He took selfies, signed sneakers, posed with a baby, and mumbled along to the chorus of his recent single, the yearning gay love song “Baby Boy.” Abstract vaguely told one fan that the performance was to teach empathy—indeed, you could interpret it as an allegory for the upstream battle to make it out of suburbia for so many kids—but that didn’t save it from feeling like a stunt.

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Quiet Slang - Everything Matters But No One Is Listening Music Album Reviews

Quiet Slang - Everything Matters But No One Is Listening Music Album Reviews

Inspired by his love for Stephin Merritt, James Alex serves up chamber-pop covers of his own earnest punk songs on the first album from this Beach Slang spin-off band.

Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly is a modern classic of therapeutic literature that identifies fear as the root of all our troubles. Fear of change, fear of failure, fear of judgment, and, most of all, fear of vulnerability—these are what keep so many of us from achieving happiness and fulfillment. James Alex is probably too much of a Bukowski guy to have read Daring Greatly, but his band Beach Slang might as well be the audiobook version, a compelling and convincing testament to the wisdom of ignoring one’s inner critic.

Fans of beery, bear-hugging guitar music are conditioned to feel embarrassed about it once they reach a certain age, sheepishly accepting their status as the old guy at the club while the latest variation of the “rock is dead” narrative plays out. Alex doesn’t just validate this crowd by expressing their feelings in the most basic language; after debuting Beach Slang at 40 years old, he embodies them as well, bypassing the literary and mythic ambitions that elevate the Hold Steady, Japandroids, and Guided by Voices to Art to go straight for wish fulfillment. Quiet Slang, a spin-off act that reduces the Beach Slang lineup to piano, cello, and vocals, leaves those earnest lyrics fully exposed. Their first full-length, Everything Matters But No One Is Listening, boldly courts what Brown called the “vulnerability hangover”—that anxious feeling you get after showing your true, vulnerable self to people who have the power to vaporize your self-esteem.

Beach Slang have always faced accusations of redundancy and cliché. Alex’s veneration of youth and its simple pleasures give his songs a twee undertone. Taken together with his pop-punk roots, that tendency made him a natural fit to open for Dashboard Confessional on their recent tour. But Beach Slang’s sound is more malleable than they get credit for. The sudsy, saturated guitars and production owe more to Loveless than to the Replacements’ Let It Be.

“If Beach Slang is my adoration for [Paul] Westerberg, Quiet Slang is me head over heels for Stephin Merritt,” Alex offered in a recent interview. The sentimental first-love, best-love spirit that fuels his attachment to the Replacements is an essential part of his songwriting, and since he hasn’t come up with any new songs that reflect his Merritt fandom, he might as well have pledged allegiance to PJ Harvey or Willie D. Unlike Westerberg, whose affably self-effacing music appeals to people for whom losing is winning because the game is rigged against us hard-luck kids anyway, Merritt is a curmudgeon whose craft is so beyond reproach that it often makes up for his cutting, cynical language and disdain for the people who consume his product. This is obviously the exact opposite of everything Beach Slang stand for, and the inclusion of A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings salvo “Mixtape for Future Art Kids” on Everything Matters makes that painfully obvious. Over dainty piano tinkles, Alex gamely sings, “Play it loud, play it fast.” No one ever asks this of Magnetic Fields songs.

There’s craft in Beach Slang, just not the kind that translates to a chamber-pop setting meant to showcase intricate arrangements, deft melodies, and arch wordplay. While he’s switched up the instruments, Alex hasn’t bothered to reimagine the songs themselves—a piano bangs out the exact same chords as the rhythm guitar on Beach Slang records, a cello plays lead, and Alex supplies slight variations on the vocal harmonies. He prepared fans for this kind of thing on “Too Late to Die Young,” which anchored the band’s 2015 debut, by copping to the desperation behind it all: “Too young to die/Too late to die young/I try and fight/But get high and give up.” But the urgency of his strumming aligned with the lyrics, and that’s what earned the song its place alongside the album’s standouts “Ride the Wild Haze” and “I Break Guitars.” Take away that rock setup, and Quiet Slang’s version of “Too Late” turns the original's sweetness into pure sap.

The most captivating thing about Everything Matters is the way it keeps reminding you of what it lacks: Cello replaces the gorgeous racket of the original “Young Hearts.” The new orchestral intro to “Spin the Dial” makes you miss the arena-rock hook from the version on Teenage Feelings. Alex has vowed to reach for his “blue-sky dream” on the next Beach Slang record. Whether that means his take on “Tonight, Tonight” or his own personal The Ugly Organ, Everything Matters makes the prospect of the band’s third proper album sound more attractive than it might have otherwise. In that respect, Quiet Slang could be the first shrewdly calculated move of James Alex’s career.

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