Monday, September 29, 2014

album review: 'manipulator' by ty segall

Occasionally you see people working the music industry who generate an insane amount of music. They've got work ethics like none other, they drop albums every year, they write perform and even collaborate and seem to do it all. And it's even rarer to find acts who can maintain some vestige of consistent quality along the way, because let's be honest, if you continue churning out material, eventually you're going to slip up. And for some critics, it becomes something of a waiting game, eager if you're not a fan or nervous if you are. 

And if you're a fan of lo-fi indie garage rock, the name that leaps to the top of your list would be Ty Segall. Originating from San Francisco, he's managed to drop a frankly astounding number of records, collaborations, and projects since 2005 - and the amazing fact is that the majority of the albums are pretty damn solid, be it on his own, with his band, or with Fuzz, Mikal Cronin, and White Fence. And that's not counting the truly excellent records he's released, the most notable being the noisy and aggressive Slaughterhouse with the Ty Segall Band in 2012.

Now in recent years, some of the darker edges of the 60s blues and psychedelic rock have bled into Segall's work, which coalesced most on 2013's Sleeper, a more acoustic leaning album that showed consistency but didn't always click for me. That's more because the quieter focus meant more emphasis on the lyrics, which have probably been my one big hangup with Ty Segall. Now he's not a bad lyricist, per se, but a lot of his songwriting has fallen into his brand of simple and aggressive self-deprecation that can lack nuance. And that can work when you're playing fuzz-saturated raucous guitars and howling into the microphone - not everyone is trying to be Perfect Pussy, after all - but a more acoustic ambiance naturally draws more focus to the songwriting.

That said, Ty Segall's music has steadily been becoming more polished with every release, and with early reviews suggesting his new album Manipulator was his most lush, expansive, and long to date, I wasn't sure what to expect. So what did I get?

Well, I mostly got what I expected, which is a pretty solid Ty Segall record with a few standout hits, a few duds, and a sign that his greatest strength might just be the fact that he's so damn consistent in putting out quality. What I do really like about this album is that the thematic cohesion finally matches the instrumental cohesion in blending all of Ty Segall's numerous influences together... but at the same time it produces a uniformity in quality that can be a little difficult to surpass.

I should explain, so let's start with Ty Segall himself. Now I'll go on record saying I like his more rough-edged, howling, lower range than his upper range and falsetto, but he does manage to make it work more often than not on this album. The key thing with Ty Segall is analogous to much of Jack White's recent work, in that he knows how to frame himself properly through his vocal delivery, and his lower range tends to be more expressive in conveying the sleazy, darker side of his persona, which becomes a natural fit for much of the subject matter. With much of his falsetto, I find myself drawing more comparisons to many of the vocalists of the first British invasion in the late 60s and early 70s, and it doesn't always feel as distinctly cohesive, especially on the more stripped back, psychedelic folk-inspired numbers. And on songs like 'The Singer', I'm reminded a bit of when Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day or Matt Bellamy of Muse attempt to call back to that era of rock music with significantly more earnestness, and it doesn't quite click.

Now the instrumentation does make up for a lot of it, and like always, a lot of Ty Segall's strengths really do shine through here. I'll always prefer him on the rougher side of garage rock, and thus bass-heavy tracks like the noise-rock 'It's Over' and its near-mirror with the explosive 'The Crawler', and 'Susie Thumb', the last featuring some great, punchy drumwork - these are the tracks that really worked for me. But there was also the ominous chug of 'Feel', the great acoustic/lo-fi balance on 'The Hand' and 'The Feels' or groove-driven songs like 'The Faker' or the fantastic memorable riff on 'The Clock'. But to my surprise the integration of strings and more opulent elements sound workable, like on the opening track 'Manipulator' or 'The Clock', mostly thanks to Segall's smart production choice to segregate lo-fi segments from those that sound cleaner while still preserving the texture, especially in the heavy acoustic strumming which of course I really liked. That said, there are definitely instrumental elements that misfire - 'Connection Man' features a really high grating synth tone that cuts through even the guitar snarl and was exceptionally annoying, the guitar line on 'Mister Main' barely evolved and combined with the multi-tracked falsetto and the beat switch and solo that went nowhere, and while I liked the strings on 'The Singer', that solo just fizzled out completely. What does become apparent over the course of this album instrumentally is that certain songs do start to run together or show distressing similarities to previous tracks on the album, and while the longer, more grandiose tone fits, it does mean this album does have a little dead weight and could have used some tighter grooves to keep up the pace. 

And now we come to lyrics and themes - and look, after going through all of Ty Segall's work, there's a limit to how much one can expect for thematic cohesion - and thus I was pleasantly surprised to see him pull together a broad selection of situations tied around the theme of manipulation. And it definitely helps that Ty Segall isn't afraid to frame himself as a less sympathetic character, almost craven and lecherous especially as his voice drops from its upper range. And when this album sticks to exploring this theme, it can pull together some really strong tracks. 'It's Over' is all passive-aggression and contempt as he toys with emotional distance, 'Feel' plays on psychological terror, 'The Faker' drops into a conventionally despicable Iago or Frank Underwood role speaking to the audience and not his prey, and 'Mister Main' is all about cronyism. But sometimes Segall goes for more abstract situations, like on 'The Clock' where he talks about how people allow themselves to get manipulated by their perception of time, or the artist exploiting a girl for artistic inspiration on 'Green Belly', or people allowing themselves to be exploited by technology on 'Connection Man' or by the slightest desire for human contact on 'The Hand'. 

It's in the second half of this album where the distrust of relying on technology in Segall's lyrics fuses with his more personal framing and we get the one named character of the album on the titular track 'Susie Thumb', a girl addicted to her phone and the slightest hope for fifteen minutes of fame. And it's very telling that on the very next song, Segall begins plying her affections by playing on her insecurities, which he remorselessly gloats about on 'The Crawler' which thematically operates as a pretty effective reprise of 'It's Over' and that same corruption. But then the tables are turned harshly on 'The Feels', when it is revealed both Segall and Susie have been manipulating each other all along, and it's only now that they both realize her manipulations, because while she might not have realized it, she's really only just like him. It's a real sobering moment on the album, especially in Segall's resignation to the whole ordeal. He knows he's manipulating people - and maybe, at least to his point-of-view, that's the only way people can really communicate. It's noteworthy that there are many tracks showing people looking for a human connection - and yet when they find it, they choose to screw with each other. And then comes the final, very potent statement in 'Stick Around', where Ty Segall looks straight into the camera and says 'it's love', at least by his definition and that we as an audience all still want to stick around - because it's better to have those human connections, even if forged under manipulative pretenses, than to have no connection at all. It's really a dark, nihilistic point of view, implying the only way humans have relationships in the modern era is through manipulation, but by framing himself as easily the worst culprit, Segall humanizes the record and everything he does, and presents the audience with the uncomfortable truth that even if we don't want to admit it, we're a lot like him, and at the very least we're going to watch the whole sordid story unfold. We might not be Machiavelli, but on some level we're drawn to these stories, and even despite framing himself in darkness, we're still going to listen to Segall and on some level, root for him.

So, in the end, I really did like Manipulator by Ty Segall, even though I don't quite love it. It's got lyrical nuance, fearlessly tricky framing, and a lot of instrumental cohesion - to say nothing of some great, textured songs - but it ultimately runs a little too long and is a little too scattershot to ultimately work all the way. In other words, I think a strong 7/10 is appropriate, as well as a recommendation to all fans of Ty Segall or anyone who has a craving for some solid, rough-edged garage rock. But what I do really appreciate about this album is the fact that Ty Segall has shown some real ambition behind the album in terms of making album statements with presence and power, and on that note, Manipulator shows a ton of promise for the future.

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