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The Mountain Goats - In League With Dragons Music Album Reviews

John Darnielle explores the humanity of wizards, sports legends, Ozzy Osbourne, and other folk heroes and beacons of hope.
“Old wizards and old athletes are the same,” John Darnielle said during a Facebook live stream at the headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. He was there to announce the latest record from the Mountain Goats, In League With Dragons, and his rhetoric was appropriately fanciful: “They were once magic,” he offered by way of explanation.

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Ssion - O Music Album Reviews

Ssion - O Music Album Reviews

Cody Critcheloe’s witty multimedia alt-pop project exults in uncensored queerness on an album that fulfills the musician and filmmaker’s maximalist ambitions.

Cody Critcheloe has been vying for cult status ever since he founded multimedia alt-pop group Ssion in the early 2000s. With his early releases, the musician, filmmaker, and visual artist constructed a persona that incorporates a near-religious obsession with ’80s and ’90s rock and pop divas; a uniform of leather jackets, red lipstick, and a painted-on handlebar mustache; and an almost academic approach to dissecting and reconstructing queer culture into clever dance songs. Ssion’s third studio record, O, slickly sums up the many parts of Critcheloe’s career. It not only epitomizes his persona, but contains his best music to date.

An acclaimed music video director who has worked with Grizzly Bear and Perfume Genius, among others, Critcheloe makes clips for Ssion that serve as scrapbooks of the project’s aesthetic and musical touchstones. Madonna has been omnipresent in this pantheon since their 2001 debut album, I Don’t Want New Wave and I Don’t Want the Truth, which included the track “Madonna, Sean, and Cody Critcheloe” (whose title doubles as a Sonic Youth reference). On O, Critcheloe’s theatrically sensual vocals evoke the Queen of Pop circa Erotica. Slow burner “The Cruel Twirl” finds guest vocalist and left-of-center pop diva Róisín Murphy flatly stating, “Madonna still hasn't paid off her student loans, and you know what? Neither have I!”

It’s these witty, self-aware moments that have secured Ssion’s best-kept-secret status within underground pop for the better part of two decades, but what sets O apart from the rest of their records is the way it balances superfan Easter eggs with rock-solid songwriting and production. Although Ssion’s music has always been catchy, engaging, and fun, their DIY approach to recording kept them from fulfilling their maximalist ambitions on earlier albums. O embodies ultra-glossy mainstream excess without abandoning the band’s punk and experimental roots.

Critcheloe co-produced most of the album with Nick Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy and Sam Mehran (Test Icicles, Samantha Urbani), and their ménage à trois of dance, pop, rock, and electro sensibilities gives O plenty of variety. Single “At Least the Sky Is Blue,” a slinky mid-tempo collaboration with Ariel Pink, is built around a keyboard melody that sounds like a malfunctioning busy signal. “1980-99,” which features vocals from Sky Ferreira and former Hole drummer Patty Schemel, is the kind of scuzzy pop-punk pastiche Avril Lavigne can only dream of recording. The album’s eclecticism is most apparent on “Tell Me About It,” a sultry funk track wrapped around a rubbery bassline and injected with the self-assured sexuality of a Top 40 girl group. “Like passion in your pride parade/I live to love and to get paid,” Critcheloe purrs. “Oh, can't you hear these faggots scream?”

As that lyric suggests, O’s greatest achievement may be the way it exults in unadulterated queer emotion. On “Marc & Me,” a track with a sing-song melody that imagines a night out with Marc Jacobs, Critcheloe declares, “Lookin’ at you is like lookin’ at me/Lookin’ in a mirror, liking what I see.” “I know it's not the ’70s/But I'm feeling mighty real,” he quips on the dark, minimal electro number “Free Lunch.” In 2018, so many new artists are embracing their queer identities and heritage, but Critcheloe has spent about 20 years honing Ssion’s droll, campy, dramatic aesthetic—and that work has paid off in their strongest and most timely album yet. O is the sound of the zeitgeist catching up with Ssion, not the other way around.

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