Archive | October, 2020

Bartees Strange – Live Forever

29 Oct

There are some time-worn traditions when it comes to being a music fan. At some point, you realize that you’re older than the hot new popstars, you begin to appreciate some of the music your parents liked (although ABBA is still garbage) and some clever new musician takes your formative music and remakes it for the modern world. I’ve never seen someone take as much of it as Bartees Strange though.

“Stone Meadows” feels like a more cerebral Foo Fighters or like TV On The Radio at their best and Bartees Strange spends most of his time in this space, but then there’s plenty of art-pop and jolts of rap and house. “Kelly Rowland” is more emo-rap than anything else, but with some very intricate threads running through it.

The variety and the scratchiness give this album the feel of a personal mixtape, something compiled mostly from the sounds of the early 00s, but with snatches from other eras as well. For all of that variety though, Strange keeps the album cohesive. It’s a remarkable achievement.

For someone who came to music then, someone ever closer to their thirties, this album is undeniable. It doesn’t feel like nostalgia though, it doesn’t make me feel like I did back then. It is just very good music that speaks to something fundamental in me.

21 Savage and Metro Boomin – SAVAGE MODE II

21 Oct

I watch the NBA a lot and there’s something that comes up every now and again. You’ll get a star player on the breakaway, an athletic player who you know can do something special, someone like LeBron James, and there’s no one between him and the basket. It’s the kind of moment that gets you on the edge of your seat. You see him go up, but instead of anything special, the ball just goes in the basket. No windmill, no arm cock, just two points. That feeling, the feeling of hoping for a highlight and getting a simple dunk instead, that’s the feeling of SAVAGE MODE II. There’s a sense of deflation, but two points are still two points.

21 Savage has already proven himself as a rapper. He’s already found success. And Metro Boomin is Metro Boomin. He’s an institution at this point. This is an album that was built for greatness. It’s a shame that it never does more than reasonable.

This is most evident with the recurring Morgan Freeman appearances. He’s meant to lend gravitas, to make the album cinematic, but instead he bores. His “Snitches & Rats (Interlude)” is uninspired and unintelligent and I can’t remember a single thing from his intro and outro.

The Drake feature is in the same vein of big rapper moves, but does a lot better than the Morgan Freeman parts. Drake feels a little by-the-numbers and 21 isn’t anything special here, but it’s still a fairly solid song. The Young Thug feature does better, but 21 doesn’t feel comfortable in it.

He hits his flow in a couple of places here though. “Glock In My Lap” is the cinematic sound that the rest of the album tries for and “Brand New Draco” is very competent. There’s no question about 21’s talent at this point. He just needs to learn how to relax again.

Fireboy DML – APOLLO

15 Oct

Nigeria is fast becoming a music powerhouse on the international stage. Fireboy DML makes it clear from the beginning that this is something you should be paying attention to. “Champion” starts APOLLO with a silky-smooth tone and then mixes in African themes. It also just means more to hear someone claim themselves a champion in Nigerian patois.

Those Nigerian inflections work well through the album. Songs like “Spell” and “Sound” are catchy, toe-tapping music but would have had nothing more to offer were it not for the Afrobeats elevating them. Meanwhile, “Shadé” has an interesting beat, but that gets completely overshadowed by the textured vocals of the songs. It’s an absolute stand-out and a strong pitch for stardom.

However, Fireboy’s other shots for the big stage miss more than they hit. “God Only Knows” is the outtake that even the direct-for-TV Lion King movies wouldn’t accept. While “Friday Feeling” is nice and upbeat and fun to listen to, it’s very shallow and doesn’t even stick to you when it’s playing. “Remember Me” ends the album on a similarly forgettable note.

When everything clicks for Fireboy though, APOLLO is a solid achievement. It may have flaws, but this is a signature moment for Nigerian music and another reason to be excited about what is to come.

Jyoti – Mama, You Can Bet!

11 Oct

You only get an album like this once or twice a year. It’s no mean accomplishment to make music this varied and Jyoti makes it with consummate skill. She skims across genres without a ripple, selecting pieces to meld into an album wholly her own. 

She’s at her best in pieces like “This Walk.” It’s a slow, meandering song, but one where every path is interesting and filled with tiny, rewarding diversions. It’s very laid back, but so dense with thought that it’s very compelling nonetheless. It takes the ambient sounds that she uses throughout the album and cuts it to great effect with the clarity and jaggedness of her voice.

The serrated songs do well. “Ra’s Noise” is similarly jagged and unexpected, but moves further into jazz with a prominent and energetic saxophone. The barbed funk of “Hard Bap Duke” is noteworthy in the same way. This is not to disparage the other tracks here. The traditional jazz of “Swing, Kirikou, Swing” and the ambient of “Quarrys, Quarries” are both very good and the screeching guitar in “The Cowrie Waltz” is fascinating. However, while “Bemoanable Lady Geemix” is interesting for feeling like something out of a hip-hop producer’s album and makes for good background listening, it’s a little shallow. “Ancestral Duckets” is similarly listenable, but could have used more thought.

Mama, You Can Bet ends up with a lot going for it. The range and ability on display here is astonishing. A couple of the pieces here fall short of what one would hope and there’s no single piece that truly stands out, but those are minor blemishes in an album of excellent quality and singular execution.

Top Five Lo-Fi Indie Rock Songs I Keep Coming Back To

5 Oct

I’m a sucker for a certain style of art. I love books by Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mazzucchelli. I love Machinarium and Old Man’s Journey. I loved the animated movie L’Illusioniste. I also love lo-fi indie rock records.

I love the gentleness and the intelligence and the melancholy. I love the quiet and the lack of hurry and the sincerity. I love the way they feel. And with this list, I’m going to give you 5 (plus a bonus) of the ones I love the most.

Honorable Mention. Sufjan Stevens – Should Have Known Better

This is a delicate, gossamer track. Sufjan’s singing is a caress and that softness animates the track. It’s a very hazy, very ambiguous track and that’s key to the whole aesthetic. You don’t want full sentences or a full story.  The  empty space is the point. This is magical realism as music.

That gentleness and obscurity accentuate the melancholy of the music. The title tells you the emotion that the song wants to convey, but by itself, it would be flat. The attraction of this music is in the texture. It’s in pushing a feeling that you can’t pin down, but can only hint at. He sings “I should have known better / Nothing can be changed / The past is still the past / The bridge to nowhere / I should have wrote a letter / Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling” but his voice doesn’t carry regret, but lightness instead. It’s accepting of what has happened, not recriminating. Melancholy doesn’t have to hurt.

5. Girlpool – Chinatown

This is still lo-fi, still indie, but this is a track with an edge to it. Where “Should Have Known Better” is soft and gentle, this is a track that’s not shy about its pain. It’s a misfit’s song and so sharp it cut itself. “I’m still looking for sureness in the way I say my name” is a razor blade and the loud of “I am nervous for tomorrow and today” after the soft of the chorus has all of the emotion of Nirvana but with millennial anxiety instead of 90s angst and “If I loved myself, would I take it the wrong way” is a line both painfully smart and just painful.

4. Ghostpoet – Meltdown

Ghostpoet may not be the most traditional pick for a list like this, but “Meltdown” hits all the right notes for inclusion. It’s the sadness of a missed opportunity and of the gap between knowing that you should act and acting itself. It’s a hazy and indeterminate song, it doesn’t feel like any particular moment, but instead of a period that blends together in memory into a singular feeling.

It’s also strikingly urban in a genre that’s typically small-town. Normally, these songs are situated in a suburb that’s easily painted sepia, but this song feels like I walk I once took at 2AM in San Francisco as things fell apart. It was cold and the mist muddled the brightness of the streetlights and passing cars and the blurriness contrasted with the sharp, wet pinpricks of the air outside. It’s every bit as cinematic as anything else on here, but with a very different palette and for all of its differences, it holds all the same quality.

3. The National – I Need My Girl

You cannot write a list like this without The National. They’re the poster child of this kind of cinematic melancholy. Indeed, movies of this ilk turn immediately to the National for a reason. I was tempted to pick “Pull of You” or “I Am Easy To Find” off their latest album instead of this track. I Am Easy To Find took the giant step forward of adding female vocalists to their track and so balancing out their biggest flaw, their preoccupation with themselves.

It is for that preoccupation that I picked this track though, to highlight that clear single point of view that so typifies the genre. It’s in choosing self-flagellation over making amends. It’s in how the fault was his and yet he is still centered in the song.  He needs his girl.

That inability to understand animates the song though. This is the music of having made a mistake and being the kind of person who can’t fix it. Were it not for the delicate skill of the music, this song would be nothing, but instead it is the perfect distillation of the wistfulness of past wrongs.

2. Speedy Ortiz – No Below

I spent months singing the chorus of this song over and over again. I didn’t even sing the full thing, just “I was better off just being dead / Better off just being dead.” There’s something about the tone of Sadie Dupuis as she sings that I cannot resolve in my mind and so it sticks to me. Her singing is sweet and rough and jars so sharply against the song’s content, which in turn is so clearly enunciated that you cannot miss a single word and which itself communicates fatigue so cleanly.

Sometimes, things change you and you just stay changed. Some things are permanent. Sometimes, you can have all of the pieces you need to be happy, but you’re just not a person who can be happy in the way you used to be. It’s just not in your range anymore.

The distortion at the end of the song is everything here. The song is built on some very efficient storytelling. It’s honest, vivid narrative all the way through, and then the vocals stop and the guitar’s screech gives you some space for your own thoughts, and as this song describes, there are few better ways to lacerate.

1. Better Oblivion Community Center – Service Road

I’ve written a lot about things like magical realism and cinematic qualities in this list, but no song does that better than “Service Road.” It’s exceptionally clever and that results in truly excellent storytelling. “Asking strangers to forgive him / But he never told them what it is / He did to them that made him feel so bad” is evocative and open-ended and so the best of what the genre has to offer. Truly excellent melancholy is not mere sadness nor mere self-reproach, but needs the intelligence both to trap the singer and to enthrall the listener.

The comes through in the music as well. The simple, effective guitar frames the vocals very well and gives them space to be gentle, human and regretful. Where some of the other songs here have jagged edges, this one slips into you without a ripple and never leaves. I do wish that it had more Phoebe Bridgers though.

It ends on such an open note though. It ends with motion, with the feeling of freedom. Maybe that’s the only way for these to end. These are stories about life and there are no true conclusions there. Things go on.

The sharpness of a regret is not in it happening, but in living with it having happened, but maybe there’s a second side to that. It’s not in redemption or in self-improvement or forgiveness. It’s not even in having a fresh start. It’s just that tomorrow exists. It’s not a new day or a fresh page and it can’t change what happened today, but it still exists, both as blessing and as curse.

Monthly Playlist: Sep. 2020

3 Oct

September 2020 saw the release of a surprise Fleet Foxes album, a much-awaited IDLES follow-up, emphatic returns from the likes of Alicia Keys and Sufjan Stevens, and lots more. Read on for our picks of the top five songs from the month that was.

5. “Love’s Gone Bad” from the Jaded Hearts Club

The Jaded Hearts Club is a supergroup featuring the who’s who of early aughts indie rock. Nic Crester from Jet and Miles Kane from the Last Shadow Puppets share vocal duties, with instrumentation from Muse’s Matt Bellamy (bass), Blur’s Graham Coxon (guitar) and a few other friends. Their music, as the obvious reference to Sgt. Pepper’s suggests, is a mix of these members’ indie rock sensibilities essentially converging into a Beatles tribute band. “Love’s Gone Bad” from early September features classic rock riffs and an energetic Lennon-esque presence from Kane. If you liked the Beatles and/or any of these gentlemen’s bands, it’s likely you’ll like this tune. Incidentally, the Jaded Hearts Club released their debut album You’ve Always Been Here just today, so be sure to check that out if you liked this track.

4. “FRANCHISE” by Travis Scott, feat. Young Thug and M.I.A.

You can recognize a Travis Scott beat anywhere. The dull boom of a thick bass line, paired with hypnotic notes and his lilting flow, became a signature on the well-received Astroworld, and it’s no different here. “FRANCHISE” sucks you right in – not just because of this things, but also because of a fantastic early chime-in from the one-and-only M.I.A. The British-Sri Lankan rapper holds her own with Scott and Young Thug, especially on her onomatopoeic turns with Sheck Wes (yes, he’s on here too). All in all, this is a slick and talent-heavy single from Travis Scott and friends – give it a spin.

3. “War” by IDLES

IDLES, much like their Irish counterparts Fontaines D.C., are key drivers of the rock scene across the pond these days. The British punk band has enjoyed widespread acclaim with striking debut Brutalism and equally-hard-hitting sophomore album Joy As An Act of Resistance. They returned this month with third album Ultra Mono, of which “War” is the opener. And open it does. The song hits like a shot of adrenaline, with brutal drumming that’s inter-cut with relentless guitar riffs. Despite lasting just about three minutes, “War” gives you a feel for senseless battle, from the mentions of Johnny and Sally being sent to their deaths right down to the explicit sound of a sword going in.

2. “Turntables” by Janelle Monae

We didn’t know this before, but apparently Amazon has funded an election-year, straight-to-Prime documentary called All In: The Fight For Democracy. While the thought of a Jeff Bezos vehicle talking about the fight for democracy in the context of billionaire-ridden modern-day America is a dubious proposition (to say the least), we can’t ignore this great track from multi-faceted legend Janelle Monae. The actress-singer-LGBTQ-icon here serves a rousing, patriotic ode to civil rights, liberties and all that the America-of-yore stood for: “I’m kicking out the old regime / Liberation, elevation, education / America, you a lie / But the whole world ’bout to testify”. Her lines work especially well on the music video that features striking visuals of the ongoing civil rights demonstrations in the US; check it out above.

1. “Trouble’s Coming” by Royal Blood

Royal Blood are a two(!)-piece rock band from Brighton, consisting simply of Mike Kerr on vocals / bass guitar and Ben Thatcher on drums. Their self-titled debut album blew us away with the sheer volume and breadth of sound that these two people can produce, as did their sophomore album How Did We Get So Dark?. Now, ahead of their third album next year, The band has released “Trouble’s Coming” – a searing ride through familiar Royal Blood territory. The song of course features all the Royal Blood trademarks (Thatcher’s relentless drums, Kerr’s sneering vocals), but what we found most interesting was its dance-rock undertones, especially on the earworm of a chorus (“I hear trouble coming, over and over again”). Beware while listening, though: this is the kind of song that will make you dearly miss live performances.

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