Archive | September, 2021

Kanye West – Donda

27 Sep

There’s a lot that can be said about Kanye and his music and there’s a lot that has been said about both. Donda marks a new epithet though and one that seemed inconceivable before; unnecessary. This is just a fundamentally inessential album. For an artist who has long thrived in controversy and in polarization, it’s just jarring to have something that’s honestly uninteresting.

It’s especially strange as this was the situation was ripe for another career-defining album. The last time that Kanye really got away from himself, the result was MBDTF, possibly the greatest album of the millenium. Instead, we get possibly the strangest part of Donda, that it has nothing animating it.

There’s a voice interlude in “Donda” that features Kanye’s mother talking and it’s one of the strongest moments of the album. It’s a very rare bit of meaning in an album that sorely needs some. 808s had the heartbreak, MBDTF had the controversy, Yeezus had the industrial and even JiK had the gospel. Donda has no new ground to break and no larger meaning either.

Is it for his mother? For Kim? For his excess? For the controversy? Donda has space for all of them and addresses none of them.

When “Lord I Need You” plays, you feel like you’re in the middle of an album for Kim and it feels like that would be a great album, but it ultimately doesn’t work because the rest of the album does nothing to support the song. It’s just too incoherent. “Come To Life” continues the thought, but it’s impossible to keep a thread in this album.

Similarly, the story of Larry Hoover in “Jesus Lord” is a strong part of a strong song. There’s impact in hearing him call out the capitalist society. It also goes well with Jay Electon’s verse in the song, which works really well. It brings in the right religious tone and the right fearlessness in calling out DC and Downing Street. However, there’s just once again no support. This is not the conscious album it could have been.

For all of this though, he’s at least partially redeemed by the quality of music. There are missteps and there is bloat, most egregiously in the second cuts of some songs, but elsewhere too. It’s not a finished album. However, he can still make music. Donda is more willing to meld and play with his different styles than anything before. His later career seems to have him using other artists for more and more of his sound and he’s a master at putting people together, like in “Hurricane” and with Baby Keem in “Praise God.”

Even here though, he can’t help but let us down a bit. There’s no true single in this album and even one highlight would have made a tremendous difference. There’s not much that’s very weak, but I don’t think there’s a single song here that’s going to go into a Kanye rotation. “Blood on the Leaves” is what made Yeezus work and “Selah” and “Yikes” did so much for their albums and there’s nothing here quite on the level of even the latter two. “Junya” is a banger, but it’s doesn’t deliver much beyond that. There’s lots and lots of solid music here, but nothing that really goes beyond that.

That’s really all that can be said about the album. There’s lots of decent music. Kanye is still Kanye after all. It’s just that there’s nothing really interesting in the album and very little of substance and it’s time to start wondering if the same is true for the man.

Lorde – Solar Power

24 Sep

New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde (real name Ella Yelich-O’Connor) is back with third studio album Solar Power. The album follows the four-year intervals set by her monumental debut album Pure Heroine in 2013 – which featured chart-busting single “Royals” – and then her synth-led party album Melodrama in 2017. A notoriously camera-shy and anti-pop star individual, Lorde uses the time away to recharge, mostly in her native country; both times, she’s come back with a starkly different sound.

In 2017, we were blown away by Melodrama – the pulsing electro-pop sounds, a greater diversity in her vocals, and the surprising focus on the piano throughout the party songs. Melodrama was a concept album, documenting the whirlwind of emotions that goes through the mind of a young twentysomething at a house party. The album was in direct contrast to Pure Heroine which focused on a can’t-be-bothered teenaged rebellion against popularity, trends and, yes, house parties. Between Melodrama and Pure Heroine, Lorde’s range was astounding, and the future looked rosy for fans of the reclusive young artist.

Lorde has said that each of the two albums is based on the different vices she was hooked on at the time – alcohol for the first (despite the seeming reference to heroin) and MDMA for the second. With Solar Power, the vice of choice was apparently weed (she attempted it to be LSD but that didn’t quite work out). While musical history has no shortage of iconic albums that were invigorated by marijuana, the results are mixed for Solar Power.

It’s is not a bad album by any stretch. The title track, which we’ve previously covered, is a pleasant summery track with a catchy outro hook (“That solar-olar-olar power / Solar-olar-olar power”) and lyrics about unhooking oneself from the outside world (“And I throw my cellular device in the water / Can you reach me? No, you can’t”). “Dominoes” is a stripped down track that’s pretty much her voice and a plucky guitar – in a way, it’s the closest match to her Pure Heroine discography. Her voice is bright and shiny when it’s unencumbered by too much production.

Fallen Fruit” is beautiful with its folksy vibe and guitar strums that are part Renaissance Faire (think Greensleeves) and part Laurel Canyon singing circle. “Mood Ring”, the third and final single from the album, is a light, airy track that apparently critiques another peak California culture – wellness culture. “I’m tryna get well from the inside / Plants and celebrity news, all the vitamins I consume / Let’s fly somewherе eastern, they’ll havе what I need,” is perfectly fair satire of new-age Californian hippies. (We must note that the satire is a little hypocritical when Lorde herself just came off from what seems like a four-year recovery-from-fame break on New Zealand beaches, but we’ll save that for another day.)

Speaking of California, “California” is an interesting take compared to the thousands of other odes to the Golden State; this one’s a break-up song. California – or specifically, Hollywood – proved to be the fertile ground for this album, but Lorde’s had enough of the place and who she is there. “Goodbye to all the bottles, all the models / Bye to the clouds in thе skies that all hold no rain,” she sings in the lilting pre-chorus, “Don’t want that California love”. It’s a nice, pretty song that somehow evokes Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (which is also how the song starts) while rejecting the pop cultural idea of California as a success metric.

That’s the thing though – they’re all nice, pretty songs. And if that’s what you were looking for, then Solar Power is the Lorde album for you. “Big Star” is a sweet yet ultimately featureless track. Ditto with “Leader of a New Regime” – it’s pretty tough to latch onto a detail in the song’s 2 ½ minute run. Second single “Stoned at the Nail Salon” is yet another gentle track that features Lorde on multi-level harmonies with herself and also a truly telling lyric: “’Cause all the music you loved at sixteen you’ll grow out of”.

And really, that’s the whole story: Lorde grew out of who we thought she was. She isn’t the rebellious young teenager who made Pure Heroine, and not even the partying early-twentysomething who made Melodrama. She’s a blissed-out, media-phobic young woman with a strong love for folksy guitar music, and that’s what’s reflected in Solar Power. Props to her for putting out exact reflections of her life stages; unfortunately, for us, this one just didn’t stick all the way through.

Rating: 6.5/10

Best songs: “Solar Power”, “California”, “Dominoes”

Worst songs: “The Man with the Axe”, “Big Star”, “Leader of a New Regime”

Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever

20 Sep

Happier Than Ever is the highly-anticipated sophomore album from superstar Gen Z singer-songwriter Billie Eilish. Her debut album, cryptically entitled WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? (2019), rocketed her to worldwide fame and success – highlights include sweeping the Grammys, creating a flagship AppleTV+ documentary, and meeting her idol Justin Bieber (after all, she was until recently just a teenager). Happier Than Ever is in many ways a snapshot of Billie at this moment, that encapsulates all of those things that happened to her (and for that matter, to any huge pop star) in the past few years of her crazy life. Is it as earth-shattering to the world of popular music as her debut was? No. But it does have its moments, and points to a new direction for the still-growing artist.

Although Happier Than Ever released on July 30th, 2021, Billie’s been leading up to the album for exactly one year prior. Moreover, she’s been carefully laying down the foundational tone of Happier Than Ever – especially the confident and, well, happier persona – through the numerous singles that she released in that one year timeframe. These singles kicked off on July 30th, 2020, with the light and tender “my future” – which we mentioned at the time was a rare light-pop departure from the usually gothic Billie. In November 2020, she released “Therefore I Am”, which further highlighted her bloom out of the larger-than-life teenage years into a life where she has more control. “Your Power” (April 2021), “Lost Cause” (June 2021) and “NDA” (July 2021) spoke to adult themes like betrayal, power dynamics, growing out of substandard teen relationships and more.

Outside of this admirable singles-driven chunk, the album has other great tracks too. We’ve already spoken about “Oxytocin”, a heady electropop song that grips you from the first second. “OverHeated” is in the same vein, a sultry and intoxicating track that plays like the soundtrack to every bad romantic decision you’ve ever made (“Stop being flirty / it’s kinda working,” she says with a laugh). Another stand-out track is “Billie Bossa Nova”, which as the name suggests is jer pitch-perfect take of the seductive genre of bossa nova. It’s not just her musical knowledge that is growing; Billie is a woman now and not a teen any longer. “I’m not sentimental, but there’s somethin’ ’bout the way you look tonight, mm / Makes me wanna take a picture, make a movie with you that we’d have to hide,” she croons on this track.

And a note on the suggestive lyrics here in general. On this album, they actually sound like they’re really her words, in contrast to the vaguely edgy lyrics from her debut album (e.g. “bruises on both my knees for you”) – which often came across as performative given that she was a teenager still living in her childhood bedroom.

On the eight or nine tracks that we haven’t called out above, there are definitely a few winning moments – for example, the reverberating pre-chorus break-down on “GOLDWING” – but on the whole, we’d be hard-pressed to remember too much of them. Billie is still discovering her voice as an adult, as a woman, and as a teen pop idol who’s experimenting with other genres, and hopefully the proportion of “forgettable” tracks will be much fewer on future albums.

Billi’s debut album clicked so well with so many millions of people for a few reasons. First – the truly unique beats courtesy her genius producer slash brother Finneas O’Connell; second – her creepy yet old-timey vocals; third – the multimedia experience that she offered for each hit track, including a typically creepy music video. All of these parts are still there where it counts, and she’s also added a few things to her arsenal, such as an authenticity to her lyrics that only comes with more grown-up experiences and life choices. Happier Than Ever is a fine addition to her discography, but she definitely has room to grow.

Rating: 7.5/10

Best tracks: “Oxytocin”, “Therefore I Am”, “Billie Bossa Nova”

New Artist Roundup: Aug. 2021

13 Sep

This month’s New Artist Roundup includes everything from indie rock to psychedelic, through submissions from all over the world. With the transition from summer to fall (or fall to summer) for much of the world, it’s a very fruitful period for songwriting in general, and this month’s submissions proved that to the tee. Read on for our top five picks from new artists this month!

Interested in getting featured in our next New Artist Roundup? Don’t forget to email us your music at artists.tfr@gmail.com!

“Place I Stay” by Funeral Lakes

Funeral Lakes is a two-piece outfit based out of Kingston, Ontario – “a small city where the St. Lawrence and Cataraqui rivers meet”, in their own words. Their background in a mid-tier town in the Great White North seems to seep into their folksy, jangly tunes. On August 20th, the duo (consisting of Chris Hemer and Sam Mishos) released their third album Redeemer – which “explores the meanings of faith and justice, interrogating the tension between them”, according to the artists. Our pick from the album is “Place I Stay”, which creates a quirky folk / rock vibe by mixing driving drums and guitars against gentle, echoing vocals. Lyrically, the song features themes of divine retribution “Descend, Holy Father / Cut them down like flowers” but there seems to be multiple parties at play. Interesting track and an interesting sound from the Ontario band.

Website

“Cosmic Saturation” by The Velveteins

The Velveteins describe their sound as a bridge between the bright psychedelia of the 1960’s and the indie rock explosion of the new millennium – and we must say, the first song of theirs that we heard fits that description to a tee. “Cosmic Saturation” features surf-rock guitars, relaxed vocals and a harmonized chorus that instantly elicit a throwback to the Beatles and such. But also, as the band themselves point out, the song’s guitar solo melodies and soft drums are definitely pulled from the catalogs of the Strokes, the Vines or any number of early aughts indie rock bands. This is definitely a band to watch, folks – don’t sleep on the Velveteins!

Website | Press

“Busy Body” by Cassie Marin

Cassie Marin is a young vocalist, producer and multi-instrumentalist from Los Angeles. She spent much of her childhood training for Olympic-level gymnastics until an injury cut short her aspirations at 13. Since then, Marin has found solace in her music, and says that she carries the same grit and self-discipline that inspired her Olympic dreams into her new chosen field. On “Busy Body”, you can start to see what she’s talking about. The song is meticulously produced, with woozy synths that somehow add melody and layers at the same time. Her dusky vocals – think Awkwafina’s speaking voice – give the track an air of unruliness. Lyrically, “‘Busy Body’ is about being a loner in a world where cliques never cease to exist,” says the young singer.

Website | Press

“Bubblegum” by Tommy Newport

Tommy Newport is a young Kansas-based musician with a surprisingly long list of commercial mentions under his belt. Last year, his song “Future Man” was featured in an ad for Apple’s iPad. Some of his other tracks have even been reportedly been used in TV shows such as What/If and Ballers. The sound behind his success seems to be a mix of groovy basslines, sharp drums and occasionally a hazy, Glass Animals-esque vibe. His latest track, “Bubblegum”, is a great example of that specific sonic profile. “Bubblegum is a love song about wanting to be wrapped up together like a piece of candy and keep all the sweetness inside…The message on this one is simple: Love is sweet,” said Newport. “Bubblegum” is a chill, sweet song that perfectly encapsulates an end-of-summer vibe.

Website | Press

“Moonbeams” by Fulton Lee

Fulton Lee seems like what one would call an old soul. The Nashville, Tennessee-based musician bills himself as a retro soul / pop artist, and seems to dress exclusively in ‘50s rock and roll outfits and associated hairstyles. But don’t let looks deceive you – his music has a very modern take on an old classic sound. The vocals on “Moonbeams”, his latest track, wouldn’t be out of place in a Buddy Holly tribute band’s repertoire, but the crisp production and multi-instrumental pop hook are definitely sounds of today. Fulton Lee is the freshest of fresh finds with the voice, production and aesthetic vision to make it big; and we recommend you take a spin through this song immediately. If you liked this track, be sure to check out the John Mayer-esque “The Wire”, which already has almost 2 million (!) streams on Spotify.

Website

Interested in getting featured in our next New Artist Roundup? Don’t forget to email us your music at artists.tfr@gmail.com!

Monthly Playlist: Aug. 2021

7 Sep

Better late than never, we always say. We may be a little late with our Monthly Playlist for August 2021, but we now have the goods for you below. Check out our top five picks below!

5. “Walking at a Downtown Pace” by Parquet Courts

Parquet Courts is a four-piece hailing from New York City by way of Texas, where Andrew Savage met Austin Brown. The two share lead vocals and guitar duties in the band, with Andrew’s brother Max on the drums and Sean Yeaton on bass rounding out the group. In the past, we favorably compared their third album Sunbathing Animal to the Strokes’ debut album (albeit edgier), and this new track from the band has the same NYC effortless-cool that enthralled us then. “Walking at a Downtown Pace” has a driving guitars that reminded us of Led Zep’s “When the Levee Breaks”, and a sing-along chorus that is going to do wonders in trendy venues in Brooklyn and around the world. This is the second track from the band’s upcoming seventh (!) album Sympathy for Life, scheduled to release on October 22nd.

4. “Meanwhile” by Gorillaz feat. Jelani Blackman & Barrington Levy

Three-quarters of a year after the near-perfect Song Machine, Damon Albarn is back with his virtual band and canny artist features with a new, three-song Gorillaz EP entitled Meanwhile. As we found out over the course of the Song Machine tracklist, Albarn is turning into a premier launchpad of talented British rappers to audiences outside of the UK; and that trend continues on the title track from this mini-album. London-based up-and-coming rapper Jelani Blackman’s catchy, sing-song style gels well with the dancehall stylings of Jamaican legend Barrington Levy. Throughout it all, Albarn lends his aloof vocals and his unique ability to meld all the disparate pieces into a great new track. If this is gearing up to Song Machine Vol. 2, we’re all for it. And if you liked this, check out “Jimmy Jimmy” from the same EP!

3. “Rumors” by Lizzo feat. Cardi B

“They don’t know, I do it for the culture, goddamn / They say I should watch the shit I post, oh goddamn / Say I’m turning big girls into hoes, oh goddamn / They say I get groupies at my shows, oh goddamn,” intones Lizzo at the start of her new track “Rumors”, listing out all the supposedly bad things that she’s been rumored to do. Nothing beats the humor of the first time you listen to the track, where she immediately follows up this verse with “All the rumors are true, yeah / What ya’ heard, that’s true, yeah”. This is a larger-than-life, catchy as hell track from two of pop culture’s reigning hit-masters that speaks to the incessant rumors at that level of public spotlight. Cardi B joins in with her own set: “Fake ass, fake boobs, yeah / Made a million at [strip club] Sue’s, yeah,” and the general vibe of the song is that these ladies just don’t care anymore about what’s being said of them on social media or gossip rags. Musically, “Rumors” is peak Lizzo, complete with funky synths and a rollicking horn section. One last thing: the music video is a modern take on the Disney movie Hercules, with Lizzo and a very pregnant Cardi, and should belong in an art museum somewhere for its extremely high production values alone.

2. “Oxytocin” by Billie Eilish

Technically, this song came out in the very last hours of July 2021 and hence didn’t make it into our July playlist, but we couldn’t not include it in this one. “Oxytocin” is one of the non-single tracks that were released as part of Billie’s highly-anticipated sophomore album Happier Than Ever. We’ll have the full album review out for you shortly, but this electro-pop song is definitely one of the highlights from the track-list. Finneas (Billie’s brother-slash-producer extraordinaire) really knocks it out of the park with this one. The lone beat at the start builds into a cornucopia of bits and beeps that adds a manic energy to the track – fittingly, for lyrics that lay bare her addictive relationship to her partner. Speaking of Billie’s lyrics, the singer takes the risqué factor from her debut album to a different level on this track about toxic addiction: for example, “’Cause as long as you’re still breathing / Don’t you even think of leaving” in the verses and the repeated “I wanna do bad things to you / I wanna make you yell” in the outro. “Oxytocin” is the kind of track that hooks you from the first second of the first listen, but it’s Billie’s creepy lyrics (in both delivery and meaning) that keep you hooked.

1. “Take My Breath” by The Weeknd

A couple of months ago at the Billboard Music Awards, The Weeknd accepted yet another popular music award with a somewhat cryptic message: “I just want to say, the After Hours are done and the dawn is coming”. In early August, the Canadian R&B phenomenon released the electro-dance record “Take My Breath”, signifying what he’s taken to calling The Dawn era. We have some clues about what this is going to be like, and boy it’s good. “Take My Breath” is a non-stop dance party that has the potential to be remixed into a million other dance tracks. A week after this song was released, The Weeknd compiled a list of songs that inspired “the new Dawn era” on his Apple podcast / radio show Memento Mori (yes, he has an Apple show) and readers – the list included not one but two Britney Spears songs. Here’s hoping that “Take My Breath” was our introduction into an upcoming electronic music-inspired 90s-throwback pop record from the Weekend!

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