Reviews

By Alana McConnell (she/her) and Nam Woon Kim (he/him)


What to watch:


Pen15 (2019-)

A while back I stumbled across a trailer on YouTube for the show ridiculously titled Pen15. Curiously I watched, and I immediately knew it was going to be an incredible show. The comments underneath the trailer though were a mixture of confusion and questions, and then of course replies to those comments making fun of how clueless they were. The reason for all this is that Pen15 is a show about two thirteen year old girls in middle school, experiencing the highs and lows of being an awkward, moody, and hilarious teenager in 2000. But the two actresses who are playing best friends Maya and Anna, are 31 year olds Maya Erskine and Anna Kronkle. They are playing 13 year old versions of themselves, amidst actual 13 year old kids who are playing their classmates.


The premise is undeniably unique, and it asks the viewers to suspend their disbelief and cynicism. It’s not hard to do, and I found myself quite quickly forgetting that Anna and Maya were nearly old enough to be their characters' mothers. They play the roles convincingly, with their womanly shapes strapped down, with retainers and braces, with awful haircuts, and mannerisms so eerily similar to most of us when we were thirteen. It’s an amazing feat, and it clicks so soundly with what it was like to be that age, especially in the early 2000s. I wasn’t thirteen in 2000, but so much still resonates. Especially having a best friend at that age and doing everything together, feeling like they were the only one who really got you, and conquering means girls, popular boys, and clueless parents together.


I only jumped momentarily out of the universe at times when for a split second I thought that they were actually going to kiss their crushes, who were underage. But the show never crossed any sexually unethical grey zones, keeping it 100% kosher but never sacrificing the quality. Pen15 may not be a bingeable show, because it does have extremely high levels of cringe comedy, where at points I had to genuinely look away (think of those first couple episodes from Season 1 of The Office). But the two seasons of Pen15 are consistently hilarious, a homage to growing up in the 2000s, the awkwardness of puberty, Care Bear hoodies, and AOL messaging.


What to listen to:


Big Red Machine

How Long Do You Think

It’s Going To Last? (2021)

When Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner collaborate, you know it’s going to be good. Big Red Machine is a musical project by Bon Iver’s Vernon and The National’s Dessner, a masterful and dynamic combination of talent, vision, and storytelling. Their first self-titled album was released in 2018, feeling more like a product of their musical community and not simply an album. You could hear Bon Iver’s trademark vulnerable but ambiguous lyrics, along with Dessner’s polyrhythms and eccentric time-signatures. There is also of course the electronic experimentation Bon Iver has dabbled with in his last two albums 22, A Million, and i,i.


I wouldn’t say Big Red Machine is instantly accessible to the listener, and that probably wasn’t the intention behind the collaboration. It’s a slow burner due to its complexity and multi-layered nature. The more you listen the more you appreciate the sound, and what they are trying to achieve.


Perhaps Big Red Machine’s new album is more accessible to those who aren’t just diehard lovers of the artists' well known bands. Taylor Swift can probably be thanked for that, as she is responsible for helping the likes of The National and Bon Iver come into the popular music sphere, with their collaborations on folklore and evermore. 'Renegade' was released in July featuring Swift, and is an upbeat indie tune, contrasted by lyrics that describe a claustrophobic relationship, and the unsaid thoughts of dating someone with a mental illness. It shows Swift and Big Red Machine bringing their strengths to the table, combining lighthearted production with heavier topics.


The other songs on the album feature an impressive array of collaborators, from Fleet Foxes, Sharon Van Etten, and Ben Howard. The first song, 'Latter Days', is one of my favourites. Featuring Anais Mitchell, a consistent collaborator with Bon Iver, the tune is a melancholic ballad about loss of innocence and nostalgia, made less lonely with Bon Iver’s additional voice in the chorus.


Big Red Machine’s latest album is worth a listen, from start to finish. If you are already a fan of Bon Iver or The National, high chance you’ve probably already dived right in. Most Bon Iver fans rabidly devour any work Vernon produces as soon as it’s released. But if you are less familiar, after a few listens you may begin to appreciate the thoughtful production, the collaborative artistry, and the emotionality that connects it all together.


Backxwash

I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES

This one’s for the metalheads in the crowd, anyone with an appetite for abrasive, experimental hip hop, or those of you looking for more queer artists to listen to. If you lie at the centre of this Venn diagram, it’s your lucky day.


“The purpose of pain is to get our attention, that something is wrong, protect us from further damage and request care. It’s in this sense that a little bit of pain is a good thing.”


This is how I LIE HERE BURIED WITH MY RINGS AND MY DRESSES starts. Spoken in a cold, clinical tone, this sample repeats itself for just under a minute and a half as it loops and overlaps to create an unsettling introduction that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The repetition gives these vocals an ominous, sarcastic authority as it slowly folds into itself as a platitude that even sounds threatening at points. It’s eerie, patronising, and alienating and it’s the perfect lead-in for a relentless run of songs that doesn’t stop until the album ends.


The anger and pain Backxwash taps into here is a response to the paternalism that haunts her as a trans woman. She often candidly recounts the difficult journey thus far in interviews, spanning Zambia to Canada, which offer insight to what she’s had to navigate to be able to express herself and her music. Her latest destination is I LIE HERE…, where she reviews what went wrong and what could have gone worse. Christianity intersects with colonial horror among other themes where she embraces the transgressions she’s accused of (note the 33 minute, 3 second runtime). From Street Fighter references to an Angela Davis sample, Backxwash casually includes a bit of everything that inspires her too.


The production itself embodies this as the album is built on a library of sounds ripped straight from horror cinema. Embedded into every layer and instrument is the same frustration Backxwash channels as she raps, growls, and screams her way through an impressive soundscape she produced mostly herself. Synthy bass, menacing piano lines, and literal wailing accompany her scathing indictment of the status quo.


“The colonies and their vision/Robbing me of my diction,” she laments on the title track. Although each song and feature hits a different pocket, this song deserves specific mention. Guitars revving like chainsaws announce the beat where Ada Rook, who also mastered the album, comes in with an earth shattering hook. To say Rook understood the assignment would be underselling just how thoroughly she murders her part.


Little Simz

Sometimes I Might Be Introvert

Chances are you’ve at least heard of Little Simz on TikTok through the viral hit ‘Venom’. My introduction to her was ‘Garage Palace’, a Gorillaz bonus track among bonus tracks that became an instant fan favourite after its live debut. If you haven’t gotten to know her yet, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert is an excellent place to start.


Little Simz the musician and Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo the person, the balance between the two is the dynamic under scrutiny here as she says herself on opening track ‘Introvert’. Across Broadway-esque interludes and a deep pool of laidback anthems and effortless heaters, Simz looks inwards to reflect on what keeps her going. Ten years is a long time in the music game and SIMBI shows she still has plenty to say.


‘Introvert’ is a bold, six-minute, battle march of a song that also kicks off her must-watch Tiny Desk performance and will surely open her shows too. (Don’t sleep on a Little Simz gig – the energy she brings with her backing band is such a satisfying experience.) This opener has Simz touching on her past and her future while offering her takes on the world today, too. It’s also an unapologetic affirmation of what we call introversion. Although it’s misattributed to shyness more than anything else, Simz demonstrates how she uses it as an anchor as she notes down societal ills as experienced by black women.


Some attention should be given to her producer, Inflo, as well, who continues to be an integral part of Simz's sound by letting her take on whatever she wants sonically. You’re going to hear trumpets, synths, colourful percussion, as well as the odd sample. Featuring a melody from Smokey Robinson, ‘Two Worlds Apart’ is one of this year’s smoothest tracks that’s going to get plenty of play on many a sunny day. The second to last track, ‘How Did You Get Here’ is another standout. Introspective bars that catalogue one’s ups and downs after success is a hip hop staple and Simz’s take is an essential addition to this tradition. Both reassuring and motivating, it cements the album as a celebration too, on top of her doubts and questions.


The question of what having a platform as an artist means, which Simz poses at the start, is something Kendrick Lamar also speaks to in his music, who in 2015 called her one of “the illest doing it right now”.


Listen to SIMBI to see why this is still the case.