Bartees Strange ponders success in tough times

By chance, choice and artistic inclination, strange Bartes has been an outlier all his life – a stance his songs constantly grapple wit...


By chance, choice and artistic inclination, strange Bartes has been an outlier all his life – a stance his songs constantly grapple with, exult and question on his second studio album, “Farm to Table”.

His father served in the Air Force, often overseas, and Bartees Leon Cox Jr. was born in England and lived in Greenland and Germany, among other places, before his family moved to Mustang, Okla. He sang in church choirs with his mother, who also performed opera, and he began producing music in a home studio as a teenager. He started releasing songs on SoundCloud ten years agoand he played in hardcore bands in Washington, D.C. and Brooklyn’s self-proclaimed “post-hardcore” band Stay Inside.

Instead of following the stereotypical black musician’s path to hip-hop or R&B – although he draws inspiration from both – Strange, now 33, found his own voice in indie. -rock, embracing the roaring guitars and unsettling synthesizers of bands like TV on the Radio, Bloc Party, Radiohead and The Cure. Most tracks from his debut EP as Bartees Strange, “Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy”, which was released in March 2020 just as pandemic restrictions began, were brooding, volatile and radically reworked versions of songs by longtime indie-rock band The National.

Forging an indie-rock career is an uncharted and self-aware path at the best of times, navigating between revelation and obfuscation, rawness and savvy, instincts and business goals. “I could give the pain for the bankroll,” Strange sang in “In a cab”, on his debut album, “Live Forever,” released in October 2020. Anything but tentative, “Live Forever” showcased Strange in all his multiplicity. He built rocker arms (“Boomer”) and pulsating electronic rhythms (“God flagey”); he examined desire and rage, confessions and inventions. “I lie for a living now / That’s why I can’t really tell you things,” he sang in “Mustang,” named after his longtime hometown.

The pandemic has delayed the usual next step for an indie rocker: touring. But by the time concerts resumed, “Live Forever” had been embraced by listeners and fellow musicians. Strange played top spots for Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Courtney Barnett and the National; he recorded a fervent group performance which was released in 2021 as “Live at Studio 4”; he did remixes and guest appearances with Bridgers, Illuminati hotties and others.

“Farm to Fork” captures all of the conflicting feelings of personal achievement during tough times. “There’s reason for heavy hearts / This last year I thought I was broken,” Strange sings in “Heavy Heart,” at the start of the album. But the music evolves from lament to gallop, with guitars ringing and piling up as Strange looks back on a whirlwind year: travel, loneliness, someone’s death, a romance, growing up: ” Some nights I feel like my dad/Rushing.” he sings, troubled but in full effervescence.

His past also hangs over “Tours” as Strange picks up an acoustic guitar and juxtaposes fragmented childhood memories of military postings and family separations – “Where is Kuwait? Is it in the United States? – with his own life on the road. Not that he complains too much; in “Cosigns”, he flaunts and marvels at his rising career, name-checking his tour mates, but he also worries about his own rising expectations. The track opens with confusing synthesizers and laid-back mock rap, then gathers echoing guitars and a heavier beat until Strange sings “Hungry as ever/There’s never enough!”

The most moving song on the album is “Stay on the line,” an elegy for George Floyd that he recorded in October 2020. “What happened to the man with that big smile/He’s calling his mother now,” Strange sings with tender desolation, answered by enthusiastic slide guitar ; later, he imagines himself in Floyd’s place.

Nothing goes unmixed in Strange’s songs. His productions metamorphose as they unfold, constantly moving from one idiom to another; his words refuse easy comforts. In “Mulholland Dr.”, he sets up a skein of guitar patterns like a Laurel Canyon production of the last days, shining nicely even as he sings about apprehensions and mortality: “I’ve seen how we die / I know how we lose.” And in “Wretched,” someone is desperately missing, he feels lost and abandoned, blurting out that “my life is not going without you.” But the music wins out, a crescendo in spiraling with guitars and synthesizer swells, kicking into a four-on-the-floor rhythm, pumping to a final realization: “Sometimes it’s hard, but you know I’m grateful.”

strange Bartes
“Farm to table”
(4AD)

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