FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE

18 Nov

FKA Twigs has long made some of the most interesting pop out there, but MAGDALENE is a full step above her earlier work. It’s easily her best album to date and one of the best albums of the year. She’s sharper, she’s more cohesive and this album just bangs.

There are the obvious parts, “holy terrain” works very well with the Future feature. The trap beat plays nicely against her voice and Future is perfectly understated. The heart of the album is in the thousands of little moments. There’s a beautiful vocal fragment to end “mary magdalene” and the pulsations of “fallen alien” are consuming and intense.

The album even works in the much slower “mirrored heart” and it fits expertly. The feedback in it adds a surprising heft and her lyrics are cutting. Coming as this album did, after a major break-up and a major surgery, it could have easily been a sledgehammer of an album, but her restraint makes the moments that reference the turmoil all the more powerful. Her finesse here is astonishing.

There are a few missteps in “home with you” and “daybed”, which just don’t do enough, but there is much more of note, like the beautiful and clever “sad day”. This is an album from an absurdly talented artist at the height of her powers and an album you don’t want to miss.

Kanye West – Jesus Is King

10 Nov

It’s a given now that a new Kanye album is going to be something of a production. Albums are promised and due dates come and go and you’re never sure what you will get until it comes. With Jesus Is King, what you get is a lot of truly excellent music and one of the more interesting albums that Kanye has ever made.

Coming in, I thought it would be a full gospel album. I expected “Ultralight Beam” extended into a complete album. Instead, although there is a very substantial gospel theme, the album as a whole is surprisingly diverse. There’s a heavy religious bent and the album is very cohesive, but my concerns about monotony proved entirely unfounded.

The album opens with a straight gospel track though, performed by the Sunday Service Choir that Kanye has toured with of late. It’s a good choir and a good way to open the album. It functions as a statement of purpose and a way for the listener to enter the mindset that the album asks for. It’s ablutionary.

It’s followed with “Selah,” which opens with Kanye rapping, but the centerpiece of the song is that same choir. Kanye has a couple of good lines (I like his biblical double-entendres), but the song is completely overpowered by the choir. It’s weapons-grade material to put into any song and it animates the song to such an extent that Kanye’s rapping after it feels completely subsumed by the echoes of that choral work. It makes for a powerful effect and one of the strongest songs of the album, but I feel that there’s space there for a better melding.

From there though, we go into “Follow God,” which really showcases Kanye’s ability as a rapper. In this and in “Hands On,” you can see technical rapping in a way that it feels that the earlier Kanye was just not capable of. He teases the chorus a couple of times in the middle of the song just to bull through it without taking a full breath and it’s dazzling. Even more interesting though is the center of the song, Kanye fighting with his father just to be told that it’s not Christ-like. The reality of spirituality is that it will be tested, and this struggle is one writ especially large with Kanye’s turn to God here. Kanye is famous for his emotionality, for his quickness to react, for his inability to think before he acts, and to see him address the struggle is valuable as it’s rare to see someone be honest and personal about how difficult it can be.

“Closed On Sunday” has a bit of the same. The Sabbath is a sacrifice as much as a respite and you can see the intent behind referencing Chick-fil-A’s decision to stay closed on Sunday out of respect for their faith. The production is sober and quiet and Kanye’s rapping is muted through most of it, which gives the music a heft that plays well with the theme and the wariness of the first verse, which then translates well into the second, often-shouted verse.

The Chick-fil-A association still leaves gristle in the teeth though. The company is far more famous for homophobia than for Sundays and to not only repeatedly reference them, but to end the song with a screamed invocation is overtly provocative. You have to expect that with Kanye, it is what he does, it gets the people going, but nevertheless I would have really liked it if he had backed it up a little. He explains “I Thought About Killing You” over the course of the song and that is why that piece is so strong, but here he simply provokes and runs, and it feels less than it should as a result.

The middle is a bit forgettable. It’s reminiscent of some of the more forgettable parts of TLoP to me, but I actually really like “God Is.” It’s just earnest and that’s nice to see. Earnestness is another of those things that’s critical to any understanding of religion, but it’s also one that people are often reluctant to center a song on just because of how uncomplicated it is. Uncomplicated is not the same as inferior though, and I like to see something straightforward every now and again.

For all of that though, “Hands On” calls out the Christians. It’s a necessary part of an album like this, it’s a good reminder that the struggle for spirituality is personal and not just subsuming yourself into a crowd. As above though, it’s also got strong rap from Kanye. His change of pace here is very clean. Again, it’s just nice to see how much Kanye has developed as a rapper. It was never his strongest suit, but his ability now unlocks a lot of musical space.

“Use This Gospel” helps close out the album well. Clipse are acceptable on it, but Kanye is great and bringing in Kenny G for a moment is very unexpected, but remarkably well done. It’s exactly the perfect sax interlude. The actual closer, “Jesus Is Lord” finishes right as it gets started, but that works well. It’s uplifting and beautiful and ends on exactly the right note.

Jesus Is King is not a masterpiece like MBDTF or Graduation and not as groundbreaking as 808s & Heartbreak or Yeezus, but this is possibly the most unique album that Kanye has ever made. I’ve never experienced anything that has quite the same thing to say about religion or Christianity. It’s sincere and honest in the way that only Kanye can be and the result is as personal as a fingerprint. It’s very good music and there’s plenty here to provoke thought, no matter what Kanye himself may have intended to say. It’s not without flaws, but it’s also just excellent music and it’s the album this year that I’m most glad to have heard.

Monthly Playlist: Oct. 2019

3 Nov

We are back with another edition of our Monthly Playlist. Read on for a list of five songs that caught our fancy this month, from old favorites to newer entries.

5. “Hit Me Where It Hurts” by Caroline Polachek

Caroline Polachek is one half of Chairlift, an erstwhile two-piece synth pop from the early 00s. They toured with the decade’s darlings – the likes of Phoenix and The Killers – but ultimately called it quits. And just as well, because Polachek’s own music stands out more than most of the stuff she made with her band.

From her new album Pang, “Hit Me Where It Hurts” is somewhat of a modern pop classic. It boasts all the key elements of any pop song worth its salt – a hurtful yet magnetic relationship, occasionally sultry vocals and so on – but Caroline’s synth pop history gives the tune an unusual edge. The best part of the song is the hypnotic opening couplet – “I’m feeling like a butterfly trapped inside a plane / Maybe there’s something going on, I’m not insane” – and she takes a good call in peppering it throughout the song. “Hit Me Where It Hurts” may underscore the vulnerability of loneliness, but it looks like Polachek is doing just fine on her own.

4. “Professor X” by Dave

UK rapper Dave is having a really good year. In March, he released his debut album Psychodrama, a sharp, autobiographical look at growing up black and poor in the United Kingdom. A mere six months later, Psychodrama won the Mercury Prize, the biggest music award a British artist could receive. Like his compatriot slowthai, whose debut album was also nominated for the prize, Dave captures the zeitgeist of the UK today: rifted and divided in every sphere of life.

Professor X”, his first song since the Mercury Prize win, is part of the soundtrack for Top Boy, a grungy UK Netflix show where Dave incidentally made his acting debut this year (we told you he was having a good year). It’s as sharp as anything on Psychodrama, and his flow meshes perfectly with the layered beats. If you need an intro to Dave, this song is probably it.

3. “Dexter & Sinister” by Elbow

To say Elbow is underrated would be an understatement. The English rockers have been around for quite a while. Over their two-decade-plus career, they’ve won prestigious awards like the Mercury Prize (for 2008’s The Seldom Seen King) and Best British Group (2009’s Brit Awards). They’ve even soundtracked their home country’s Olympics in 2012. Yet they are hardly a household name, at least outside of the UK.

Therefore, we consider it our obligation to showcase “Dexter & Sinister”, the opening track from their eighth (!) studio album, Giants of All Sizes. A heavy bass-and-drums riff leads into heady, vaguely apocalyptic vocals. About halfway through, the song suddenly takes a dreamy, melancholic turn – complete with elven female vocals – before segueing into a meditative guitar outro. These twists may seem abrupt on paper, but the high production value makes them seamless.

The fine print to the song’s ethos, apparently, is Brexit, per lead singer Guy Garvey. He described the song as “a great, big, bewildered question dealing with my feelings on Brexit, the loss of family and friends and the general sense of disaffection you see all around at the moment,” and we do see what he means.

2. “Orphans” by Coldplay

British mainstays Coldplay were in the news a fair bit this month with the announcement of their new album, Everyday Life, out next month. The beloved band released two singles in anticipation: “Orphans” and “Arabesque”. While both are as emotive as one may expect from Coldplay, it’s “Orphans” that has wormed its way into our heads.

Centered around jangly guitar riffs and Chris Martin’s trademark head-cold vocals, “Orphans” seems to be a sad paean to the continuing unrest in Syria. As with many Coldplay songs, the lyrics are moving and meaningful. In this case, the story revolves around Rosalene, a young girl raised by her father in a Damascus orchard. The “missile monsoons” of the Syrian bombings are implied to have killed her father and later, her, too.

It’s a lovely song that speaks tenderly about an ongoing horror in our world – with a good melody to boot. The music video, released last week, is definitely worth a spin, too, for a peek into how Coldplay built out this song. Watch below:

1. “Wash Off” by Foals

As our readers are well aware, Foals have blessed us this year with not one, but two, fantastic full-length albums. Fans hardly had time to absorb Everything Not Saved Will be Lost, Pt. 1 in the first half of the year before the Oxford fourpiece announced a quick follow-up. Two great singles – “Black Bull” and “The Runner” – primed listeners for Pt. 2, which officially released on October 18th. “Wash Off”, the third track off the new release, is a deserving addition to the list of great Foals songs from 2019 (of which, happily, there are many).

Foals’ longevity over the past decade rests on their ability to evolve their sound while keeping their essence intact. In our opinion, nowhere on the new album is that more apparent than on “Wash Off”. The song starts off with an agile guitar riff that is quickly met by timely drums. Whereas the old Foals would have kept dialing up the frenzy, the Foals of today wisely move the song along into a catchy chorus. The good part, though, is that they do dial it up when they need to – for example, just before the final chorus where all the pieces of the song finally come together in an exhilarating 30-second solo.

Another Monthly Playlist, another Foals song at #1. But can you really blame us?

Charli XCX – Charli

23 Oct

Charli has come a long way from 2013’s True Romance. That was an album that showed promise, but I don’t know how many expected Charli to be where she is now, legitimately bucking at the gates of superstardom. What makes her and Charli itself incredible though is that she is still a relentless innovator.

Admittedly, Charli does continue in the vein of her previous mixtape Pop 2, but it’s too rich a vein to complain of that. Her electro-pop-with-friends sound is still fresh and the new cast mostly works well with her.

“Gone” for instance is very good, punchy pop. Charli and Chris (of Christine and the Queens) have a fantastic push-me-pull-you dynamic that elevates both of them. Their trading of verses is thoroughly collaborative and yet contains enough of an edge to push both of them.

That edge would have helped in “Cross You Out” where Sky Ferreira slips a little too effortlessly into the song. It’s still good pop, but a little conflict might have tempered the whole thing.

Similarly, “Warm”, while a fun song, doesn’t feel like the collaboration with HAIM that I hoped for as much as a Charli song with a feature in it. It’s got some of the fun HAIM rock in it, but you sort of have to be looking for it. “February 2017” also feels like a little bit of a wasted opportunity due to how understated Clairo is in the song.

Her chemistry with Troye Sivan really makes the album though. “1999” may not be the deepest Charli cut, but it is as good pop as anything that she has ever made. It’s fun, it’s relatable and it’s very catchy. It was the lack of a single like this that brought down Pop 2 and having one of the quality of “1999” does a lot for Charli. “2099” is not quite as strong a single, but it’s a fascinating, futuristic piece.

There are still a couple of missteps. Lizzo is a bit forgettable on “Blame It On Your Love”, even if Charli herself does quite well in it. “Shake It” however is just not good. It’s noisy and grating and doesn’t do anything interesting with all of that noise. “White Mercedes” has Charli stretching herself into something more of power-pop, but that’s not really her métier.

Nevertheless, this is a strong pop album and one well worth spending some time with. Unlike thank u, next and Norman Fucking Rockwell!, this doesn’t feel like the album to take the artist to the next level, but it’s still a very solid addition to an oeuvre rapidly filling with them.

Peter Cat Recording Company – Bismillah

21 Oct

Over the past decade and a half, India has seen a remarkable growth in the sheer number of independent, non-Bollywood music. From electronica to indie rock to hip-hop, we now have it all. But as the scene develops, many homegrown artists understandably sound a lot like the global artists they’re trying to emulate. There are a few exceptions, of course – artists who are truly, unmistakably, confidently homegrown; and Peter Cat Recording Company easily rules over them all.

Delhi-based quintet Peter Cat have been a beloved part of the Indian music scene for nearly a decade; Sinema (2011) especially was all the rage for a particular cross-section of indie fans that came of age in that era. They’ve always been ahead of the curve, but perhaps by too much – fully-formed and original in a nascent and sometimes derivative industry. In many people’s opinions (including ours), they deserved so much more than the tiny listening audience and a four-city gig circuit that the country could afford them.

Luckily for all of us, Peter Cat seemed to have been thinking along the same lines. Recently, they signed on to French label Panache Records, which promptly released a nine-song anthology of the band’s greatest hits (Portrait of a Time, 2018). Happier still was the news this year that the band would be releasing a full-length album – the official “debut” – with Panache. Peter Cat were finally getting the management and international exposure that their brilliance deserved. Would they live up to it?

The short answer is: yes.

Peter Cat Recording Company is not just a great band; they’re a great Indian band. Their sound blends easily across jazz, gypsy, disco, you name it – but at their core, Peter Cat is undeniably desi. On Bismillah, that thankfully doesn’t change.

Take, for example, “Where the Money Flows”, which opens the album with diegetic sounds of the homeland – the birds, the distant honks, a spluttering engine. Between gentle guitar strums and handclaps, the lyrics paint a picture of trade-offs between money (bad) and love (good). But the music video makes their intent much more explicit: they’re talking specifically about that great Indian experiment, demonetization. The fact that the music video was released days before the final stretch of India’s historical general election made the link even clearer.

Other songs on Bismillah reference India in decidedly less political terms. With its Technicolor throwback and old-world croon, “Heera” could be an erstwhile filmi hit (barring the English-language lyrics). Disco jam “Memory Box” is would fit right in on a best-of-Bappi-Lahiri special issue with the busy guitars and dramatic violins. “Floated By” is a nod to the celebrated big-brass sounds of Indian weddings; you could almost imagine the trumpets and the melancholy vocals serenading the wee hours of a wedding reception somewhere. Indeed, the music video is set in a real wedding – Sawhney’s own, in fact.

Of course, the brilliance of Peter Cat lies in their ability to seamlessly fuse their Indian sensibilities with great music from elsewhere. One touch-point, especially, is the minimalist vibe espoused by the likes of the xx. “Remain in Me” is built mostly on the Sawhney’s lilting voice and a sparse drum-guitar line, joined by forlorn horns in the chorus. “Vishnu ❤” is a hypnotic, chillwave gem, interspersed again by Peter Cat’s signature brass. Moody psychedelia, a la Tame Impala, is another key influence, especially on the expansive album closer “Shit I’m Dreaming”.

Peter Cat’s strongest suit, however, is Sawhney’s rich, emotive voice. He is fully in control of his considerable talent: perfectly complementary to the instruments in one moment, a sublime falsetto on the next, and maybe a quick aalap here and there. His voice sways, croons, reaches and swoons; but always adding to that iconic Peter Cat sound.

Bismillah is a kaleidoscopic journey through genres and time periods; experimental, creative but always on brand. It’s their best work yet and, honestly, one of the best albums we’ve heard all year (Indian or otherwise).

Best tracks: “Where the Money Flows”, “Heera”, “Floated By”

Check out Peter Cat Recording Company’s website for more information.

Nilufer Yanya – Miss Universe

18 Oct

This is a striking debut album. Nilufer Yanya immediately grabs your attention with her iridescent voice and bold music, both of which are used to great effect in songs like the excellent “Heat Rises.” She has a gift for combining that captivating voice with unexpected music to make very compelling music as in “Paradise” and in “Paralysed.” She keeps you off-balance expertly and does so with such brash strokes as too take your breath away. Additionally, her voice is really just fascinating in itself and she already has the ability to use it well like in “Tears.”

The album has a little too much air to fully recommend and her skits don’t do anything to help, but there’s already so much here to recommend. Miss Universe is both the promise of great things to come and, more surprisingly, the deliverance of those in itself.

Top Five Deep Cuts: The Strokes Edition

14 Oct

By now, the Strokes’ trajectory is well-known: an impossibly perfect debut album; overnight global success; and the subsequent chase for a repeat of all that. Amidst personality clashes and competing side-projects, the latter half of the Strokes’ history is murky; and by then, a slew of Strokes-inspired bands (see: Arctic Monkeys, The Killers) began stealing the limelight from the OG. No wonder, then, that the Strokes’ best-known songs are still the ones they released in the first five years of their career.

But nestled deep in the Strokes’ catalog are some truly underrated gems. With rumors of a sixth album releasing very soon – gaining more and more credibility with the just-released 2020 gig dates – we figured it’s time for a closer look at some deep cuts: The Strokes edition.

5. “Razorblade” from First Impressions of Earth

As we mentioned above, the Strokes’ biggest obstacle to their career was their own debut album. Is This It (2001) was an instant classic, and answered its own question almost immediately – yes, this was it. This was the album that saved rock music from the tepid irrelevancy offered by the likes of Linkin Park and Nickelback (don’t @ us). The Strokes’ sophomore album, Room on Fire (2003), successfully stuck to the script.

It was with the third album, First Impressions of Earth (2006), that things started unravelling. The Strokes shtick was a little overdone after two albums nearly identical in tone and style; besides, by then, copycats were a dime a dozen. The third album did produce a few famous songs – “You Only Live Once” and “Juicebox” most notably – but the rest of the album was deemed too weird and cynical by many.

Understandable, then, that a gem like “Razorblade” often gets overlooked. Anchored by a pleasant pop-rock riff, Casablancas’ lyrics cynically review a relationship gone sour. He derisively mimics the girl (“You’ve got to take me out, at least once a week / Whether I’m in your arms, or I’m at your feet”); and he just doesn’t care any longer (“Oh, drop dead, I don’t care, I won’t worry / There you go”). Listen also for the excellent sync between drummer Fabrizio Moretti’s beats and the dual guitars.

4. “Games” from Angles

First Impressions of Earth lost a chunk of casual Strokes fans with its experimentation, but not nearly as much as the fourth album Angles (2011). The Strokes took a five-year break to sort out their struggles, and the resultant album was spiky as the name suggested. By then, the kids who’d obsessed over the debut in high school were fully-functioning adults, and Angles didn’t have the raw energy to attract a legion of new fans (unlike what Arctic Monkeys did with their fifth album AM). Consequently, there are some great tracks on this album that just never got the airplay they deserve.

One of those tracks is “Games”, a synth-pop ode to the 80s. The song starts off interestingly enough – bouncy keyboards contrasted against Casablancas’ whiny croon – but eventually segues into an even more interesting one-two punch of a solo from Hammond Jr. (keyboards) and Moretti (drums). Our favorite version of this song is their live performance on Conan – check it out here.

3. “Chances” from Comedown Machine

Comedown Machine (2013), over six years ago, was the last full-length album from the Strokes. The album dropped with no advance notice and the band didn’t even bother going on a press tour afterward. It was highly suggested that they released it only to get out of their five-album contract with RCA (a contract that the label had won twelve years prior in a hard-fought bidding war).

Comedown Machine barely had any radio play, and all but the most hard-core Strokes fans pretty much ignored it at the time of release. But the album has since become something of a sleeper hit; a low-key mix of 80s synth pop with a level of experimentation that the Strokes – at the end of their RCA leash – could finally afford to indulge.

“Chances”, the ninth track on the album, is a hauntingly beautiful love song. “I waited for ya, I waited on ya / but now, I don’t,” sings Casablancas, in a new-found falsetto, no less, before sadly accepting his fate: “I’ll take my chances alone”. “Chances” could easily soundtrack a scene of heartbreak in an 80s teen-romance flick; in that and in many other ways, it is truly unique among the Strokes’ repertoire.

2. “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” from Angles

As you might guess if you read this far, it’s no wonder that most of the Strokes’ underrated tracks come from their last two albums – when few folks were paying attention and the band members themselves were going through some serious issues.

“Life is Simple in the Moonlight”, the album closer on Angles, is unlikely to have enchanted the casual Strokes fan, but there’s no reason to keep it that way. By that point, the band was so fractured that they physically couldn’t get themselves together: Julian Casablancas apparently emailed his recorded vocals for the sound engineer to stitch together with the rest of the band’s recordings. “So we talk about ourselves and how / To forget the love we never felt,” he wistfully notes, before confessing, perhaps too late: “I didn’t wanna tell you I was jealous, jealous, jealous, what’s the point?” (He writes the lyrics as though it was about a girl, but he’s been happily married since 2005 – who else could it be about?)

Introspective lyrics aside, “Life is Simple in the Moonlight” has some remarkable experimental patches from the other members. Lead guitarist Nick Valensi whips out an almost jazzy guitar solo supported by Moretti’s perfect drum time. Albert Hammond Jr. shines with rhythmic strums and Nikolai Fraiture’s bass is, as usual, the oft-overlooked Strokes secret sauce. Check out their performance of the song on SNL here.

1. “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” from Comedown Machine

As the very last song on the Strokes’ very last album, “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” is the definition of a deep cut. Even some hardcore Strokes fans no doubt forget this song exists. A pity – for this is a true beauty unlike anything else in their entire catalog.

From the fuzzy guitars to Julian’s especially gauzy vocals, the entire song has the aura of a classic black-and-white movie – perhaps in Parisian speakeasy, perhaps in the 1930s. The chorus is just out of this world – a light, waltzy dream that somehow seems to reach more senses than just your ears. Put it this way: “Call It Fate, Call It Karma” sounds like something that inspired the Amelie soundtrack.

“Call It Fate, Call It Karma” is a miraculous transplant from another place and another era that was created, somehow, by a then-dying New York City garage rock band. If there’s only one song you hear from this list, make it this one – and be prepared to see the Strokes in a brand-new light.

So that’s the end of this list, but happily, it looks like it’s not yet the end for the Strokes. If you’re as excited as we are for the rumored Album #6, let us know below! We’ll count down the days together.

%d bloggers like this: