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Bartees Strange Ponders Success in Dire Times

By chance, choice and artistic inclination, Bartees Strange has been a lifelong outlier — a position his songs grapple with, exult in and constantly 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 settled in Mustang, Okla. He sang in church choirs with his mother, who also performed opera, and he started producing music in a homemade studio in his teens. He began releasing songs on SoundCloud a decade ago, and he played in hardcore bands in Washington, D.C. and in the self-described “post-hardcore” Brooklyn band Stay Inside.

Instead of following a Black musician’s stereotyped path into hip-hop or R&B — though he draws on both — Strange, now 33, found his own voice in indie-rock, adopting the churning guitars and destabilizing synthesizers of bands like TV on the Radio, Bloc Party, Radiohead and the Cure. Most of the tracks on his debut EP as Bartees Strange, “Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy,” which was released in March 2020 just as pandemic restrictions began, were moody, volatile, radically reworked versions of songs by the long-running indie-rock band the National.

Forging an indie-rock career is an uncharted, self-conscious path at the best of times, navigating revelation and obfuscation, rawness and craftsmanship, instincts and commercial objectives. “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” introduced Strange in all his multiplicity. He constructed hurtling rockers (“Boomer”) and pulsating electronic beats (“Flagey God”); he examined yearning and rage, confessions and inventions. “I lie for a living now/that’s why I can’t really tell you stuff,” he sang in “Mustang,” named after his longtime hometown.

The pandemic delayed an indie-rocker’s usual next step: touring. But by the time concerts resumed, “Live Forever” had been embraced by listeners and fellow musicians. Strange played opening slots for Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Courtney Barnett and the National; he recorded a fervid band performance that was released in 2021 as “Live at Studio 4”; he did remixes and guest appearances with Bridgers, Illuminati Hotties and others.

“Farm to Table” reflects all the conflicting feelings of personal success during dire times. “There’s reasons for heavy hearts/This past year I thought I was broken,” Strange sings in “Heavy Heart,” as the album begins. But the music evolves from lament to gallop, with guitars pealing and piling on as Strange glances through a whirlwind year: travel, loneliness, someone’s death, a romance, growing up: “Some nights I feel just like my dad/Rushing around,” he sings, troubled yet surging ahead.

His past also looms in “Tours,” as Strange picks an acoustic guitar and juxtaposes fragmented childhood memories of military postings and family separations — “Where is Kuwait? Is that in the States?” — with his own life on the road. Not that he’s complaining too much; in “Cosigns,” he flaunts and marvels at his ascending career, name-checking his tour mates, but he also worries over his own rising expectations. The track opens with bleary synthesizers and mock-casual rapping, then gathers echoing guitars and a heftier beat until Strange is belting, “Hungry as ever/there’s never enough!”

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

Nothing goes unmixed in Strange’s songs. His productions metamorphose as they unfold, restlessly shifting among idioms; his lyrics refuse easy comforts. In “Mulholland Dr.,” he sets up a skein of guitar patterns like a latter-day Laurel Canyon production, gleaming prettily even as he sings about misgivings and mortality: “I’ve seen how we die/I know how we lose.” And in “Wretched,” he’s desperately missing someone, feeling lost and abandoned, blurting out that “My life feels wrong without you.” But the music carries him, a spiraling crescendo with guitars and synthesizer swells, kicking into a four-on-the-floor beat, pumping toward a final realization: “Sometimes it’s hard, but you know I’m thankful.”

Bartees Strange
“Farm to Table”
(4AD)

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