Archive | February, 2021

Celeste – Not Your Muse

24 Feb

This review is for the 12-track international edition of Celeste’s Not Your Muse. The international deluxe edition features an additional nine songs that we highly recommend you check out.

British pop singer Celeste’s star has been on the up-and-up for the past couple of years. Starting off her career providing vocals for the likes of Avicii, Celeste built a name for herself in the British music press with a pair of well-received EPs – The Milk & the Honey (2017) and Lately (2019).

By the time Lately made its rounds around the world, the singer pretty much became an unstoppable force. Tastemakers of all swathes, from GQ to the prestigious BBC Sound of… poll, named Celeste as a breakthrough act for 2020, and she didn’t miss.

In January last year, she released “Stop This Flame”, a rambunctious jazz-pop number centered on her powerful and impassioned vocals. Her second single of the year, “Strange”, is a beautiful, downcast ballad that falls somewhere between an emotive Paul McCartney-penned Beatles track and – on the modern end of the scale – the whispered stylings of one Billie Eilish. And we’re not the only ones who thought that, for the track seemed to have brought in the talents of Billie’s Grammy-winning producer brother Finneas on the next single “I Can See the Change”.

If you thought that was the extent of Celeste’s star-making year, then you would be wrong. She then went on to perform three songs for The Trial of Chicago 7, a star-studded Aaron Sorkin-directed venture focused on the tumultuous anti-Vietnam war years. One of those three songs – “Hear My Voice” – is now nominated for Best Song at this year’s Oscars. Celeste closed off the year with a duet on the latest Pixar film Soul (“It’s Alright”) for which her soulful, playful vocals are perfectly suited.

So, yeah, Celeste has had one hell of a breakthrough year.

With so many well-known singles that have had their time in the sun, there was always a risk that Celeste’s Jan. 2021 debut album Not Your Muse would not hold up in its entirety. Luckily, that’s not at all the case. We’ve already spoken about the alluring “Tonight Tonight”, a poppy-yet-pensive track that sounds like Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” set to an alt-rock drum beat. Another stand-out track is “Beloved”, where Celeste’s deft vocals and the romantic strings bring to mind a dramatically broken heart in, say, snow-covered Christmastime Paris. (Or something equally bittersweet.) The more rock-infused “Love is Back” sounds like it could be a hidden B-side to Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” – and really, could there be a greater achievement for a young British jazz-soul singer?

As we wrote in our song review for “Tonight Tonight”, Celeste feels like an artist who’s just on the precipice of household status – think Adele the year before 21 was released, or Lizzo right before “Juice” came out. Not Your Muse is an ode primarily to Celeste’s magnificent voice; but also to her genre-bending sensibilities across jazz, soul, R&B, pop and even rock. It’s early, but we can see this being one of the best debuts of 2021.

Rating: 8/10

Best songs: “Love is Back”, “Tonight Tonight”, “Stop This Flame”

Hiromi – Spectrum

20 Feb

It’s very hard not to understate just how impressive Spectrum is. This is an overview of the past decade of musical learnings by Hiromi, an impressive enough conceit, but to tell you that misses the point. The incredible thing about the album is not the range of music here, but how the whole comes together. It’s not just that her familiarity with all of these threads, it’s that she has internalized them and, having digested them all, can now synthesize something wonderful. This is not just an album more than the sum of its parts, it is an album that developed new building blocks and then made a cathedral from them.

“Kaleidoscope” starts the album out in a Baroque manner, but then goes everywhere it can imagine. There are some threads in there that feel like they escaped from an action movie. “Rhapsody In Various Shades Of Blue” doesn’t stop at mixing in Gershwin and Trane, but even fits The Who in there. You can even see the namesake’s walk in “Mr. C.C.”

It almost goes without saying, but Hiromi is a highly accomplished pianist and this album makes full use of her ability. “Spectrum” is a tour-de-force of dexterity as the song hurtles through intelligent and challenging counterpoint at a breakneck pace. She then balances that with an incredible warmth that radiates through the piano in slower pieces like her take on “Blackbird.” Her rendering of the refrain here is lovely and her excursions express a beautiful wanderlust.

Spectrum is unquestionably the work of a visionary and a virtuoso. It is absolutely masterful jazz and a delight to listen to. It’s even an album that I would recommend to beginners. Due to its assimilation of showtunes, swing and even classic rock, it gives the novice plenty to latch on to. More simply though, it is just a delight to listen to and an album that you are richer for having heard.

Tommy Flanagan – The Cats

11 Feb

1957 was one of those hot periods for jazz. It was a time when you could throw together a bunch of jazz players who happened to be in Detroit and you would get something like The Cats. This is an album chock-full of clever, engaging solos. It’s never aggressive and very listenable no matter who you are. It’s also as sharp as you can ask for.

The album shows you its quality right from the opening of the excellent “Minor Mishap.” It’s a good opening. It’s fun and open-ended and immediately sets you up for interesting things to come and then Trane’s solo is excellent. Coltrane is not as aggressive here as he would very soon become, but you can see him reaching toward it and he’s just having fun with this album anyway.

That fun follows in “Ecypso” where his solo adds to an already great song. The upbeat refrain here is a great way to set the tone and then the noodling piano solo at the start follows it really well. Together, they give the song a good club jazz vibe and the rhythm really bolsters that. Idrees Suleiman is bubbly and having fun here. His solo puts a smile on your face, but there’s intelligence to spare with it and Kenny Burrell puts down a very cool solo as well. It plays things a little predictable in parts, but it’s enjoyable enough for that to be only a minor burr.

Later, “Tommy’s Tume” is just very jazzy jazz. Jazz is already inherently very cool and some jazz is cooler still. This is that jazz and fun to boot. Burrell speeds up in the middle of his solo for a very clever touch, the bass gets a chance to shine and finally Trane comes in for a very smooth touch.

The Cats is not the best that hard bop has to offer. “Solacium” does miss the mark a little, even if it is still music that I’m always glad to have on. The album is just a little too relaxed to really hold its own at the highest level. However, it’s still just wonderful music and one that can be approached from any skill level. This is a collection of jazz masters doing what they do best and it’s no surprise that they are some very cool cats indeed.

Top Five 20 Minute Albums From 2020

1 Feb

Much though one might want to escape the idea of music as a commodity, nothing is that free of context and in the streaming era and the era of #content, it’s all too easy to let an album sprawl. Here, we have five albums (and one bonus one) that take only about 20 minutes each.

Bonus: Silversun Pickups by Toy Soldiers

Silversun Pickups are a band with a history for me. They were one of my first ventures into developing a music taste beyond what played on TV. It’s fun to find a band that you can tell people to check out and Silversun Pickups was that for a much younger me. There are worse bands that I could have chosen.

Toy Soldiers achieves what it sets out to do. It’s competent 2000s era alt-rock. It’s not quite up to the standard of their first three albums, and there are points that just don’t quite reach the emotion they grasp for, but it’s still very listenable. They’re in their comfort zone throughout and the result is solid music. It finishes before you really notice anything from it, but there are very few complaints to have and it’s just nice to see this band again.

5. THE ALBUM by BLACKPINK

K-pop is a visual art form and if you’re only listening to BLACKPINK, you’re missing out on a lot of their charm. This is especially true with “Ice Cream” where a delightful Selena Gomez fits into a classic K-pop music video seamlessly.

They’re at their best with “Lovesick Girls.” It’s not really meant to be scrutinized, but it’s a good, frothy time. It’s got a great chorus, a wonderful conceit and it’s excellent pop. Some songs don’t land quite as well. Cardi does nothing in “Bet You Wanna” and “Pretty Savage” is unintelligent. However, the swagger in “How You Like That” is great and “Crazy Over You” is them doing what they do well. Overall, this is a fun album and BLACKPINK are just too likable to ignore.

4. 1999 by Rich Brian

I don’t know if there’s anyone that I’m quite as excited to see new stuff from as Rich Brian. He’s like Aminé in that I just like seeing him do stuff, but somehow even more likable. The singles of “DOA” and “Love In My Pocket” augured well for the album, but sadly the rest just doesn’t hold up. Rich Brian is absurdly talented, especially for someone of his age (guess why the album is titled 1999), but he hasn’t quite found the consistency yet for even a 20-minute EP.

The singles are just so much fun though. He’s got a great ear for sound and an incredible agility in his music. His weaponization of irony is sharp, funny and makes for exceptional music. His music videos are top-tier. There’s no question that he’s going to figure out how to put it all together soon.

3. Drop 6 by Little Simz

When Little Simz raps, there’s a momentum to it. This is in part just the velocity she’s capable of and the absurd degree of comfort she has when rapping, but it’s more than that. It’s the craftsmanship in her bars. The artistry in how each song is put together and how the pieces connect is compulsive and clever.

It’s thus a shame that this is another salvo from this corner of rap that just slightly misses the mark. This particular brand of London rap is skilled and confident and unceasingly cool, but it lacks an approach vector and Drop 6 doesn’t break the mold. In its focus and its purview, it lacks anything to grab on to.

At least, anything save for its prodigious skill. She’s far too good to ignore and there is more than enough in this music for it to stand on its own.

2. Honeymoon by Beach Bunny

Sometimes, a band can just emerge fully-formed with a debut album. Some artists need a while to figure out who they are. Beach Bunny seems to have the complete picture already though. This is power pop able to stand with anything out there.

They do sometimes take a path too easy. “Sometimes I like being on my own / I’m afraid of winding up alone” in “Cuffing Season” is basically cheating and “I always end up in second place” in “Racetrack” is extremely self-indulgent, but the music is done well enough to carry it over the line from puerile to resonant.

With talent like this, it’s easy to overlook minor blemishes. Beach Bunny is fun and exciting and the Honeymoon period is only just starting.

1. Music in Eight Parts by Phillip Glass

2020 marks 50 years from the writing of this score. In 1970, Phillip Glass was still only making music part-time. His heyday as one of the most celebrated composers was still to come, and yet he was making absolutely unforgettable music. Music In Eight Parts was considered lost for nearly half a century until it was rediscovered in 2017 and then released by the Ensemble in 2020.

The music is astounding. A single thread is taken and twisted and teased through the most winding of tunnels. The use of counterpoint is unbelievable. This music starts with something immediately comprehensible and proceeds to challenge you beyond what you should be able to follow. This music is a strenuous listen and it leaves you lathered at the end, but is exhilarating throughout. It feels like it packs in the same 20 minutes as much music as the rest of this list combined and leaves room to spare. The eight parts are not named for nothing. This is a masterpiece and an album well worth its spot in the Phillip Glass repertoire.

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: