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Charli XCX – Charli

23 Oct

Charli has come a long way from 2013’s True Romance. That was an album that showed promise, but I don’t know how many expected Charli to be where she is now, legitimately bucking at the gates of superstardom. What makes her and Charli itself incredible though is that she is still a relentless innovator.

Admittedly, Charli does continue in the vein of her previous mixtape Pop 2, but it’s too rich a vein to complain of that. Her electro-pop-with-friends sound is still fresh and the new cast mostly works well with her.

“Gone” for instance is very good, punchy pop. Charli and Chris (of Christine and the Queens) have a fantastic push-me-pull-you dynamic that elevates both of them. Their trading of verses is thoroughly collaborative and yet contains enough of an edge to push both of them.

That edge would have helped in “Cross You Out” where Sky Ferreira slips a little too effortlessly into the song. It’s still good pop, but a little conflict might have tempered the whole thing.

Similarly, “Warm”, while a fun song, doesn’t feel like the collaboration with HAIM that I hoped for as much as a Charli song with a feature in it. It’s got some of the fun HAIM rock in it, but you sort of have to be looking for it. “February 2017” also feels like a little bit of a wasted opportunity due to how understated Clairo is in the song.

Her chemistry with Troye Sivan really makes the album though. “1999” may not be the deepest Charli cut, but it is as good pop as anything that she has ever made. It’s fun, it’s relatable and it’s very catchy. It was the lack of a single like this that brought down Pop 2 and having one of the quality of “1999” does a lot for Charli. “2099” is not quite as strong a single, but it’s a fascinating, futuristic piece.

There are still a couple of missteps. Lizzo is a bit forgettable on “Blame It On Your Love”, even if Charli herself does quite well in it. “Shake It” however is just not good. It’s noisy and grating and doesn’t do anything interesting with all of that noise. “White Mercedes” has Charli stretching herself into something more of power-pop, but that’s not really her métier.

Nevertheless, this is a strong pop album and one well worth spending some time with. Unlike thank u, next and Norman Fucking Rockwell!, this doesn’t feel like the album to take the artist to the next level, but it’s still a very solid addition to an oeuvre rapidly filling with them.

Nilufer Yanya – Miss Universe

18 Oct

This is a striking debut album. Nilufer Yanya immediately grabs your attention with her iridescent voice and bold music, both of which are used to great effect in songs like the excellent “Heat Rises.” She has a gift for combining that captivating voice with unexpected music to make very compelling music as in “Paradise” and in “Paralysed.” She keeps you off-balance expertly and does so with such brash strokes as too take your breath away. Additionally, her voice is really just fascinating in itself and she already has the ability to use it well like in “Tears.”

The album has a little too much air to fully recommend and her skits don’t do anything to help, but there’s already so much here to recommend. Miss Universe is both the promise of great things to come and, more surprisingly, the deliverance of those in itself.

Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell!

7 Oct

To some degree, you know what you’re going to get with each new Lana Del Rey album. Actually, to a very large degree, you know what you’re going to get with a new LDR album. She’s taken her aesthetic of Hollywood sadcore and mined it thoroughly, albeit skillfully. There’s a grab-bag of images that come with any of her albums and they are the same fast cars, Gatsby, bad relationships, Hollywood glamour, nostalgia, Los Angeles style that you should expect by now. However, this iteration is her at her best. She’s brought a sharpness here that’s unprecedented and delivered one of the strongest albums of the year.

The opening track drops the one-liner “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news” with a wonderful casualness and follows it later with the clever and scathing stanza “Goddamn, man-child / You act like a kid even though you stand six foot two / Self-loathing poet, resident Laurel Canyon know-it-all / You talk to the walls when the party gets bored of you / But I don’t get bored, I just see it through / Why wait for the best when I could have you? You?” and has an interesting pause for breath before the second you, before she cuts loose to sing it and this expertly transitions the song from the storytelling to the music. The schtick of the self-aware, submissive woman is becoming a little too routine, but she has mostly has the chops to still pull it off.

However, it falls apart for the less expert of her songs. “Mariners Apartment Complex” has a couple of very sharp lines (like the opening pair of “You took my sadness out of context / At the Mariners Apartment Complex) but it just doesn’t do enough of anything. It starts out with very strong storytelling, but then doesn’t deliver on it and is too laid back musically. Similarly, “Love song” is trite both musically and lyrically. “Cinnamon Girl” and “How to disappear” at least save themselves from the hyper-dramatization of the storylines with very well done music.

In the same way, “Bartender” manages to overcome the self-indulgence of the story with the fact that it’s just excellent music. Her voice works very well against the piano and song’s minimalism works very well. Unfortunately, it’s sandwiched by “The greatest”, which is just air and “Happiness is a butterfly”, which is as self-indulgent as “Bartender” but not as skilled. Mostly however, her missteps are saved by her ability to make very good music. “Doin’ time” is a fascinating cover and manages to match the album’s aesthetic, but is still incomprehensible as it is neither clever in itself nor as a part of the whole. It sounds good though. Her voice does a real number on the song.

When things come together though, the album really shines. The aforementioned title track is able to match her A-game lyricism with strong music and she is able to pull off the complete package fairly regularly. The trip-hop opening of “Fuck it I love you” is very strong and then she picks up the pace just to let it drop as she croons the chorus. Her lyrics are razor sharp as well. She’s pushes complex thoughts and detailed pictures with a remarkable economy of actual words.

“California” is the LDR aesthetic at its best. It has awkward slang, doomed relationships and space for her voice and the result delivers on the promise. Similarly, “The Next Best American Record” puts everything together.
The true highlight though is the single “Venice Bitch.” It’s slow, woozy dream pop done very, very well. It’s effortlessly ethereal and it’s got that good American imagery that she thrives on. It plays hard on the sadness of Americana and finds space for an amazing electric guitar squeal in the middle. It really does it all.

The album finishes with “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it.” It’s a shockingly risky song to make. It’s stripped down too far for comfort and that puts a lot of weight on the song and you can see it buckle under that weight repeatedly. However, the distillation of the song, the album and her entire body of work into the couplet “Hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have / But I have it” is extremely powerful and done beautifully by her.

Norman Fucking Rockwell! is not an album without flaws, and it’s starting to feel like those flaws will follow Lana Del Rey for her entire career, but it is nonetheless excellent. When she puts all the pieces together with the skill that she can sometimes summon, she makes music as good as any out there and this album has no shortage of those moments.

@murthynikhil

Miles Davis – Rubberband

23 Sep

Rubberband was originally recorded in 1985, shortly after Miles’ five-year hiatus and shortly before his death. The original recording was never completed and ended up being archived until quite recently. It’s been dusted off and filled out and the result, while not exceptional, makes for quite a decent funk album.

The result is most notable not for any trait, but for a lack. There’s much less Miles than one would expect. The album required a lot of filling out and so Miles himself shows up far less than one would like. The songs that fully feature him, like “See I See” are very strong, but his absence tells. It’s an album that needs inspiration.

Still, if you’re looking for some new funk / R&B, there’s enough here to keep you engaged for a while. It’s also one of those albums that seems to be having fun and that’s always nice. If you’re new to Miles’ funk period, you will find You’re Under Arrest to be more the more rewarding listen, but you should still find a little time for an album that’s less accomplished, but still very sincere.

Clairo – Immunity

9 Sep

Immunity is a surprise of a debut album. Clairo was already a rising star before its launch, primarily due to the breakout “Pretty Girl.” That was a song that felt like everything bedroom pop could be. Between the literal bedroom of the music video, the smart-teen-feminism of the song and Clairo’s immense charm, it’s anything but inexplicable that the song was a hit and the EP that accompanied it explored even more of that vein. However, that EP was also meant to close that chapter and Immunity marks a significant change.

You can see the difference as soon as the album opens. “Alewife” is still understated soft rock, but it’s bigger and lusher and just more produced than her earlier work. It’s a transition that mostly works. The production is bigger, but never blunt or maximal and somehow her voice stands out more than ever before. Ever in places like “Closer To You” which features some very prominent AutoTuning, you never stray too far from the core that makes Clairo so promising a musician.

Her music is still a little unformed though. “Closer To You” does just need a little more both musically and lyrically. “Sofia” is very good soft rock and opens with distinct flair. The story of an early crush on another girl is a strong central conceit. However, the song ends up feeling a little immature in terms of narrative and of craft. “I Wouldn’t Ask You” has an appealing gentleness that works very well with its premise, but is undercut by falling a little too far into its slow tempo in the first half. It ends up being a beautiful, heartfelt song and it has moments like a very clever chorus of children in the second half, but as a whole is just a little short of the brilliance that it needs. Both “Sinking” and “Softly” are solid R&B, but unexceptional.

However, “Bags” is the best song that she has ever made. It’s clever, it’s heartfelt and it shows an impressive maturity and completeness. It’s a truly excellent song and filled with little things that sparkle. Her voice on the repeated lines of “Know you’d make fun of me” and “Walking out the door with your bags” is heavy with emotion and yet as understated as ever.

Immunity is a strong album. There are few missteps and a very consistent quality to the project. However, it’s clear that Clairo can do more, as she did with “Bags”, and it’s all but certain that she soon will.

Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold

26 Aug

It’s not just that Sleater-Kinney are cool, it’s they’ve always been cool. They’ve always been really cool. They’re the kind of band that makes songs that can define who you are for a phase of your life. They’re the kind of songs where you should let them.

Things change though. Times change. Riot grrrl doesn’t mean the same thing now that it meant in the early 2000s. Sleater-Kinney is just too smart not to change too and The Center Won’t Hold is definitely a shift slightly to the side. They’re still super-cool though.

The obvious difference is bringing in St. Vincent, but how much of the change in the music is from her and how much is from the band is impossible to dissect. “LOVE” starts as though it was Devo doing punk, which is new and interesting, but also maybe not quite as good as it would have been as a pure riot grrrl track. Especially with the rawness of a line like “There’s nothing more frightening and nothing more obscene / Than a well-worn body demanding to be seen / Fuck,” this could have been done as a harder track, but the backing works well with the sung chorus and the track is unquestionably novel.

However, some of the other tracks don’t do anything new musically despite being separate from the standard Sleater-Kinney songbook. “Restless”, “The Dog / The Body” and especially “Can I Go On” feel like they could have come from much lesser indie rock groups.

“RUINS” feels like modern riot grrrl though. The distortions are very sharp and the song carries so much attitude that you can forgive it being slightly stretched. “Reach Out” is excellent and Janet Weiss’ drumming in it is spectacular. The standout though is “Hurry On Home”, which is easily one of the strongest tracks of the year. It’s frenetic and so much fun and topical and so smart. It’s the reason that you fall for this band in the first place.

The Center Won’t Hold doesn’t quite merit a shrine in the Sleater-Kinney discography, but it is still a strong album and an interesting look at what might come next.

YBN Cordae – The Lost Boy

19 Aug

It’s a good time to be a talented young man in rap and YBN Cordae is as talented (and as young) as they come. The Lost Boy is the natural next step for him and it’s a very promising debut. YBN Cordae is already one of the more skilled rappers making music and that skill is more than enough to carry the album.

However, if you take the skill away, it’s hard to really see the point of the album. You would expect to see a lot of filler in a debut of this style and while it’s true here, that’s not too major a complaint to lodge against it. My real issue is that I just don’t really know what YBN Cordae is.

His claim to be a mix of the old and new school doesn’t really come through in the album. “Have Mercy” might have something like a trap beat, but it hasn’t internalized trap and nothing else feels even close to a fusion.

This doesn’t keep the music from being good though. The man is very talented. “Broke As Fuck” borrows very heavily from “HUMBLE”, but does it well and we can always use more music mined from that vein. “Family Matters” goes old-school instead and reminds me of Blueprint-era Jay-Z and Cordae’s lines about his family hit hard.

Where the flaw is most evident though is in the Chance and Anderson .Paak features. Both are excellent songs, but the Chance song feels like a Chance song and the .Paak one feels like a .Paak one. Both of these artists are well established by now and that clear definition lets them completely overshadow the voice of the still hazy Cordae.

This is still a debut worth checking out though. YBN Cordae’s potential is already clear, but future considerations aside, there’s enough very good music here to warrant your attention now.

@murthynikhil
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