Archive | January, 2016

Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga: Cheek To Cheek

25 Jan


There’s a lot of promise in an album like this. The old American standards are often fantastic and the combination of an old stalwart like Tony Bennett and a pop star like Lady Gaga getting together to record an album of just these tunes seems like an excellent idea. It probably even is an excellent idea, but this is not the manifestation it deserves.

Cheek To Cheek manages to neither revitalize the standards with a modern outlook nor to recapture any of their past glory. Show tunes require confidence, personality and chemistry and while the first is present in spades, the other two are only ever briefly seen. The two trip over each other constantly and both alternate between hammy and formulaic. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s version of the title track and you can hear a warmth and humanity entirely lacking in this album.

It’s not all lows though, the backing band does a very solid job. They lay down an upbeat, joyful jazz that is a pleasure to listen to. Also, both Lady Gaga and, surprisingly given his age, Tony Bennett are technically proficient throughout. Both of them still have great voices and are willing to draw upon them. Lady Gaga in particular has a wonderful solo in “Lush Life” that most singers, even renowned ones from the song’s own era, would struggle with.

All told, this is an acceptable album, but the standards are such for a reason and have all been played enough times to have versions that are undeniably classic. With this material, merely acceptable is just not enough.


David Bowie: Blackstar

18 Jan


There’s a famous essay by Roland Barthes about separating an author from his work and on the futility of using the author’s identity to try to derive a single definitive meaning for a text. With Bowie, the persona was always a facet of the work, and an important one, but one that only furthered its enigma. Where some artists seem slaves to such direct analysis of their work, Bowie transcended it.

Bowie’s influence is everywhere, from the obvious trends in music and fashion to the art styles of movies, comics and video games, to even his direct influence in contemporary culture and mainstream acceptance of once-othered groups. Time and time again, Bowie pushed at the boundaries of what human culture had achieved. The world today is a far better place due to his work. His loss is tragic and heartbreaking, but his work and is influence are immortal.

Blackstar, his twenty-fifth and final album, is new territory even for him. This is a jazz album, not rock, and an excellent one at that. The music is challenging and more than deep enough to reward you for it. The variations laid down by his band are deep and interesting. The lyrics are cryptic, but highly evocative. The experience as a whole is direct and unsettling, but distinctly beautiful. His use of the form is deft and innovative, bringing in rock and spacey-electronica into a rich jazz foundation to create a work as claustrophobic as a dungeon and as difficult to escape.

His inversions of the form are fascinating. The sax solo of “Lazarus” centers the album. The slow, mournful chant of “I Can’t Give Everything Away” is cleverly undercut by the whimsical jazz strains underneath it and the guitar solo that provides much of the real variation in the song. The clear horn opening of “Dollar Days” shifts smoothly into a traditional rock ballad. This is an intelligent album and courageous enough to revel in it.

Excellent, challenging and novel, Blackstar is the swan song Bowie’s career deserves. I highly recommend it.


Ghostpoet: Shedding Skin

5 Jan


British underground rapper Ghostpoet has a sound that is distinctly his own. His rap has always been hazy and mumbled and very, very atmospheric. I loved Some Say I So I Say Light for that. His new album, Shedding Skin, is probably the only rap album to be closer to The National than to Jay-Z. Sadly, that’s not really a compliment.

While this is probably the most approachable of Ghostpoet’s albums, and his literate, urban middle-class rap is something very worth approaching, it is also the least varied of his albums. like the aforementioned National, the album is pleasant to listen to, but the alt-rock beats tend to bleed into themselves quickly. All of the songs feel the same. There are bright spots, notably the title track which could be out of one of the quieter parts of Hotline Miami and Ghostpoet’s trademark ennui is delightful in points. Only he would run a chorus of “It’s just you’re forgettable / I think that’s the issue, babe.”

If you’re new to Ghostpoet and new to alternate rap, I would recommend this as a stepping stone to the rest of this interesting little corner, but for everyone else this album might just be too forgettable.


The Top Five Albums of 2015: Nikhil’s List

1 Jan

2015 has been a good year. A lot of very good music has made it on to this list and lot more didn’t make it. One particular album killed everything else, as was expected, but we’ve had a lot of pleasant surprises as well. For instance:

5. Carrie and Lowell


Given that this album is named after Sufjan Stevens’ mother and stepfather, it is no surprise that it is a deeply personal record. However, it handles its confessions with a deftness and tenderness that most could not manage. It frames its tales of depression, self-abuse, dissatisfaction and, for a brief moment in “Should Have Known Better”, happiness in gossamer threads of music to give the album a gentle, exploratory feel. This album slips ever so softly through the skin and straight to the heart. Carrie & Lowell distills a personal loss and acceptance and makes it a part of you.

4. Surf


Hip-hop can actually be this fun. Chance the Rapper is nothing short of jubilant throughout. Chanting “I Don’t Wanna Be Cool” is freeing in the way that Kanye’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” is, but so much bouncier. The jazz solos are not the most engrossing and the album lacks a little punch, but all is forgiven when things are this upbeat. Surf puts a smile on your face and keeps it there as long as the album is playing.

3. No Cities To Love


No Cities To Love is rock and roll. Anthemic, full of fight and always ready to go, this is music that burns away the mediocrity you didn’t realize you were tolerating. Primal but intelligent, raw but proficient, No Cities To Love is punk rock at its best.

2. The Epic

Kamasi Mike

This is 2015, we should not get a new Coltrane-era jazz album. That we did and that it is this good is unreal. At three hours, the album justifies the name handily. It draws from all across the jazz spectrum, picking up pieces of Miles, the fusion of Weather Report and even touches of Latin Jazz and gives each pieces its due before melding the whole into something entirely its own. This would be nothing without the passion and virtuosity of the band. Not a note falls out of place or lacks in energy. There have been enough jazz greats to make the term “classic” a high bar, but for an album of this caliber, nothing else will suffice.

1. To Pimp A Butterfly


It took me something like a week when To Pimp A Butterfly came out to actually figure out if I liked it or not. As it turns out, I really did. good kid, m.A.A.d city was much more straightforward, you can see the brilliance in it immediately. To Pimp A Butterfly has singles, “King Kunta” will make you move, with or without your consent, and both “i” and “The Blacker The Berry” are the work of a craftsman at his peak, but “For Free” is almost spoken word poetry. I’ll accept that from Gil-Scott Heron, but it mystified me from Kendrick Lamar. Similarly, the funkiness of the album came out of nowhere and the lyrical content has no precedent.

Listening to it now, it’s hard to believe that there was ever a moment where I didn’t like it. It’s a struggle now to find what I once found questionable. The album justfits together so well. Ideas, both musical and lyrical, are layered deeply into this album and yet it flows seamlessly between them. The album manages to encompass contradictions like the self-castigating ‘u’ and the upbeat ‘i’ without blinking an eye. Similarly, the album holds the full musical spread of the near-funk of “Hood Politics” to the hip-hop clinic of “King Kunta”. At this point, there really is nothing that Kendrick Lamar cannot do.

I thought three years ago that good kid, m.A.A.d city was Kendrick at the top of the game and I thought the same when he dropped “Control”. I’m not going to make that claim after To Pimp A Butterfly, it’s clear that Kendrick is going to take us further still and I can’t wait to see where he goes. This is the greatest rapper of his generation and he has just gotten started.


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