Archive by Author

The Weather Station – Ignorance

18 Apr

It’s not hard for pleasant to be a pejorative. Ignorance is, like many other albums, a nice listen. The music is all fairly reasonable. The vocals are the center of the album and it tends to be quite good singing. She has the occasional promising jaggedness, but it too often ends up predictable. The lyrics are also just not that clever. “Warm” comes close to coming together when the strings swoop and her voice comes close to breaking, but the whole just ends up uninteresting.

Finally, that’s where the album lands. It has neither the jazzy cleverness of a Norah Jones album nor the fun pop of a Haim one, despite the occasional feint towards both. It’s unobjectionable, and again, it’s quite a pleasant album, but pleasant is not exciting.

Joel Ross – Who Are You?

13 Apr

This might be a little unsophisticated to admit, but I like a good vibraphone and Joel Ross’ opening to this album sets the perfect tone to an excellent album. Right off the bat, you can see that Who Are You? is great musicians making great post-bop.

The vibraphone is obviously a highlight, especially when Joel Ross builds his soundscapes, like in “The Nurturer.” It’s a great album for just putting down a pleasant sound. “Gato’s Gift,” for instance, is very listenable, even if you’re not the deepest jazz fan and that holds for most of the album. There’s a lovely bass in “Calling” and “Home” that also has a very nice piano solo

There are some choppier parts here though. “Vartha” has a good, jagged solo from Immanuel Wilkins on the sax, although it could have used a little more pace. The vibraphone solo really picks up the song and there’s good drum work here as well. It crashes like the sea in the background. There’s a strong vein of Trane in here and their cover of “After The Rain” highlights that. Unfortunately though, this is not one of their stronger tracks. It’s a little overfull, especially when compared to Coltrane’s version. Nevertheless, the influence is very welcome.

This is an excellent album, but one held back by these minor missteps and one that I wish was a little bit more than what it delivered. It’s certainly not unintelligent, but I would have loved a couple of places with more challenge and greater surprise. This is, nonetheless, a stellar sophomore album and some excellent jazz.

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, London Symphony Orchestra – Promises

10 Apr

There’s no shortage of high-powered collaboration in music and there’s such a range of them that it’s hard for anything to really take one by surprise, but you don’t come across a trio of producer, saxophonist and orchestra everyday. You don’t come across an album this good everyday either. The three meld beautifully. It feels like the intersection of three separate strains – the ambient production of something like Green by Hiroshi Yoshimura, the nature-inspired classical music of compositions like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the spiritual jazz of people like Sun Ra and John Coltrane, both of whom Pharoah Sanders played with.

The album evokes lush, verdant scenes whether through Floating Points’ productions as in “Movement 7” or the Orchestra in “Movement 6.” This is not the jungle, because the jungle lacks the intensity of this music. The colors of these soundscapes are too bright, too intense to be nature. They instead capture the feel of nature at its most immersive and leave you with nothing to distract from it. It is that first moment of experiencing a new vista made into a full album.

It’s filled with detail though. The refrain that ripples throughout the album is distinctive and beautiful. It’s wonderfully open-ended and accents the ambient music very cleverly. You can also feel the presence of many different organisms in the music. There are little flourishes of background hollering and chirping that enliven the music and add depth.

It’s the saxophone that really brings the human element to this album though. Sanders’ jazz comes in hot and adds that heat to what might otherwise be a very austere album. He even vocalizes in “Movement 4” and that integrates beautifully with the ripples of the music. He doesn’t go for the sheets of sound you might expect, but instead plays pure, drawn-out notes that express so much in their tone. When he comes in at the 7th minute of “Movement 7” with a sax scream, it’s the perfect way to agitate the existing music. Pharoah Sanders brings such a strong voice to this collaboration and his saxophone is the most noticeable thing here.

This an astonishing addition to some of the more storied careers in music history, a very individual album and music of the absolute highest tier.

Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over The Country Club

5 Apr

So much of art rests on thin margins. Lana Del Rey has made a career out of evocative music, music that conjures a lot out of a few scattered pieces. This understatement was the core of her appeal. With Chemtrails Over The Country Club, the insubstantialness finally takes over and the magic just doesn’t hold and the result is hollow instead.

The biggest failure here is just the music. LDR was always languorous, but here the album is simply mired in tar. She has moved away from the hip-hop that underpinned her debut and suffers for the loss of energy that came with it and her stabs at punk rock are inexecrable. I respect that she loves Joan, so do we all, but the rest of us know to keep our imitations to the privacy of bathroom walls.

Normally, she is cinematic enough with her music that its magnitude gives it momentum. Here, the music is flimsy. The moments of pace and energy that dotted her previous work are completely missing here. Even more damningly though, the album just has far too little emotion.

It does manage some highlights. The title track is quite good and I love the drums at the end and the repeated “My Cancer is sun and my Leo is moon.” “Yosemite” is absolutely gorgeous and there’s a wonderful little Spanish string tilt in there. “White Dress” has the amazing “Men In Music Business Conference,” which I dearly wish she had expanded on more.

It’s a shame that the rest has nowhere near the same quality. Despite “Breaking Up Slowly” being her comfort zone and despite the brilliance of “Are these my good years, or do I have none?/Are there really good years for everyone?”, the song has no substance to it. It’s okay to be vague if you allude to something interesting, and the premise of this song is not. Even so, it’s substantially better than “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost” or “For Free.” These are unnecessary songs which traffic in the most uninteresting cliches and do so in the most boring manner.

Norman Fucking Rockwell was excellent and showed Lana Del Rey as so much more than just her debut album. This album adds nothing to her legacy. With any luck, we’ll remember this as nothing more than an unfortunate speedbump, but it’s more likely that we just will not remember it at all.

Rob Mazurek / Exploding Star Orchestra – Dimensional Stardust

4 Mar

Dimensional Stardust seems like the kind of album that would enjoy a good paradox and so it’s lucky that it brings one to the table itself. It is, at one and the same time, wildly novel and numbingly familiar. The album is a parade of fantastic soundscapes. Not only does it accurately evoke space, but it evokes space as interesting. This is not the untouched void. It is instead an explosion of shapes and colors. You can see the comets and nebulae and galaxies all whorling around with even the occasional life form drifting through.

“Sun Core Tet,” for instance, keeps a simple foundation, albeit complicated by shapeshifting instruments, but then puts so much color into the space left open. It is somehow strongly reminiscent of Saturday morning science fiction, especially due to the vibraphone and flute work. I’ve heard many musical representations of the wonder of space, this is the only one that really brings in the childishness of wonder. The good dynamic energy of the later “Parable of Inclusion” further builds this feeling.

There’s also a strong classical vein to this album. The sparse leading instruments and heavy use of polyphony do a lot to build this and there’s no real soloing here. It’s a very crafted album, which is a strength for how clearly the album speaks but a detriment as well. There’s a lot in this album that could use the inspiration that comes from the improvisation that defines space jazz.

“Autumn Pleiades” for instance, sounds like post-rock more than anything else, and as often happens with that genre, falls too far into repetition. It could have really used a little surprise somewhere. Similarly, “The Careening Prism Within” is just too predictable and it feels like the voiceover in “Abstract Dark Energy” never ends.

It’s a shame that this strain of predictability mars what would otherwise be an excellent album. In fact, if you’re looking for something in the vein of your favorite post-rock album, but with parts significantly more challenging, this album is tailor-made for you. If your tastes are more general, this album still paints some very vivid visuals, even if they could use some additional variety as well.

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.

Adrianne Lenker – songs

10 Jan

A lot of indie rock likes to use gentleness to disarm before it strikes. It’s a way to lull you into a placid mood before it lacerates you with insight. songs has moments as sharp as any of them, but is still delicate and somehow reassuring. One of the major cultural trends to recently emerge is that of wholesomeness, but that brand of wholesomeness feels inextricable from naivety. songs doesn’t hide its intelligence, but tempers it with immense gentleness and so does more to rejuvenate than any amount of shallower media.

It’s with “ingydar” that this is at its best. The song takes transience and distills it. It has a fantastic sense of place and it’s very evocative. It takes the repeated “everything eats and is eaten” and shows you that it is not a cruel statement of Darwinian logic, but instead one of profound beauty.

At its best, this is what the album manages to achieve. It takes the harder truths of life and, as if by magic, reveals the gentleness inside. It does mix that with a number of pieces that fizzle without much to say, but there’s still plenty in here well worth the listen.

Top Five Albums of 2020 – Nikhil’s List

28 Dec

Not every year is a 2020 and thankfully so, but some very interesting music came out of it. Afrobeats has taken the next step. Drill broke out, although sadly marred by tragedy. Taylor Swift made music I wanted to listen to. Things got strange. Things got listenable too though and these are my picks for what best to listen to.

Honorable Mention: Amaarae – THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW

2020 was the year that Afrobeats really broke into the mainstream. Burna Boy’s excellent album is naturally the headliner, but it’s a movement much bigger than the one man, African Giant though he may be and of everyone it was Amaarae that did the most. She took the base of Afrobeats and evolved it well past where I expected it to be so soon.

At it’s best, it’s impossibly fun. “HELLZ ANGEL” is clever, propulsive and has the still-amazing line of “I don’t make songs / Bitch, I make memories / I don’t like thongs / Cuz they ride up in jeans.” The SAD pair of songs are infectious. This is an album that makes you move.

Some inconsistency keeps THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW from being higher on this list, but it’s still some of the most exceptional music of the year and a strong promise for what is to come.

Read our full review here.

5. Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

This album really grew on me as the year went by. I was a little disappointed in it when it came out because of how much I liked BOCC and, to a lesser degree, boygenius, but this is actually a really good album. It’s just indie folk rock at its best.

The lead single of “Kyoto” is naturally the highlight. It’s a quick change of pace and a bright piece of fun. It’s more than a little precious, but smart enough to know that and play on it. It’s in the foundation that it shines though. It just lets Phoebe Bridgers sing and that’s sometimes all a song really needs.

This, writ large, is what makes this album. I like indie folk rock. I like the cinematic nature. I like the sharp, evocative and clever lyrics. I like the wistfulness. Punisher does all of these very well. When an album has a strong selling point, it’s easy to write about, but something like this can be hard to pin to a page because it’s all just excellent execution. It’s in a delicate swirl of strings in “Chinese Satellite” or in the sudden upshift right as the album ends in “I Know The End.” It’s in how Phoebe Bridgers’ singing is just the right kind of gentle. It lets the barbs stay sharp, but also, it can just be gentle and, above all, it’s always human.

Read our full review here.

4. Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an absolutely stunning album and the one that we’ve been waiting for Fiona Apple to make for her whole career. Apple’s feminist art pop has always been very likable and any one of her last four albums is well worth the listen, but Bolt Cutters is a whole new level for her.

This is an album of challenging, clever music and one confident enough to let you come to the challenge yourself. She puts space in each song just to play around with the music and expand the sound. She even throws in the unexpected with noise, chimes, even barking dogs.

It’s also an album with strong things to say. “Well, good morning / Good morning / You raped me in the bed your daughter was born in.” in “For Her” is the kind of line that you cannot miss and the metaphor of “Rack of His” is ingenious. There are a couple of moments where the privilege comes through a little too strongly, but it only mildly detracts from the unmistakable intelligence of the album.

When the pieces come together in Fetch The Bolt Cutters, it’s incredible. This is an extraordinary album and the best of Fiona Apple’s career.

Read our full review here.

3. Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off The Floor

Like the album before this, much of what makes this album so great is in the details. There are lots of fascinating little flourishes through the album. Pick Me Up Off The Floor is impossibly lean though. There’s no fat, no embellishments meant to distract the ear from a middling track, just consistently excellent music.

It’s a smart album backed up by a powerful voice. She can take something like the already very listenable “Hurts To Be Alone” and put so much that’s interesting around the edges. The album is playful and fluid and ever-changing and yet always completely in control. This is both life and purpose.

It’s also astonishingly enervating. I’m used to a little exhaustion after getting through a jazz album. The effort that they need is not negligible. This is the rare one that refreshes instead.

Read our full review here.

2. Nubya Garcia – SOURCE

SOURCE is not quite the kind of work-out of the jazz I just mentioned, but it does pack a lot of action into a single hour. At it’s best, like in “Pace” and “Before Us,” it is fiery jazz of the best sort. It has a burning energy and isn’t afraid to take its challenge all the way to the listener’s limits.

The title track does the same and the performers trade excellent solos across its 12-minute sprawl. It’s skilled, compelling jazz and a delight to listen to. It’s in “La Cumbia Me Esta Llamando” that the album is at its most interesting. It threads Latin sounds through top-tier jazz and the result is spectacular. I would never pigeonhole a talent on the level of Nubya Garcia. No matter what she does, I’m gong to be excited to hear it. She is just that good and that versatile. I would be lying though if I said I didn’t hope for more in this vein. This is truly wonderful music.

Read our full review here.

1. Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake

The thing here is that Uzi can rap. The high concept of the album didn’t really land with me, but Uzi can just rap. It’s like prime Wayne where you just want to see what he does next. He takes the top spot this year purely off the strength of that flow.

He might be the most important rapper in the world right now. Kendrick is on hiatus, J. Cole has gone full Samson, Future has fallen off, Drake is in a holding pattern but Uzi is at full speed. It’s not a guarantee that he will deliver. The extended album had plenty of bloat and while he rapped circles around an apparently disinterested Future in Pluto x Baby Pluto, the album just isn’t enough to wake up for. With Eternal Atake though, he just flies.

Like with Wayne, Uzi just seems to do what he wants. It feels like there’s nothing he won’t try and nothing that he won’t rap about. There are just no limits to what he will do next. What makes it so unfair is how easily he can do it too. He can go hard or soft, he has more flows than you can shake a stick at, he has things you’ve never seen before and he can do it all in the same track just for the fun of it and be likeable to boot.

In my review, I called this the bebop of the trap world, and that still rings true. He makes rap that challenges and delights, rap that’s free-flowing and improvisational and always able to surprise. It’s textured, intelligent music that’s endlessly impressive and human for all of that. This is the most fun I had listening to an album all year and one that I’m happy to have as album of the year.

Read our full review here.

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