REVIEW: Phoebe Bridgers “Punisher” Tour

When there’s a severe thunderstorm warning in Detroit, you’d naturally want to stay inside. But when there’s a severe thunderstorm warning in Detroit and Phoebe Bridgers is scheduled to perform, outside, at the same time…  you’d naturally ask yourself: ‘what’s a little rain?’ and get into that car anyway. 

At least, that’s what I did Tuesday night when I made the 45 minute drive from Ann Arbor to Detroit and watched some very ominous clouds roll in with me. By the time I reached the Aretha Franklin Amphitheater, a gorgeous outdoor venue nestled into the banks of the Detroit River, I’d almost convinced myself the storm would pass us. It was breezy and bright, and hundreds of people stood in line to show their tickets, almost like a Michigan game day, if Michigan fans wore skeleton suits instead of maize. 

“Oh, good, it’s covered,” my friend said when we were finally in, gesturing to the billowing white canopy above us. But the cover was no match for the rain. We turned to watch the opening electro-pop band, MUNA, for about half a song, until the storm began.

In what felt like an instant, lightning began to pepper the sky behind the stage, illuminating the river below. Then, the downpour began. The crowd screamed, and MUNA left the stage, replaced by the crew as they rushed to throw tarps on the equipment. Through the rain I realized: Bridgers had taken the stage too, tarp in hand. We cheered until she left with the crew, and that was the last we saw of her until two hours later when the sky finally cleared. 

While we waited, the storm raged on the river, soaking us in spite of the canopy. The crowd screamed at each lighting sighting, which meant we were pretty much screaming the whole time. Finally, the tell-tale beat of “ I Gotta Feeling” pumped through the loudspeakers, signaling the start of a Phoebe Bridgers show. Then, Bridgers and her band were on stage, suited up in their classic skeleton jumpsuits, and the intro to “Motion Sickness,” from Stranger in the Alps, overtook the Black Eyed Peas.  

On stage, Bridgers was a vision. While lighting still flashed behind her, she looked completely in-control, as if she herself was commanding the storm. Her soft, honest style of singing was even more powerful in person than on the recording as she transitioned into the lull of “Garden Song,” and we hummed along. “Kyoto,” on the other hand, sent the crowd into an uproar; a jarring change from her more melancholy music, its upbeat tune and catchy chorus was a highlight of the night. 

Personally, I was most touched by “Punisher” and “Moon Song.” “Punisher” details Bridgers’ adoration for one of her biggest musical influences- the late indie-rock legend Elliot Smith, who died in 2003. “What if I told you I feel like I know you, but we never met?” Bridgers laments in the song’s chorus, and as we sang along, I could tell many in the audience felt as connected to Bridgers through her music as she did to Smith. 

“Moon Song,” was ethereal, as lighting continued to flash in the background, and the crowd swayed along. A marriage proposal during “Savior Complex” stands out as another highlight;  Bridgers was beside herself with amusement and glee. 

“I Know the End” was, of course, reserved for last, and it was a spectacular finish. It crescendoed into an overwhelming burst of energy and sound, as Bridgers expertly shredded on her electric guitar, and even kissed her bass guitarist. When the crashing drums settled down, she ran off stage, but returned for a brief encore- a cover of Bo Burnam’s “That Funny Feeling.” 

In my home in Ann Arbor that night, I put on “Punisher” before I fell asleep. And I’ve put it on every day since. “Everyone knows you’re the way to my heart,” Bridgers wrote about Smith, and how touched you can be by a stranger’s music. After that concert, I know how she feels

PREVIEW: Phoebe Bridgers Punisher Tour

Since the release of her debut album Stranger in the Alps in 2017, indie rocker Phoebe Bridgers has charted a quick path to critical success. For her subsequent project, Bridgers collaborated with Conor Oberst, a singer-songwriter best known for fronting rock band Bright Eyes. The pair called themselves Better Oblivion Community Center, and in 2019, released an album together by the same name to generally positive reviews. By the next year, however, it became clear that Stranger and Better Oblivion were just a taste of what Bridgers had to offer. In 2020, she came out swinging with her second solo album; the shockingly candid confessional, titled Punisher, solidified her as a name to watch in music for years to come.

Personally, I’ve been loosely following Bridgers’ career since 2017, when I saw her open for Conor Oberst in Milwaukee. When she took the stage that night, I had never heard her name, but I remember being captivated by her shock of white blond hair against her black clothes and the way she commanded the crowd as she sang. But, that was a tiny theater in Milwaukee; tomorrow, she’s playing the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre in Detroit. I’m interested to see if she’ll be able to enthrall the audience the way she did four years ago in that little room, but if the success of Punisher is any indication, I’m fairly positive she will.

The Punisher tour will be in Detroit tomorrow, September 14, at 8PM. As of this posting, lawn tickets are still available through Bridgers’ website: Masks are required and all attendees must provide proof of vaccination.

REVIEW: Chemtrails Over the Country Club

Two days after the album’s release, I can finally pull myself from my folk-Americana-alt-indie haze to write a coherent review of Chemtrails Over the Country Club— Lana Del Rey’s sixth studio album. To say I was dubious that this album could come close to her last work, the masterpiece that was Normal F*cking Rockwell (NFR), would be an understatement; when I first hit play on Chemtrails, I expected to be disappointed. Lana has a beautiful voice and can write successful songs, but her subject matter and music tends to stay in one wheelhouse; mix Hollywood glamor and greed with older men and despair, and you have a Lana song—  probably one that I’m going to like. Still, what I really had been wanting from her was something new, and I got that on NFR as she reigned in her voice and subject matter so that the melodrama became a bit more authentic. I loved that album; it gave us a more personal sound that made me wonder if she had peaked. I mean, after NFR, after “Happiness is a butterfly” … what else was left to say? 

Evidently, there was plenty. On Chemtrails, she expanded upon that sound, adding elements I never thought I would hear on a track by Lana Del Rey, while stripping away elements I had come to expect. Covering Joni Mitchell, paying homage to American folk, and featuring country singers, Lana has taken her devotion to Americana to new levels on Chemtrails, combining her love for Hollywood with a love of something else that is distinctly American: country music. 

When I say country, I mean old school country, rooted in blues and American folk. Lana’s past music has occasionally been bluesy, with elements of jazz, but stringy acoustic guitar and brass instruments are usually not something I would expect from her. Yet, in “Dance Till We Die,” she belts to a heavy beat against a saxophone and some bluesy guitar. It’s definitely one of the best moments on the album, and thankfully, this record no longer uses whatever weird vocal effect her old music used to have that made it sound as though she was singing on a 1950s microphone. Instead, her voice sounds clear and controlled, a definite improvement. 

Another standout is “Not All Who Wander are Lost,” which, once you hit the chorus, sounds absolutely nothing like a Lana Del Rey Song. It’s hopeful, and happier than 90% of her music, with beautiful harmonies that I can only guess come from producer Jack Antonoff, who’s known for using grand instrumental buildups. I can also hear his hand in its twangy guitar interlude and closing solo, which, again, are not things I would expect on a Lana track. Lana first brought Antonoff on for NFW, and I think we partially have him to thank for the slightly less performative, more confessional style on some of her newer songs. 

Something I also really appreciated were features of other artists. “Breaking up Slowly” features “outlaw country” artist Nikki Lane, and Lana also brings in Zella Day and Weyes Blood to cover Joni Mitchell’s “For Free.” It transforms into something beautiful and orchestral… something in which Antonoff surely had a part. 

There are some songs that sound more like classic Lana, like “White Dress” and “Chemtrails over the Country Club,” which I was able to appreciate in contrast to some of the other songs. “Wild at Heart” strikes a really nice balance between old Lana and this new sound. It’s a beautiful triumph that, at times, even reminds me of Tammy Wynette (who is referenced in “Breaking Up Slowly”) and other classic old country, while still feeling like Lana. “Dark But Just a Game” is another song that really blends the old Lana with the new, sounding like Born to Die and Ultraviolence, at parts, while still feeling more confessional and raw than the music of her past. I think that balance is crucial, because other songs, like “Let Me Love You Like a Woman,” that feel straight off Ultraviolence or Honeymoon are definitely the weakest for me. I guess I’ve just heard her do that type of song before, and I’ve heard her do it better. I would leave that sound in the past. 

Overall, though, I am surprised to say: I love this album. It delves into a side I didn’t know Lana had. I like that it plays into other parts of American music, because American culture has always been a big part of Lana’s subject matter, but now she’s using that in a new way. She references many other artists in her lyrics, including Joni Mitchell, Tammy Wynette, and Kings of Leon, nodding to the new folk and country elements this album brings in, and, of course, the rock upon which she has always depended. 

So, in conclusion, is it better than Normal F*cking Rockwell? Well, I haven’t decided yet. But the fact that I have to ask that question at all is an incredibly good sign.

PREVIEW: Chemtrails Over the Country Club

Ten years ago in 2011, Lana Del Rey hit the alternative music scene with her first major studio album Born to Die. Since then, she has cranked out a handful of successful albums, earning herself the title “Queen of Alternative” from numerous big names in the industry like Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Pitchfork. Tomorrow, she hopes to add to that success, with her seventh studio album, Chemtrails Over the Country Club. Chemtrails has big shoes to fill after her most recent album, Normal F*cking Rockwell (2019),  a smashing critical success that received universal acclaim.

I’ve liked Lana’s music for years, though, as her music career has flourished, she has created many social and political controversies; one can’t help but wonder whether, in the last year of tumultuous social change, she will be able to hang onto her success given her troublesome tendency in this regard. 

It will be interesting to see if these controversies finally catch up with her, or if she can match her previous success. Either way, I’m looking forward to listening. Chemtrails Over the Country Club will be available on music platforms and in stores tomorrow, March 19. 

REVIEW: Deadly Secrets: The Lost Children of Dozier

“When I try to remember it, most of the time all I see is red… a red haze… I do remember thinking I was going to die.” This is how Robert Straley, a former student at the Dozier School for Boys, describes his time there as a thirteen year old in the early 1960s. The Dozier School, located in Marianna, Florida, operated for over 100 years, seeing thousands of “troubled” young boys pass through its doors by order of the state. Tragically, dozens of the Dozier students never left the school’s grounds; by the time it closed in 2011, Dozier reported 31 children died while in attendance. Deadly Secrets: The Lost Children of Dozier, directed by Heidi Burke, follows the reporter who brought the story to light and the forensic anthropologist who made it her mission to identify the boys beneath those unmarked graves.

The story starts with Ben Montgomery, a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times who first speaks to Straley about Dozier in the early 2000s. Montgomery then meets hundreds with stories exactly like Straley’s: boys from poor families who had committed minor infractions that sent them straight to Dozier, without the consent of their parents. At Dozier, they experienced brutal mental, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the guards, who were often community members with families of their own. “They became men like demons,” Straley says of the guards during the film, “and when they went home they hugged their grandchildren and went to church.” 

As Montgomery delves deeper into the horrors of Dozier, his writing catches the attention of the other key player in Deadly Secrets— forensic anthropologist Dr. Erin Kimmerle from the University of South Florida, who hopes to excavate those unmarked graves. Upon doing so, her team finds the bodies of 55 children buried at Dozier, a number significantly higher than what the state reported. Dr. Kimmerle employs forensic analysis to test the DNA of the excavated remains against the DNA of possible family members she tracks down through old ledgers and state records. It’s frustrating work, as most records are incomplete, or simply wrong. Still, amazingly, she identifies the remains of nearly 20 of the 55 missing boys. 

Kimmerle’s diligent work and Montgomery’s vital reporting are inspiring, but the real heart of this film lies with the students and their families. One such family member is Cherry Wilson, whose brother Earl was sent to Dozier when Cherry was six years old. That was the last time she saw Earl, whom she recalls lovingly as always bringing her candy, though she has thought about him every single day since he left. Kimmerle was able to identify Earl’s remains and return them to his family. 

Overall, I wish the film dedicated more time to the students themselves. I think their memories were more essential than detailing Kimmerle’s struggle to excavate, or Montgomery’s newspaper articles. Still, this story would not have been brought to light without their dedication to the cause, so I understand why the film covered them in such depth; I wouldn’t necessarily cut any of their parts out, as they were still interesting and important, but I would add more coverage of the students. 

Deadly Secrets does really capture the haunting details of Dozier, most of which I have left out, because hearing these chilling stories from the mouths of the survivors themselves is infinitely more powerful than reading them on a screen. The film itself can be tricky to find; I was only able to view it thanks to UM’s Center For Midlife Science and their film series: “The Disappeared: A Human Rights Film Series & Discussion,” which explored the idea of enforced disappearance. This was the last event in the series, and it closed with a discussion featuring  Ford School of Public Policy professor Susan Waltz and School of Public Health professor Siobán Harlow, who shed more light on how the Florida government perpetuated these disappearances. Overall, both the event and the film were important and insightful. If you can find the film, I recommend you give it a watch; at the very least, look into this fascinating story and learn the names of Dozier’s lost children. 

REVIEW: folklore

I’ve always been a Taylor Swift fan. In second grade, “Love Story” was the first song I bought on my blue ipod Nano. In third grade, my dad took me to my first ever concert: the Fearless tour at the Allstate Arena. In sixth grade, my best friend’s dad picked us up from school the day Red came out and took us straight to Target to buy our copies. For me and so many others in my generation, Taylor Swift’s music was a pivotal part of our childhoods;  as we grew up, we watched her cross the bridge from country to mainstream pop, a feat few others before her were able to accomplish, and become one of the most influential artists of the decade. 

Now, 2020 Swift has surpassed even this. In a surprise drop less than one year after the release of her seventh album,  Lover,  Swift blessed the music world with her eighth record: folkore. Her most mature work to date, and the first in her catalogue to be classified as alternative, folklore represents a Swift album that can appeal to even those who have vehemently avoided her work in the past, citing it as “girly” or “shallow.” Though I don’t agree with those critiques, I find it hard to believe Swift’s critics could continue to apply them to her latest work. folklore presents a beautifully crafted, interwoven series of stories, characters, and emotions set to mystical acoustics, proving that Swift’s music is anything but superficial. 

According to Swift, the record was penned in its entirety during this summer’s quarantine period. Matching this isolation, folklore is much more subdued than Swift’s last three high energy albums.  Slow, sad songs like “Exile” and “Illicit Affairs” create perhaps the most heart-wrenching listen since Red’s  “All Too Well.” Though an alternative record, Swift definitely references her country roots on this album, like during folksy ballad “Betty,” which features heavy acoustic guitar and harmonica. folklore is both a callback to the best work of Swift’s past and something new altogether. 

Other than its  shift in genre, the main feature that sets folklore apart from Swift’s previous work is its strong roots in fiction and storytelling, as opposed to solely detailing Swift’s own life experiences. “I found myself not only writing my own stories, but also writing about or from the perspective of people I’ve never met, people I’ve known, or those I wish I hadn’t,” Swift wrote of the album. Though she has dabbled in work like this before, like writing from a friend’s perspective in “Speak Now”,  or a neighbor’s perspective in “Mary’s Song”,  Swift’s talent for telling stories that aren’t strictly autobiographical has taken on a whole new life in 2020. For example, three songs on folklore, “Cardigan”,  “August”,  and “Betty”, depict the three different perspectives of a fictional love triangle, creating a  complex level of storytelling that surpasses anything similar that Swift has done before. 

Only expanding this idea more, the album is broken into different interconnected “chapters,” which Swift has detailed on her instagram and website, so far titled: “the escapism chapter”;  the sleepless nights chapter” ; “the saltbox house chapter” ; and “the yeah I showed up at your party chapter.” Each chapter has six songs, and these groupings suggest many different lenses through which to view them, hinting at all sorts of double meanings and hidden messages. The storytelling here is truly masterful, and allows the record to stay fresh for countless listens. 

The thing about Swift that really sets her apart from others in her field is her incredible talent for writing and lyrics, and folklore allows this skill to shine more than any of her previous albums. Musically speaking, folklore is a beautiful, relaxed, indie-sounding record, but nothing groundbreaking. Sound-wise, it walks the line between mellow pop and chill indie rock, just barely crossing over into the alternative category. If the lyrics and vocals were weak, this album might not be anything special. But they aren’t. They are Swift, at her raw, relatable, emotional best: beautiful,  honest, and breathtaking. 

Hearing folklore for the first time was the most positive reaction I’ve had to a new Taylor Swift record since Red in 2014, and I think that it might really be her best work to date. Even if you’ve never liked her in the past, this album could be the one to convince you that Swift does have something special to offer, in her songwriting and storytelling.  You can stream folklore on all platforms, and immerse yourself in the type of fairytale its name suggests.