The first time I ran through this Bartees Strange album I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Honestly it didn’t quite click the second time either. And I think it’s because I’ve fallen into this hole lately where I’m pretty much ignoring the poppier side of my brain. I don’t know if it’s a mood thing, or just the need to act out after being locked away during COVID. But I’ve craved an edge to my music. Thus the spate of post-hardcore and heritage indie rock bands and whatnot that I’ve been vibing with of late. So when Farm to Table, with its kind of unclassifiable alternative pop, comes along, I’m not sure what to make of it. It’s as if I’ve forgotten how to just sit back and enjoy a vibe.
Of course if you read the Internet, you might think this was just another indie rock album. But it really isn’t. I mean it uses instruments and has little indie rock flourishes, but the lyric phrasing and the bouncy quality of the music that is inflected with hip-hop, R&B and dance lifts it out of that genre. And places it pretty squarely in what passes for pop music in 2020s. But with a little more edge than an Ariana Grande or any number of those DJ dudes puts out there for what amounts to radio play in this decade. Mostly because there is some feeling behind his music, and not just singing about Pepsi or shots-shots-shots, or whatever the hell is going on in those songs. I feel like any comparisons I can make are only for one reason, and that’s because there are so few Black dudes in this space. So I pull out a Devonte Hynes (aka Blood Orange) of Test Icicles and Lightspeed Champion as an example. That’s the closest comparison I can make without going the Frank Ocean route. The former being much closer than the latter, but both have some similarities. Whatever the case, I still insist that this album is absolutely in no way indie rock. I’ll go as far as alt. singer/songwriter, but no further! Damn, listen to me argue with myself and make something out of nothing.
So, other than this monologue about the album’s lane, what do I think? Well, I’m both impressed and underwhelmed at the same time. Because, yes, there is one rock track: “Escape the Circus.” But it is literally the last forty seconds tacked onto the end of a 3:26 track. Like he finally had enough of the nicey-nice and decided to hit that pedalboard and go for it. But that’s it. The rest oscillates between soul/R&B crooning, slightly elevated pop music, some folk-y plinking and even some electronic experimentation. All of which is impressive in terms of mixing things up and keeping it fresh. But, for me, none of these quite hit the sweet spot. For me. In these times. When I want that spice. When I want something that just speaks to me in a very direct way. It doesn’t have to be intelligent. Sometimes it doesn’t even need to be good in the classical sense. But it needs to have something. And this album has forty seconds of that as far as I’m concerned. Forty seconds where Bartees just lets go. Loses control. Goes for it. Puts aside the good in favor of the passionate. Embracing the chaos. Embracing the anger that feels like it’s certainly bubbling underneath the otherwise incredibly controlled feel of the rest of the album.
Look, this isn’t a bad album. In fact, it’s rather nice in parts. It’s cool. It’s different. But that doesn’t mean it satisfies what I’m looking for inside. But if he can take that energy, that raw enthusiasm I saw flash in that one track and put that into an actual indie rock album, I’ll be first in line. But until then, I will pick and choose the few tracks I like here, play them and kind of work around the stuff that I don’t find entirely inspiring. And, again, it’s me. Not you. [Note: I had no idea Strange was the guitarist for Stay Inside for a couple years prior to their debut album coming out. Interesting.]