Archive | June, 2020

Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off The Floor

29 Jun

There’s nothing extraneous in Pick Me Up Off The Floor. It’s stripped down in the way of lo-fi rock, but has sort of come to it from the other side. There’s just a sublime confidence in this music. It never overwhelms. It just takes things out one at a time, gives you time to examine it and then puts it away so that you can see what’s next. It knows that everything it has for you is worth your consideration and so there’s no need to hurry you along.

It has the cleverness to justify that confidence too. Right from the opener of “How I Weep” which draws out the first two words into a hurried “weep” at the jump and then draws out that same “weep” on the next go-around. Norah Jones’ singing is impressive as ever. Her voice has the strength to pull off all her gambits and fluid enough to work as well in the barnstorming blues of “Flame Twin” as in the country / gospel ballad of “To Live.” It’s clever and jagged in “Say No More” and yet filled with personality and irresistibly seductive. She dances across genres with very light feet and never stumbles once. There’s not a single point here where she feels less than completely in control.

Furthermore, it’s a sharp enough tool to need little else. The stark structure of “Were You Watching” would have been repetitive with a lesser musician, but between her voice and the clean piano, there’s just no need for anything else. This is a delicate, understated album and an achievement as one. In a turbulent time, it is a respite to have this album playing. It might have benefitted from delving deeper into the current moment than it does. There are references to the world right now studded throughout the album, but there’s also a lot that floats context free. Still, it floats so beautifully that it’s hard to complain.

It is very satisfying that Pick Me Up Off The Floor is the perfect sound to get up to after a fall. It’s always the dream that you build something from an experience that helps others with the same one. I’m listening to the soft, noodling instrumental piece at the end of the final song “Heaven Above” as I write this and it has been a hard and disappointing day and this is the gentleness that I’ve forgotten I need. This is a deep breath and a quick stroke on the back before I get up and now, I get up.

Run the Jewels – RTJ4

20 Jun

With their debut album RTJ in 2013, hip-hop super-duo Run the Jewels broke the mold of what intelligent, anti-establishment rap would look like. Naturally, they then proceeded to create even better versions, with the well-received RTJ2 (2014) and RTJ3 (2016). In that time, Killer Mike and El-P have also been hugely successful in a commercial sense, sound-tracking everything from Black Panther to FIFA18.

But despite this commercial utilization of their music, Run the Jewels is, at their crux, an anti-establishment act. Like their pre-COVID planned tour-mates Rage Against the Machine, Run the Jewels excel in just that – raging against the Machine, whether that’s the police, racists, or the wealthy.

In the summer of 2020, the world is battling the triple threat of a global pandemic, racism and wealth inequality. In that environment, Run the Jewels’ latest output RTJ4 is prescient and essential – and to put it bluntly, the record of the moment.

Throughout the album, RTJ make mincemeat of current times with chilling lines that were, astonishingly, recorded sometime in 2019. On album opener “Yankee and the brave”, the zeitgeist fire delivers stinging burns. “Pardon them as they work until every pocket’s been picked and soul been harvested / I’m ready to mob on these fucking charlatans,” announces El-P, while Killer Mike follows up with a could-have-been-recorded-yesterday swipe at police brutality: “A crooked copper got the dropper, I put lead in his eye / ‘Cause we heard he murdered a black child, so none of us cried.” An eye for an eye indeed.

 “Walking in the Snow” sees El-P delivering a searing indictment of Trump-era pseudo-Christians (“Kids in prisons ain’t a sin? Shit / If even one scrap a what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different”). The fantastic “JU$T” drops a deep thought: “The Thirteenth Amendment says that slavery’s abolished / Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar”; and somehow, this aligns perfectly with statues being pulled off their pedestals across the world just in the past few days.

But Killer Mike and El-P aren’t just eerily clairvoyant – they’re also eerily intelligent. We are so used to mainstream low-IQ rap that it’s honestly a thrill to hear clever, laugh-out-loud brags. For example, on “Out of Sight”, Killer Mike belts a stone-cold classic metaphor: “Colder than your baby mama heart when she find out you been fuckin’ with that other broad / And you ain’t got that rent for her”. Elsewhere, El-P casually drops the instant-classic line “Got a Vonnegut punch for your Atlas shrug” – pitting the socialist Kurt Vonnegut against the libertarianism of Ayn Rand (interestingly, of course, she herself clashes the same two archetypes on Atlas Shrugged, with Howard Roark and Ellsworth Toohey).

Yes, they’re intelligent. Yes, they’re anti-establishment. But lest you think this is a spoken-word recitation of the latest Jacobin issue, it must be said that this is, above all, a great music album.

Killer Mike and El-P are blessed with sonic gifts like few others.  “Out of Sight” in particular is a prime example of Killer Mike’s masterful flow, with four gerund-filled lines (“motivating, captivating, devastating…”) effortlessly hitting beats that you didn’t realize existed. El-P isn’t far behind; on “Holy Calamafuck”, for example, he plays with the same vowel sound on about 12 different words. The album is also packed with great riffs. We’ve already gushed about the fun single “Ooh La La” but don’t underestimate the hook on the aforementioned Pharrell Williams-Zach de la Rocha double-feature “Ju$t”.

Run the Jewels have been railing against all forms of injustice for their entire lives. But now, in a perfect storm of Black Swan-like events, the world has caught up to them. Like Killer Mike’s political hero Bernie Sanders, they get extra credit not just for saying the right things, but for having always said the right things – even when they weren’t considered right.

RTJ4 is prophetic, thoughtful, complex – and most of all, highly enjoyable. Whether this album is better than its predecessors is really up to the listener, but this one will always be memorable for perfect alignment with the moment in which it was released.

Best tracks: “JU$T”, “Out of Sight”, “Ooh La La”

John Coltrane Quartet – Africa / Brass

17 Jun

It’s easy to latch on to the monkeys and elephants that show up partway through the first piece and hear the clear jungle noises there and think that this album is less than it is, but this is first and foremost excellent, inventive jazz. Like Olé Coltrane, which was released in the same year, the theme comes through strong and the jazz is richer for the flavor, but the soul of the album is in the superb hard bop that it’s built on.

Most interesting though is the big band that backs the quartet throughout. Adding the larger band of older styles of jazz adds a lot of swing, both in “Africa” and in “Blues Minor” and also shows what big band jazz could have been had the genre not shifted to more intimate groups. Between that and the jungle themes, “Africa” comes off as very reminiscent of possibly the best known verdant jazz of all, Louis Prima as King Louie in Disney’s version of The Jungle Book, something I’m always glad to be reminded of.

“Greensleeves” is another classic Coltrane pop track, taking as it does a British folk classic and effortlessly reimagining it as post-bop and “Blues Minor” is fearlessly improvisational. However, it is “Africa” that is the clear highlight. Elvin Jones has a stellar drum solo in there and as always, Trane’s sax work is unparalleled.

This is something a bit out of left field for Trane and he never did revisit the ideas he played with in this album, but that should in no way be taken to imply a misstep. This is, if anything, more special for its uniqueness. It’s a legitimate masterpiece and an essential album for any fan of this style of jazz.

@murthynikhil

Ka – Descendants of Cain

4 Jun

There’s nothing extraneous to Descendants of Cain. This is the leanest of lean cuts and glories in it. It’s serious, it’s to the point and it’s forceful throughout. Ka’s pairing of stripped down beats and muted raps is intense and claustrophobic. This album is a coffin that you’ve been sealed in with him.

He has plenty to tell you in there. The biblical theming played against the realities of his life is a strong conceit to build an album around. In “Patron Saints,” Ka uses this for irresistible storytelling and strong lines. The theming also just fits perfectly with the tone of the album. “My Brother’s Keeper” has an ominous, sunken beat and hushed rapping that just builds the scene. “Land of Nod” takes the same menace and has Ka change pace midway seamlessly.

However, here is the major flaw of the album. It bleeds together. There’s no real standout track in here and nothing to shake you out of the groove it lands you in. The closer “I Love (Mimi, Moms, Kev)” is softer and slower and might have done it, but it’s out of his range and he just can’t pull off the change in tone.

It’s still a strong album though. You have to respect something so single-minded and so proficient. Descendants of Cain is a solid addition to an always intriguing pocket of rap and one well worth listening to.

@murthynikhil

Monthly Playlist: May 2020

1 Jun

We are now far enough into the coronavirus pandemic for this new abnormal to percolate deep into our psyches. Artists are starting to contemplate the differences between Life Then and Life Now. For example: Little Simz, who we cover in the list below, wrote and released an entire mixtape in spite of – and in some ways, because of – her lockdown experiences. Equally as interestingly, we as listeners are starting to consume music differently. Perhaps that slick, braggadocio rap track now soundtracks your daily allotted fast-walking time. Perhaps punk rock pumps you up in the precious time between Zoom meetings where you really, actually do your office work. And so on.

The point being: our surroundings are perhaps irrevocably changed, at least for the near future, but music’s importance has not dimmed the slightest. And here are five tracks that were embedded deep into our daily lives this past month.

5. “Noize” by Iyer’s Filter Coffee

Clocking in at #5 this month is a tune from Iyer’s Filter Coffee, a garage rock band from India consisting of Rushil Mishra (guitar / vocals), Pushkar Ravindra (guitar / vocals), Dennis Dey (bass / vocals) and Sachin Iyer (drums). The band lists the Strokes and the Black Keys as musical touch-points, and does well to justify those influences. After a well-received first EP coldturkey last year, the boys are back this month with their first-full length debut, Is This How You Do It.

First single “Noize” from Is This How You Do It really caught our ears. The song could slot perfectly well on Arctic Monkey’s Humbug– sporting an uncannily similar mix of the same hard-hitting riffs and Queens of the Stone Age-style production as that 2009 album. “Noize” shines especially on the segues featuring rolling drums and fuzz-laden guitarwork which stick with you long after the song is over.

4. “Shook” by Tkay Maidza

Tkay Maidza, a Zimbabwean-origin Australian rapper, has been circling fame for some time now. Her 2014 single “Switch Lanes” made it to the prestigious Aussie radio channel Triple J’s Hottest 100 list (at #100, but still) – back when she was just 17. In 2016, her debut album Tkay reached #20 on the Australian charts, and included a track with the one and only Killer Mike. Tkay’s star has been rising for several years now, and all that comes to a head with the slick new track, “Shook”.

On this track, Tkay clearly channels Missy Elliott, from the brash enunciation to the butter-smooth, non-stop flow. She also has some great lines – “Then these frauds tryna fit in, got ’em playin’ tetris” comes particularly to mind. “Shook” puts Tkay high on our list of artists to watch for in 2020.

3. “Enemy” by slowthai

Speaking of slick rap, we have been blessed this month with a new track from the reigning king of British rap, slowthai. In the Before Times (February 2020), slowthai made news for a thorny NME Awards show – featuring thrown glass, thrown insults and ultimately a thrown-out slowthai. The incident resulted in a typical PR apology but slowthai hinted (aggressively) at his true feelings with a tweet that said, simply, “Keep my name out ur dirty mouth”.

Turns out, he wasn’t done reacting – he turned that tweet into a chilling riff on the new “Enemy”. Wonky, slow-burning beats interlock perfectly with that unmistakable slowthai bad-boy swagger – a mix of London attitude and unpredictable emotion on the delivery from line to line.

2. “Might bang, might not” by Little Simz

May 2020 was fantastic for British rap. Some truly memorable new acts are coming out of that rainy island, and one of those is Nigerian-origin, London-bred Little Simz. “Might bang, might not” is a smooth track from her new, economically-titled five-song mixtape Drop 6.

On this track, Little Simz shows off a clear, crisp flow, set over even crisper layers: a three-note bass line, basic beats and a pace set by what sounds like a single, digitized gasp. What’s most notable about this song and the entire mixtape is that Little Simz wrote and mixed the whole thing herself during quarantine lockdown, often battling mental health issues. If you liked this track, you should read about what it took for her to put it out – check it out here.

1. “A Hero’s Death” by Fontaines DC

After a ripper of a year with perhaps 2019’s best debut album, everyone’s favorite Irish punk band Fontaines DC are back with new single “A Hero’s Death”. This song lies somewhere between a poem and a speech, set to unyielding punk. Lead singer Grian Chatten snaps off line after line of advice, toeing the line between schoolmaster and preacher: the couplet “Don’t get stuck in the past, say your favorite things at mass / Tell your mother that you love her and go out of your way for others” is just one example. The song’s central line – “Life ain’t always empty” – especially sticks in your head, almost like a mantra. All in all, “A Hero’s Death” is the rare song that is equal parts hypnotic and raucous.

The song’s accompanying music video features fellow Irishman and prestige television star Aidan Gillen – a sign of the young band’s rising profile. “A Hero’s Death” is the eponymous first single off of their new album, which is scheduled to be released in July – we can’t wait.

Check out these songs and all others from our 2020 Monthly Playlists on our Spotify playlist here.

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