Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Farm to Table, the second record and 4AD debut from genre-bending indie rocker Bartees Strange.
When Bartees Strange takes a beat, it doesn’t mean he’s resting. It’s never that simple.
You can’t anticipate any given moment on Farm to Table, Bartees’ second album: It’s brimming and ebbing with confidence and unease, with joy and malaise, forcing whiplash almost any time you get comfortable. All you can do is enjoy the ride. Threaded together primarily by his voice — sometimes a full falsetto and others a warm, scratchy baritone — Farm to Table runs criss-crossing loops through different avenues of loss, celebration and desire.
Farm to Table drips with need, and grasps at past losses even as it barrels ahead. On opener “Heavy Hearts” — its measured start a clear parallel to The National, whose songs Bartees has covered at length — he’s worried about repeating patterns and losing someone in the process; “Mulholland Dr” is preoccupied with loss and death, jumping between “I find it hard to get over this right now / ’Cause we’re not talking at all … I know how to lose” alongside the harsher “I’ve seen the ending, it’s all in your face and your eyes / I’ve seen how we die.” “Wretched” is perhaps the most direct in its desire: “I need you back in my system” and “My life feels wrong without you” keep the narrator trapped in a limbo. There’s also the simplest line, on “Hennessy”: “We don’t talk anymore.”
Amid the specters of death and loss, there’s also pomp: Bartees sometimes throws out sly, braggy one-liners and “Cosigns” initially appears to live in the vein of gratuitous, boastful rap. But to stay in that one lane would be unlike him, too one-note: As “Cosigns” progresses, it becomes a self-interrogation about success (“How to be full / It’s the hardest to know”) and its fallibility. Although Farm to Table is future-focused, Bartees carves that path forward while glancing, again and again, over his shoulder.
Indie rock is simply a base layer he builds upon, at times with aughts-evoking emo, glitchy crooners or fast-paced pop. Even within a song, there may be a sea change; most of Farm to Table’s joy is in the surprises. “Wretched” glides from a slow, pseudo-electronic start into a jarring, breakneck chorus. And it’s not for shock value — the verses marinate over a loss, mournful and contemplative, and the chorus is its reckoning, spit with full, reckless abandon.
Bartees’ incendiary choruses are designed to convey a point while granting the space for his most direct missives. On “Escape This Circus,” Bartees excoriates and examines systemic racism. At first bluesy, twangy folk and lyrically incisive (“The clerk, he says to buy some crypto / he had holes in his shoes”), the song erupts into punk when these cruel realities reach a fever pitch with screeching, crunchy guitars: “That’s why I really can’t fuck with y’all.”
He pays similar attention to vocal choices, molding his affectation to the song’s primary genre. On “Tours” — what could be a Broadway musical’s song of reflective nostalgia — Bartees melts both gentler and raw, voice rasping (“‘Cause I’m your son”) with notes elongated amid the fluid, simple fingerpicking. And then on “Cosigns,” where stacked accolades and industry ins paint ascension to success (albeit with some concern at the climb), he opts for a nasal rap.
All this fanfare can be a bit overwhelming. After all, when you make so many choices and fill every moment with such devotion and attention, there are bound to be some stumbles. Less bombastic tracks like “Tours,” “Hold the Line” and “Hennessy” offer some breathing room — and more explicit themes.
“Hold the Line” in particular is inspired by George Floyd’s daughter speaking about her father’s murder, according to a press release. The resonance of that loss is rendered across bleary electric guitar and his effortless vocals: He knots a note and wrings it out. To hold the line is to not yield to pressure following a difficult occurrence: “Hold the Line” serves equally as a memorial and a missive of the weary march forward.
Closing with the slower tune “Hennessy” is relaxing; lo-fi and buzzy, it could put you right in a studio, or, as it progresses, a bar — as piano enters, the crooner turns soulful and jazzy, and layered, overlapping vocals lend to a spiritual, choral feeling. The varying lines and general ease keep the track casual. It’s like a room full of friends, singing together for the first time, before they form that winning band. And after an album consumed with loss — of home, of love — it feels like a cleansing and coming together.
There’s the question of how this cacophony — songs slow and fast, and those that flit between the two by the second — all fits together. For the most part, we can trust Bartees: He’s clearly confident that it does.
Caitlin Wolper is a writer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Vulture, Slate, MTV News, Teen Vogue, and more. Her first poetry chapbook, Ordering Coffee in Tel Aviv, was published in October by Finishing Line Press. She shares her music and poetry thoughts (with a bevy of exclamation points, and mostly lowercase) at @CaitlinWolper.
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