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Current Obsession: French Vanilla – “How Am I Not Myself?”

After being inside for 371 days and counting, something I’ve been incredibly grateful for is being able sit down and voraciously consume as much new music as humanly possible. And one of the most valuable discoveries I’ve made has to be the radical and forward-thinking Los Angeles queer art punk quartet, French Vanilla. CLRVNT has described French Vanilla as a group “that takes a dissonant, politically-minded approach to no wave that hearkens back to the genre’s glory days; think Bush Tetras after a weekend of binge-reading Audre Lorde and taking saxophone lessons.”

French Vanilla began making waves on the L.A. DIY punk scene when they released their self-titled debut album in 2017, and have since toured with the likes of Girlpool, ESG, and Cherry Glazerr.

French Vanilla’s sophomore album, How Am I Not Myself?, was released in 2019 and produced by Sean Cook, who also produced and engineered St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION. The album combines infectious guitar and sax leads with idiosyncratic rhythm sections and a radical political literacy that is not too dissimilar from their Washington, DC contemporaries, Priests. The group does a sublime job of combining jittery post punk vocal stylings and instrumentals a-la Essential Logic and Suburban Lawns, with politically-conscious writing and outrageous performance art similar to ’80s queercore artists like Vaginal Davis.

With the whirling vocals of frontwoman Sally Spitz, and playing that juggles the sonic energies of new wave and minimalist art punk, the band sounds like the love child of the B-52s, Le Tigre, and Bush Tetras. Combining a danceable, saxophone-laden groove with feminist nursery rhymes, How Am I Not Myself? both revels in absurdity and interrogates the heterosexist power structures in an oppressively patriarchal society.

The song “Bromosapien,” finds Spitz flaunting her signature caterwauling against Daniel Trautfield’s crisp saxophone leads, with lyrics that rail against misogynistic institutions that strip away the autonomy of young women and girls (“How do I know you are sexist?/Because you’re ego is so delicate”). The instrumentation on “Lost Power,” draws contagiously twangy leads from lead guitarist Ali Day, while Spitz unpacks the paranoia and sense of lost identity that comes with being in a visibly heteronormative relationship (“All night I think I’m sick/Losing color and I’m falling quick”).

“All the Time,” boasts bouncing, brassy instrumentals that stand in stark contrast to the serious lyrical subject matter. Spitz’s robotic vocal stylings hearken back to early DEVO records, while the lyrics find the song’s narrator fighting for self-actualization through the act of attempting to please others, whether it be potential lovers, friends, clients, or families (“Oh, I wanted you to see, you to see/Everything that we could be, we could be”).

On “Joan of Marc by Marc,” the band does their best Josef K impression with rapidly jangling instrumentals. The narrator of the song feels corrupted by their unrelenting libido as they find themselves in a tug-of-war between their attraction to men and women, while simultaneously struggling to fight off the heteronormative dogma that forces women into subordinate roles in heterosexual relationships (“I gag on the ordinary”).

Writing songs about the intersection of the personal and the political in a way that makes listeners want to burst out dancing is never an easy task. French Vanilla’s How Am I Not Myself strikes the perfect balance between seriousness and whimsical satire with relentless energy, textures, and bright color palettes.

Score: 8.5/10

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Music

Arca “KiCk i” Album Review

“Bitch, I’m special. You can’t tell me otherwise, that’d be a lie” is one of the first zingers we hear on the opening track, “Nonbinary,” on Venezuelan artist and producer Arca’s new LP, KiCk i. Right from the start it’s crystal clear that Arca’s pulling no punches and is about to take the listener on a journey of dissonance, clarity, and self-actualization.

Arca already had three critically acclaimed albums under her belt as well as an impressive lineup of credentials, having produced for artists like Björk, Kanye West, FKA Twigs, and Frank Ocean.

This album is heavy on the electronic and hyperactive pop side, with a touch of reggaeton and dancehall influence. Each track is overloaded with violent synth arpeggios amplified up to a cartoon level. It is very similar to the hyperpop sound that has been pioneered in these past few years by artists like SOPHIE, 100 gecs, and a myriad of other artists under the PC Music umbrella.

The record shows Arca reflecting on the struggle to live as an out trans woman in public spaces (“Mequetrefe”), coming out on the other side and living unapologetically on songs like “Riquiquí” (“Regenerated girl degenerate to generate heat in the light/Love in the face of fear/Fear in the face of God”), finding the strength and safety in finally being able to open up to a lover (“Calor”), and sexual liberation on ethereal ballads like “Afterwards” with Björk reciting a poem by the Spanish modernist poet Antonio Machado, and the sensual club banger “Watch” with Shygirl.

The song “KLK” with Rosalia (short for “?que lo que?”/”keloke,” which translates to “what’s up” in Spanish), is an unabashed celebration of identity, femininity, the magic of being showgirls and celebrating their roots and culture. “Rip the Slit” is a kinky, repetitive, and unabashedly gay anthem (“I’ll hit you with that limp wrist, lipstick/Slit lip, rip slit, tit for tat”) that Arca has described as “a gleeful perversion.” “La Chíqui” with SOPHIE is a clashing of two hyperpop titans producing a bone-crushing track that hits listeners over the head with that trademark SOPHIE production that sounds like the most delightful computer crash.

The final two tracks “Machote” and “No Queda Nada” are more emotionally-driven ballads where Arca gets to show off her vocal chops as she sings about desire, love and gratitude. The closing track (“No Queda Nada”) is an ethereal stadium-ballad that was inspired by Selena Quintanilla, which Arca dedicates to her partner, Carlos Sáez.

As pop evolves and progresses it is clear that Arca is one of the most exciting artists to watch, and KiCk i is only the beginning of her world domination. KiCk i is available for purchase on iTunes and can be streamed on Spotify and Apple Music.