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Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator

18 Nov

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The Navigator is a breathtakingly ambitious album. It draws from a dizzying number of influences, to produce a distinctly New York Puerto Rican rock album. This is lively and unexpected at every point and deftly weaves in a tremendous amount of emotion, especially in the slower steamroller of a song “Pa’lante.”

The music is deeply varied, to the point where even a single song cannot be pinned down to even a family of ideas. The crooning in “Finale” shifts to percussion in a way that should feel abrupt but somehow works flawlessly. “Rican Beach” somehow melds together what feels like fifteen different layers, all of which are interesting enough to carry it alone, into a single juggernaut of a song.

This is one of the most intriguing albums that I’ve heard this year simply due to how far out of left-field it is from. In addition, it’s just eminently listenable. I cannot imagine the person who would not benefit from trying it out.

@murthynikhil

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Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – The Kid

14 Nov

The Kid is an astonishing album across a whole slew of axes. The most striking thing about it is just how much of nature is present in an electronic synth album. At points, it evokes the stillness of a Walden-like lake and the movement of a brook. Mostly though, it evokes more active organisms. A point in “Who I Am and Why I Am Where I Am” brings a strong image of a jungle waking up to mind. Like the world it draws from, the result is an ever-fascinating panorama filled with things worth examining. You should try it out.

@murthynikhil

Lil Uzi Vert – Luv Is Rage 2

4 Nov

First of all, “XO TOUR Llif3” is one of the greatest songs that I have ever heard. It is a revelation in every sense and a song what I don’t know when I will ever stop listening to. You should listen to it right now.

That song is the reason that I’m reviewing this album, but there is the remainder to cover as well. Unfortunately, nothing else here matches the brilliance of the single. The album as a whole has other interesting points, but also holds a fair number of misfires and is too indulgent of some uninteresting ideas. For instance, “UnFazed” is too repetitive to take advantage of all that it has. The Weeknd sounds great in it but needs more space than he’s given. It is still a highlight of the album, but does not fulfill the promise it first seemed to hold. Songs like “Malfunction” and “How To Talk” just don’t do anything and while “X” has some fun points, it’s just not that interesting.

“XO TOUR Llif3” however is brilliant and thus complicated to take apart. This is the song that proved mumble rap to me. The new Atlanta rap scene has had a lot of great music come from it, as anyone who reads this blog can see, but this song pushes it beyond merely being promising, good new music. This is the song that actually cashes the checks.

When I first saw mumble rap, it seemed to be punk rock all over again. In the same way that punk rebelled against the crushing formalism of stadium rock and their 20 minute guitar solos, mumble rap seemed the Dionysian answer to the Apollonian values of lyricism and flow. Again, just like punk rock, it’s not that mumble rap lacks the ability, some of Thugger’s lines still make me laugh and I can’t see a single rapper with a questionable flow, it’s that the medium shouldn’t be defined by that. It’s unsatisfying to define this movement with nothing more than abjuration. Punk rock was much, much more than simple chords. Other songs have proven that you can make great music with mumble rap, it took “XO TOUR Llif3” to show why you should try.

The greatest thing that this song does is a moment in the middle. The couplet “Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead” is the spine of the song. It’s a wonderfully succinct and condensed piece of songwriting that is repeated over and over again to add weight. The first verse ends with the anguished plea “Xanny, help the pain, yeah/Please, Xanny, make it go away” before dropping into the chorus and that repeated couplet again. This time however, instead of actually saying the words, Lil Uzi’s voice slurs it to incomprehensibility so as to give it even more space for emotion.

That was my moment of clarity. That is what this music can do. You cannot communicate that feeling with traditional rap. I’ve never heard that feeling pushed so clearly. Even now, after hundreds and hundreds of listens, that moment astounds me.

In all of my time listening to music, I’ve only had my eyes opened like that once before. Quite a few years ago, I was trying out jazz to see if I would like it and while the first things that I heard were all excellent, I didn’t really get what it was about. Naturally, I started with the most famous albums and so I ended up picking up Coltrane’s My Favorite Things quickly enough. The title track is still my favorite individual piece of music. The first minute hews fairly close to the Rodgers and Hammerstein original, but then Coltrane’s solo goes to a place that I had never heard before. What makes this special though is how that diversion is fully informed by the original. He takes the ideas of the musical version and pushes them somewhere entirely unexpected and that surprise is what defines the feeling of listening to the music. Then, just when you have a feel for where he now is, the song seamlessly returns to the original tune and so once again catches you off-balance. That moment changed how I listened to jazz and for that matter, music as a whole. That taught me to participate, to try to see where the song is going so that you can be surprised when the musicians do something clever and end up somewhere else instead. It’s the pleasure of seeing familiar ideas put together in a way that’s completely novel. It’s like the best puzzle games. It’s also something that I would never have understood had it not been for this ‘Trane song.

Formalism and jazz comparisons are well and good, but they are not what makes a song great. “XO TOUR Llif3” is just visceral to hear. I feel like I should be too old for this to hit me as hard as it does, but his honesty takes his story of heartbreak and depression beyond mere teen drama. Besides, when he hits the bridge of “She say: “You’re the worst, you’re the worst.”/I cannot die because this my universe”, that’s too close to home to deny. It’s not like I’m that mature either.

It’s also just a great song. I still haven’t figured all of its pieces. That little pause at the end of “Shoulda saw the way she looked me in my eyes/She said: Baby, I am not afraid to die.” tripped me up dozens of times and so punctuates the verse perfectly. The production is unceasingly clever and contrasts with Uzi’s flow to add layer upon layer of meaning.

This song is now a part of me. You should give it a try.

@murthynikhil

Brand New – Science Fiction

19 Oct

Brand New returns eight years after their last album and 11 years after their masterpiece The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Of Me to produce Science Fiction. This is a quieter, more mature album than their previous work, resulting in a sound more like the Afghan Whigs than anything else. While it lacks the the brilliance of The Devil and God, it’s still a very good rock album. In particular, “Batter Up”, “Desert”, and “Could Never Be Heaven” are all terrific music. You really should listen to this album.

@murthynikhil

XXXTentaction – 17

21 Sep

That 17 is an exceptional and fascinating album is undeniable. This year feels like an unprecedented explosion for the more alternate strains of rap and XXXTentacion has build a name for himself on the edge of this movement.

You cannot talk about him without bringing up the testimony of his reported victim. This account is horrific. There’s nothing that can a person can do to make me ignore abuse of this sort and I don’t ask you to ignore it either.

17 though, is an excellent and groundbreaking album. This is probably the first rap album to take more from Nirvana and from Papa Roach than from Pac and Big. It barely spends any time in the traditional lines of rap as it freely strays into R&B and rock. The shifts in genre flow smoothly due to the consistency in tone throughout. The album never shifts from its dark and emotional lane.

It’s the album of a young man in its honesty. XXXTentacion is startlingly open in his accounts of his problems. The unfortunate side of this is how juvenile some of his sentiments appear. His manifesto smacks strongly of high school and his lyrics never really scintillate. Additionally, the rapping is fine, but tends to quickly fall into repetition as in “Everybody Dies In Their Nightmares.” However, his sincerity makes such criticisms feel beside the point. The three syllable statement of depression to open “Depression and Obsession” is beautiful and profound enough to carry the song on its own. Similarly, “Save Me” is captivating every single time.

This is an album that’s going to be very meaningful to a large number of people. You may not be that person right now and that’s okay. You may also feel that you cannot enjoy the work of a musician whose alleged domestic abuse is such an atrocity and that’s a reasonable position too. If it is an album that you can play however, it cannot help but be worth the listen.

@murthynikhil

SZA – Ctrl

29 Aug


Ctrl, the debut SZA album, is beautifully heartfelt R&B. Despite a staggering variety of poses, both lyrical and musical, Solana Rowe’s personality shines through on every track, making for a very coherent whole. She puts forward supremely confident R&B, not just for a new singer, but for an established star, yet retains the honesty of a fresh artist. The album starts with a statement about sleeping with her ex’s friend and continues the confessional from there. Watching her face during the cameo in the video for “Drew Barrymore” is an education in itself. Additionally, “Go Gina” and “Prom” are well worth a listen and “Normal Girl” strikes real honesty. This is an album that you should listen to.

@murthynikhil

Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes

20 Aug

Los Campesinos! exists in a very specific space and it’s not a space for everyone. The cleverest line there, “31, and depression is a young man’s game” really tells you how much you’re going to get out of this album. It’s easy to dismiss if you’re not the kind of person it hits, but there’s some good music here.

It’s glossy clever-clever pop that is pleasant to listen to, but is largely forgettable. There’s a plethora of catchy tunes, and something like “Got Stendhal’s” is completely ready for radio play. However, despite the braininess that Los Campesinos! feels the need to exhibit at every turn, there’s no standout line and a lot of what they pass off as profound feels naive. While I like “I Broke Up In Amarante”, I feel that their refrain of “It seems unfair to try your best, but feel the worst” to be banal instead of cathartic. Even the music, while solid, lacks the innovation to help it stand out. Songs like “The Fall of Home”, while solid slow alt-rock, never really lives up to its potential.

This is an album for a time and a place, and it does an admirable job at that. It’s unable to transcend that as the best albums do, but it never needed to.

@murthynikhil

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