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.

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!

7 Oct

To some degree, you know what you’re going to get with each new Lana Del Rey album. Actually, to a very large degree, you know what you’re going to get with a new LDR album. She’s taken her aesthetic of Hollywood sadcore and mined it thoroughly, albeit skillfully. There’s a grab-bag of images that come with any of her albums and they are the same fast cars, Gatsby, bad relationships, Hollywood glamour, nostalgia, Los Angeles style that you should expect by now. However, this iteration is her at her best. She’s brought a sharpness here that’s unprecedented and delivered one of the strongest albums of the year.

The opening track drops the one-liner “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news” with a wonderful casualness and follows it later with the clever and scathing stanza “Goddamn, man-child / You act like a kid even though you stand six foot two / Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all / You talk to the walls when the party gets bored of you / But I don’t get bored, I just see it through / Why wait for the best when I could have you? You?” and has an interesting pause for breath before the second you, before she cuts loose to sing it and this expertly transitions the song from the storytelling to the music. The schtick of the self-aware, submissive woman is becoming a little too routine, but she has mostly has the chops to still pull it off.

However, it falls apart for the less expert of her songs. “Mariners Apartment Complex” has a couple of very sharp lines (like the opening pair of “You took my sadness out of context / At the Mariners Apartment Complex) but it just doesn’t do enough of anything. It starts out with very strong storytelling, but then doesn’t deliver on it and is too laid back musically. Similarly, “Love song” is trite both musically and lyrically. “Cinnamon Girl” and “How to disappear” at least save themselves from the hyper-dramatization of the storylines with very well done music.

In the same way, “Bartender” manages to overcome the self-indulgence of the story with the fact that it’s just excellent music. Her voice works very well against the piano and song’s minimalism works very well. Unfortunately, it’s sandwiched by “The greatest”, which is just air and “Happiness is a butterfly”, which is as self-indulgent as “Bartender” but not as skilled. Mostly however, her missteps are saved by her ability to make very good music. “Doin’ time” is a fascinating cover and manages to match the album’s aesthetic, but is still incomprehensible as it is neither clever in itself nor as a part of the whole. It sounds good though. Her voice does a real number on the song.

When things come together though, the album really shines. The aforementioned title track is able to match her A-game lyricism with strong music and she is able to pull off the complete package fairly regularly. The trip-hop opening of “Fuck it I love you” is very strong and then she picks up the pace just to let it drop as she croons the chorus. Her lyrics are razor sharp as well. She’s pushes complex thoughts and detailed pictures with a remarkable economy of actual words.

“California” is the LDR aesthetic at its best. It has awkward slang, doomed relationships and space for her voice and the result delivers on the promise. Similarly, “The Next Best American Record” puts everything together.
The true highlight though is the single “Venice Bitch.” It’s slow, woozy dream pop done very, very well. It’s effortlessly ethereal and it’s got that good American imagery that she thrives on. It plays hard on the sadness of Americana and finds space for an amazing electric guitar squeal in the middle. It really does it all.

The album finishes with “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it.” It’s a shockingly risky song to make. It’s stripped down too far for comfort and that puts a lot of weight on the song and you can see it buckle under that weight repeatedly. However, the distillation of the song, the album and her entire body of work into the couplet “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have / But I have it” is extremely powerful and done beautifully by her.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! is not an album without flaws, and it’s starting to feel like those flaws will follow Lana Del Rey for her entire career, but it is nonetheless excellent. When she puts all the pieces together with the skill that she can sometimes summon, she makes music as good as any out there and this album has no shortage of those moments.

@murthynikhil

Monthly Playlist: Sep. 2019

1 Oct

We’re back with another edition of Monthly Playlist! Read on to see the five songs that caught our gaze this month:

5. “Whitsand Bay” by Metronomy

Whitsand Bay” is an interesting track from English electronic five-piece Metronomy’s sixth studio album, Metronomy Forever. There seems to be a duopoly of emotions at play here. On one hand, the upbeat cymbals and pulsing bass line march the song snappily along. On the other, the melancholic, slightly-above-mumble-volume vocals cast the mood down. What results is an engrossing, vivid landscape of sounds that really catches one’s attention from first listen. Metronomy Forever released earlier this month – do give it a whirl.

4. “Context” by Temples

We’ll admit, we hadn’t heard of English rockers Temples before “Context”. However, through the inscrutable power of Spotify playlists, we were sent this song on a silver platter, and we are now converts to the cause. On “Context”, Temples present a dreamy, slow-burning sound that lies somewhere between Tame Impala and the Beatles. And as you may expect from that description, the song offers its fair share of mysticism. “Fool, carry the wise / Are you divine?” goes the catchy chorus, before delving into a more mysterious couplet: “Are you afraid of being defined? / When you put it context, it makes sense.” Not sure that it does – but this is definitely a great track, lyrics aside. Temples’ third album, Hot Motion, released earlier this week; be sure to check it out if you liked this song!

3. “Psycho” by slowthai and Denzel Curry

From the first few seconds of the song, it’s easy to see where “Psycho” gets its name. Ghastly squeals clash maddeningly against what seem to be a pulp-horror-movie soundtrack, spurring the listener into palpable chaos – and that’s even before a word is said. Great production meets some knife-sharp verses on this ripper of a track from British rap star slowthai and American rapper Denzel Curry.

 Our favorite line on this track, from slowthai’s verse, is a kaleidoscope of emotion: “Spliff is exhaust, I put your friend in the morgue / Olympics, I run with the torch / mum should’ve pressed the abort”. In just one sentence, slowthai veers from braggadocio about a giant spliff (which can be used as an Olympic torch shortly after putting someone to death to boot) to unapologetic self-hatred; it’s either madness or genius, and the line between those blurs quite often. “Psycho” is an exhilarating roller-coaster, and we highly recommend. (Also, if you liked this track, do check out our review of slowthai’s debut album.)

2. “Don’t Call Me Angel” by Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lana del Rey

Regular readers of Top Five Records are well-aware of our enduring love for saccharine (but immaculately-produced!) pop songs; the likes of Ariana Grande and Marina & the Diamonds have long entranced us. Well, we are unashamed to proclaim our love for this song from the upcoming Charlie’s Angels reboot (which we are sure will be a flop – our love of the saccharine sadly does not extend to the silver screen).

Each of the three superstars on this track excel with a memorable, iconic verse. The merry-go-round-gone-awry sounds at the outset make way to a characteristically-husky verse from resident bad-girl Miley Cyrus – say what you will about her, but girl’s got killer attitude. Ariana Grande churns out an effortlessly powerful verse. Lana del Rey, in the limelight recently due to a fantastic new album, brings up the rear with a heady, R&B-tinged section.

The stand-out star on this track, though, is not Ariana nor Miley nor Lana – it’s the production. The three ladies’ styles and tones are seamlessly matched, both with each other and against a beat that just slaps. It’s a great track.

1. “The Runner” Foals

Foals have been blessing us time and time again this year. The Oxford four-piece rock outfit released a fantastic fifth studio album, Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost – Part 1, just months ago (read our review here); and, happily, the second part of the double-album is set to release in October this year. “The Runner” is the first song from the upcoming album – and judging from what we have here, it looks like 2019 is truly Foals’ year.

From the hard-hitting opening riff to lead singer Yannis Philippakis’ ringing vocals, “The Runner” is pure Foals through and through. Like almost all Foals songs, the song is meticulously arranged – each layer of each section seem to be exactly where it needs to be. Philippakis’ wandering, emotive chorus is especially well-placed against solidly-measured drums and guitars.

In our opinion, Foals have been underrated on the global scale their entire career. While they’ve been fairly well-recognized in their native England – thrice-nominated for “Best Album” at the prestigious Mercury Prize awards – it’s a shame that they don’t enjoy the same household-name status everywhere. Hopefully, with the double-wallop of Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, Foals will make their mark in indelible ink.

Miles Davis – Rubberband

23 Sep

Rubberband was originally recorded in 1985, shortly after Miles’ five-year hiatus and shortly before his death. The original recording was never completed and ended up being archived until quite recently. It’s been dusted off and filled out and the result, while not exceptional, makes for quite a decent funk album.

The result is most notable not for any trait, but for a lack. There’s much less Miles than one would expect. The album required a lot of filling out and so Miles himself shows up far less than one would like. The songs that fully feature him, like “See I See” are very strong, but his absence tells. It’s an album that needs inspiration.

Still, if you’re looking for some new funk / R&B, there’s enough here to keep you engaged for a while. It’s also one of those albums that seems to be having fun and that’s always nice. If you’re new to Miles’ funk period, you will find You’re Under Arrest to be more the more rewarding listen, but you should still find a little time for an album that’s less accomplished, but still very sincere.

Clairo – Immunity

9 Sep

Immunity is a surprise of a debut album. Clairo was already a rising star before its launch, primarily due to the breakout “Pretty Girl.” That was a song that felt like everything bedroom pop could be. Between the literal bedroom of the music video, the smart-teen-feminism of the song and Clairo’s immense charm, it’s anything but inexplicable that the song was a hit and the EP that accompanied it explored even more of that vein. However, that EP was also meant to close that chapter and Immunity marks a significant change.

You can see the difference as soon as the album opens. “Alewife” is still understated soft rock, but it’s bigger and lusher and just more produced than her earlier work. It’s a transition that mostly works. The production is bigger, but never blunt or maximal and somehow her voice stands out more than ever before. Ever in places like “Closer To You” which features some very prominent AutoTuning, you never stray too far from the core that makes Clairo so promising a musician.

Her music is still a little unformed though. “Closer To You” does just need a little more both musically and lyrically. “Sofia” is very good soft rock and opens with distinct flair. The story of an early crush on another girl is a strong central conceit. However, the song ends up feeling a little immature in terms of narrative and of craft. “I Wouldn’t Ask You” has an appealing gentleness that works very well with its premise, but is undercut by falling a little too far into its slow tempo in the first half. It ends up being a beautiful, heartfelt song and it has moments like a very clever chorus of children in the second half, but as a whole is just a little short of the brilliance that it needs. Both “Sinking” and “Softly” are solid R&B, but unexceptional.

However, “Bags” is the best song that she has ever made. It’s clever, it’s heartfelt and it shows an impressive maturity and completeness. It’s a truly excellent song and filled with little things that sparkle. Her voice on the repeated lines of “Know you’d make fun of me” and “Walking out the door with your bags” is heavy with emotion and yet as understated as ever.

Immunity is a strong album. There are few missteps and a very consistent quality to the project. However, it’s clear that Clairo can do more, as she did with “Bags”, and it’s all but certain that she soon will.

Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold

26 Aug

It’s not just that Sleater-Kinney are cool, it’s they’ve always been cool. They’ve always been really cool. They’re the kind of band that makes songs that can define who you are for a phase of your life. They’re the kind of songs where you should let them.

Things change though. Times change. Riot grrrl doesn’t mean the same thing now that it meant in the early 2000s. Sleater-Kinney is just too smart not to change too and The Center Won’t Hold is definitely a shift slightly to the side. They’re still super-cool though.

The obvious difference is bringing in St. Vincent, but how much of the change in the music is from her and how much is from the band is impossible to dissect. “LOVE” starts as though it was Devo doing punk, which is new and interesting, but also maybe not quite as good as it would have been as a pure riot grrrl track. Especially with the rawness of a line like “There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene / Than a well-worn body demanding to be seen / Fuck,” this could have been done as a harder track, but the backing works well with the sung chorus and the track is unquestionably novel.

However, some of the other tracks don’t do anything new musically despite being separate from the standard Sleater-Kinney songbook. “Restless”, “The Dog / The Body” and especially “Can I Go On” feel like they could have come from much lesser indie rock groups.

“RUINS” feels like modern riot grrrl though. The distortions are very sharp and the song carries so much attitude that you can forgive it being slightly stretched. “Reach Out” is excellent and Janet Weiss’ drumming in it is spectacular. The standout though is “Hurry On Home”, which is easily one of the strongest tracks of the year. It’s frenetic and so much fun and topical and so smart. It’s the reason that you fall for this band in the first place.

The Center Won’t Hold doesn’t quite merit a shrine in the Sleater-Kinney discography, but it is still a strong album and an interesting look at what might come next.

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