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Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator

18 Nov

theNavigator.jpg

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

Lorde – Melodrama

12 Oct

Melodrama

On her debut album Pure Heroine (2013), Lorde spent her time sneering at everything outside her clique, literally a living embodiment of Nirvana’s thoughts on the matter. On Melodrama (2017), Lorde is 20 – just far enough outside her teenage years to realize that a) teenagers act like naïve idiots most of the time, b) that her days of being a naïve idiot have now been replaced with the horrible self-doubt of adulthood.

Moreover, the normal horrors of growing up are exacerbated by the fact that she did so at the peak of her fame. The clique has been replaced with random guys at parties and the nonchalance is powered by drugs and alcohol. She has all the makings of a drug-fueled pop star, but unfortunately for her (and fortunately for us) she’s too intelligent to let it all pass by without documentation. And so, her struggle continues, untethered and drowning in feelings.

A main point of inspiration for the entire album is her break-up with longtime boyfriend James Lowe. Over the course of the album, she dissects this relationship from every angle. “Green Light” takes place right after the breakup, with Lorde still in a state of incredulity that she’s single. First she sneers at her ex for telling some other girl that he likes the beach (he doesn’t), then she feels optimistic about the “new sounds” in her life – and all of a sudden, the post-break-up song sounds almost joyous.

Her rebound state-of-mind continues on the misleadingly titled “Sober”, where she paints a picture of “liquor-wet limes” amidst a raucous brass section. And on “Homemade Dynamite”, she fools around at a party with a guy she just met. It’s an immensely listenable song, made only better by Lorde’s vocal quirks – from the way she beatbox-stresses the word “dynamite” to the way she childishly imitates a dynamite boom.

But the parties are just a mask to the sadness that lurks skin-deep. On “Perfect Places”, Lorde realizes that she’s using sex and drugs to reach a “perfect place” of contentment while wondering what perfection is, anyway. Sweeping strings and piano amplify her sadness on “Writer in the Dark”, turning a dead relationship into obsessive, one-sided love. Apparently, her immortalization of the relationship through song makes it impossible for her to move on (“I’ll love you til you call the cops on me,” she wails in all seriousness), and the raw emotion in her voice makes it completely believable.

The standout track is “Liability”, a haunting ballad about Lorde’s transition from drama-queen teen to melodramatic adult just at the peak of her fame. The piano adds support, but it’s her voice that completely carries this song. A note of vulnerable tenderness when she accepts that her fame is a burden to those closest to her; a hint of peace when she realizes that she still likes who she is; a burst of excitement that stops dead in its tracks when she realizes that every perfect summer ends badly for her. It’s a whirlwind of emotions, just like Lorde herself.

Of course, Melodrama wouldn’t be where it is without the great production values of Jack Antonoff, best known for being the lead guitarist of indie rock band Fun. His use of deliberate beats and lilting piano really pushes Lorde to grow past the minimalist sounds on her debut.

There’s so much to love about Melodrama. Lorde’s writing summarizes short stories in a few words (“Half of my wardrobe is on your bedroom floor”) and her vocal range is pitch-perfect from the lowest growl to the highest wail. Her stories are intimate and heavy, and she has the grace (and irony) to tell them through genuine party songs. Check out Melodrama – for the highs, the lows, and everything in between.

Best tracks: “Liability”, “Homemade Dynamite”, “Perfect Places”

Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory

24 Sep

 

On the face of it, Big Fish Theory sounds great. On his second full-length album, Long Beach-native Vince Staples layers his poised and confident flow over reworked techno-house beats, and interludes these gems with often bizarre but invariably interesting spoken-word segments and collaborations. There are enough references to oceans and marine life to make the album title seem reasonable, and you’re left with a tidy hip-hop album, with a bow on top.

But dig a little deeper, and Big Fish Theory shines blackly with grimness and desolation. After the break-out success of his debut Summertime ’06 (2015) and his follow-up EP Prima Donna (2016), Staples has gotten really famous really quickly. With a rough past in the mean streets of North Long Beach, this is exactly what Staples should want – enough money, fame and women to catapult him into a different life. But the new life didn’t quite cut it. Staples is left with aching loneliness, and is often met with money-grubbing groupies and fair-weather friends when he tries to reach out for help. So he works on his music, harder and more focused, to exorcise his demons, all the while knowing that the “goal” he’s set himself won’t bring him happiness in the end.

It is this ominous pendulum of emotions that drives the entire album.

“Alyssa’s Interlude” sets the tone for the darker side of things, with a snippet of Amy Winehouse talking about her self-destructive nature being a major source of material for her music. On “Party People”, Vince shows his own streak of self-destruction – his fame pushes him into the spotlight, where he can’t hide his suicidal thoughts (“Please don’t look at me in my face, everybody might see my pain”). The fruit of his success threatens to undo him and, as Vince is finding out the hard way, money doesn’t fix everything anyway (“Couple problems my cash can’t help, human issues too strong for tissues”).

But it’s not just self-sabotage pushing him to the edge. On “745”, Vince is sitting in a swanky car with a beautiful woman – what he’s wanted all his life – but the dream cracks from the inside. His lady friend heads straight to the oyster bar, without regard to poor Vince who’s still out parking the car. “This thing called love’s hard for me,” he confesses, “This thing called love is a God to me.” Pity that he seems so far from it.

But the grim moods don’t last forever. Vince seems to pull himself out of depression by vowing to stay away from demons, within and without. Album opener “Crabs in a Bucket” uses house beats over an Azalea Banks-like off-kilter flow, to draw a mental image of Vince struggling to make it out of the “bucket” of his old neighborhood. (The song also marks the first appearance of Kilo Kish, who often adds a velvety, ethereal gloss over Vince’s hard-to-swallow bullets of truth throughout the album.)

“Crabs” is followed by the club-ready beats of the first single, “Big Fish” – the part where the intro melds into Vince’s almost taunt-like drawl still gives us chills after half a hundred listens. It’s fair to say that Vince doesn’t fit the mold of the typical hip-hop star – he’s a teetotaler and has never done drugs. We also find out from “Big Fish” that he’s really into saving his cash, wielding his bank balance as a protective float from his past misfortunes. “I was up late night ballin’, counting up hundreds by the thousands,” he boasts repeatedly, and it’s not tough to believe him when he says he’s taken the smart route out of his Ramona Park childhood. “Homage” gives us the same message, relayed over neat Gorillaz-style megaphone vocals – no doubt a nod to his recent collaborator Damon Albarn.

Beyond the pendulum between his self-destructive introspection and his drive to succeed, Big Fish Theory displays another overarching theme: Vince’s cynicism with the hip-hop game. He has repeatedly stated on interviews that he considers rapping to be his job, not a side hobby (“Last time I checked, my job was to make songs. All the other stuff is extra,” he stated bluntly in a recent Vulture interview). Over sludgy beats and tinny drums on “Yeah Right”, Vince sardonically questions the order of importance for many of today’s hip-hop stars. “Is your house big?”, “Is your girl fine?”, and almost as an after-thought, “If your song played, would they know that?” And of course, we would be remiss to not mention that the song also features a stand-out verse dropped by rap’s current king, Kendrick Lamar.

All in all, Big Fish Theory works on two levels. It is a great album to hear from start to finish even if you aren’t paying attention to the words; if you are paying attention, that’s a whole different level.

Best tracks: “Big Fish”, “Yeah Right”, “745”

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

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