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The Black Keys – "Let's Rock"

9 Dec

In a world dominated by global pop sensations (see: Ariana Grande, K-pop), it can often seem like rock and roll is about to doze off at the wheel. Sure, you have the occasional saviors, like Royal Blood or the more derivative Greta van Fleet, but there aren’t too many active and prolific rock and roll artists today.

Except, of course, for the Black Keys.

The Black Keys, comprising of Dan Auerbach on guitar / vocals and Patrick Carney on drums, is as lean and mean as they come. Their songs are – and have always been – loud, effortless, rollicking, and whatever-is-the-opposite-of-pretentious. They are, simply put, a good time through and through.

What’s more, this sound has largely been dependable over the band’s extensive history. The band’s first five albums – The Big Come Up (2002), thickfreakness (2003), Rubber Factory (2004), Magic Potion (2006) and Attack & Release (2008) – were released in quick succession and to moderate fanfare. But it was soon after that they really started to take off. Brothers (2010) and El Camino (2011) would top the charts of any best-of-decade blues rock albums, spawning still-ubiquitous hits such as “Tighten Up”, “Howlin’ for You” and “Lonely Boy”. While Turn Blue (2014) could be considered a slight step down, it was still a great rock album – and that’s our point. There are few, if any, other artists today with such a long-standing, consistent and beloved rock discography.

And all that back-story brings us to the ninth Black Key album “Let’s Rock!” (2019). Coming after a scary five-year gap (“Will they ever get back together?” wondered fans everywhere), the album is sturdy, no-nonsense and catchy as all hell.

It’s also, reliably, packed to the brim with top-notch bluesy hits. “Shine a Little Light” opens the album with about twenty seconds of anticipation, before kicking into high gear with a hard-hitting riff. By the time Auerbach gets to the swashbuckling chorus (“If evil lays its hands on me, shine a little light on my soul / Show me things I cannot see, shine a little light on my soul”), you know what you’re getting for the rest of the album – good old-fashioned rock and roll fun.

And it’s pretty much non-stop from there. “Eagle Birds” is bluesy perfection, equally appropriate for an exuberant road-trip or a raucous dance party. “Lo / Hi” could, and probably will, soundtrack an advertisement for a Cadillac, or a leather jacket, or a motorcycle (or maybe all of those things) – pure swagger and confidence from head to toe. “Go” is an instant rock classic, with a single-word chorus (yep, the word is “go”) that perhaps no other band could really pull off.

In between these hard-rock hits, a few songs provide some welcome contrast. “Walk Across the Water” features gentler vocals with laidback, Hendrix-like riffs – a catch of breath in the otherwise relentless first half. “Sit Around and Miss You” is rockabilly meets Revolver-era Beatles, with warm riffs, old-timey “oohs” and “aahs”, and simple-as-they-get vocals.

Bottom line: “Let’s Rock” is straightforward, old-fashioned, and just plain fun. If you’re looking for something deep or ground-breaking, you’d best look elsewhere. If not – you’re in the right place.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

8 Dec

It’s immediately apparent that this is the album after the death of Nick Cave’s son. The melancholy is beautiful and everywhere. It’s much more of an ambient album than is standard for him and, if anything, benefits from the move outside. It does however also suffer a little from what becomes a slightly unvarying sound as a result though.

However, the grief comes through poignantly throughout. In particular, the retelling of the Buddhist parable of the house that knows no death in “Hollywood” is heart-rending. It’s a touching, beautiful album and one that you will not leave unmoved.

Earl Sweatshirt – FEET OF CLAY

28 Nov

Earl Sweatshirt has built a solid pocket of rap for himself. He makes muddy, complex, punishing rap in a way that no one else even really attempts. FEET OF CLAY however may have taken it too far.

His muttered, submerged raps are as awe-inspiring as ever. He puts together sounds and words in a way that’s simultaneously muddy and evocative, like scrying in a swamp. It’s singular and cohesive and often somewhat punishing as a result. He has such complex bars with lyricism as unique as it is skilled.

The punishment was always sort of the point, but this is the one where it feels a little unjustified. The album is just too dense and lacks the reward of a “Chum” or a “Grief” to really pay off the effort. If you’re an Earl Sweatshirt fan, then you already know that you should give this album a couple of spins, but if not, this is not the place to jump in.

Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride

25 Nov

In May of this year, indie pop-rock mainstays Vampire Weekend released their fourth full-length album, Father of the Bride. We are aware, yes, that we are a little late with this review; but with the end of the year coming up fast, we thought it best to close the loop on some albums that we haven’t gotten around to reviewing just yet.

Vampire Weekend burst onto the scene, almost literally, with a sparkling, eponymous debut album about a decade ago. Their sound was a mystifying mix of mainstream and hipster – think clean-cut prep school kid with surprisingly deep life experiences. That first album had songs like “Oxford Comma”, literally devoted to a grammatical element (but a hipster one!), and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, a juxtaposition of idyllic New England summers and Congolese dance.

The next two albums, Contra (2010) and Modern Vampires of the City (2013), had a similarly well-traveled mishmash of sights and sounds, with hits like “Horchata” and “Diane Young”. Although their sound was a little more grown-up, the essence remained intact. Things are now different, though, with the departure of one Rostam Batmanglij.

Vampire Weekend, in its original iteration, was a four-piece consisting of vocalist / guitarist Ezra Koenig, guitarist Batmanglij, bassist Chris Baio, and drummer Chris Tomson. Koenig and Batmanglij had a great song-writing partnership. Batmanglij’s wildly creative, global influences provided, in our minds, the X-factor to the band’s otherwise tidy sound. In January 2016, Batmanglij left the band to pursue solo projects – and this is the first Vampire Weekend album without him.

Vampire Weekend without Batmanglij essentially becomes an Ezra Koenig project. That’s not necessarily always a bad thing. For one, Koenig’s ability to write a great indie pop song is perhaps unrivalled today. Also, Koenig now has a celebrity status (see: has a child with girlfriend Rashida Jones, has a Netflix series and an Apple Music radio show) that allows him to pull together a galaxy of musical guests onto the project. The end result, however, is pleasant, charming, polite – and ultimately a bore.

Our readers may be surprised by this assessment; we have, over the past year, done our fair share of gushing over the album’s singles (see here and here). When all the pieces are put together, however, Father of the Bride paints a different picture. It’s the soundtrack to your child’s pastel-themed second-birthday-party. It’s the backdrop to the flowery end of a romcom. It is the sound of entering your mid-thirties considerably less cool than you were in your twenties – albeit armed with a sensible savings account and a postcard-perfect house.

Father of the Bride is packed with fantastic, beautiful songs that deserve to be heard. There are some truly beautiful riffs on here, from the bright “Sunflower” to the deft “Harmony Hall” . Danielle Haim of HAIM joins Koenig for three pretty duets, most notably on the folksy opener “Hold You Now”. It’s a great album – just don’t expect the old Vampire Weekend.

Best songs: “Harmony Hall”, “Sunflower”, “This Life”

FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE

18 Nov

FKA Twigs has long made some of the most interesting pop out there, but MAGDALENE is a full step above her earlier work. It’s easily her best album to date and one of the best albums of the year. She’s sharper, she’s more cohesive and this album just bangs.

There are the obvious parts, “holy terrain” works very well with the Future feature. The trap beat plays nicely against her voice and Future is perfectly understated. The heart of the album is in the thousands of little moments. There’s a beautiful vocal fragment to end “mary magdalene” and the pulsations of “fallen alien” are consuming and intense.

The album even works in the much slower “mirrored heart” and it fits expertly. The feedback in it adds a surprising heft and her lyrics are cutting. Coming as this album did, after a major break-up and a major surgery, it could have easily been a sledgehammer of an album, but her restraint makes the moments that reference the turmoil all the more powerful. Her finesse here is astonishing.

There are a few missteps in “home with you” and “daybed”, which just don’t do enough, but there is much more of note, like the beautiful and clever “sad day”. This is an album from an absurdly talented artist at the height of her powers and an album you don’t want to miss.

Kanye West – Jesus Is King

10 Nov

It’s a given now that a new Kanye album is going to be something of a production. Albums are promised and due dates come and go and you’re never sure what you will get until it comes. With Jesus Is King, what you get is a lot of truly excellent music and one of the more interesting albums that Kanye has ever made.

Coming in, I thought it would be a full gospel album. I expected “Ultralight Beam” extended into a complete album. Instead, although there is a very substantial gospel theme, the album as a whole is surprisingly diverse. There’s a heavy religious bent and the album is very cohesive, but my concerns about monotony proved entirely unfounded.

The album opens with a straight gospel track though, performed by the Sunday Service Choir that Kanye has toured with of late. It’s a good choir and a good way to open the album. It functions as a statement of purpose and a way for the listener to enter the mindset that the album asks for. It’s ablutionary.

It’s followed with “Selah,” which opens with Kanye rapping, but the centerpiece of the song is that same choir. Kanye has a couple of good lines (I like his biblical double-entendres), but the song is completely overpowered by the choir. It’s weapons-grade material to put into any song and it animates the song to such an extent that Kanye’s rapping after it feels completely subsumed by the echoes of that choral work. It makes for a powerful effect and one of the strongest songs of the album, but I feel that there’s space there for a better melding.

From there though, we go into “Follow God,” which really showcases Kanye’s ability as a rapper. In this and in “Hands On,” you can see technical rapping in a way that it feels that the earlier Kanye was just not capable of. He teases the chorus a couple of times in the middle of the song just to bull through it without taking a full breath and it’s dazzling. Even more interesting though is the center of the song, Kanye fighting with his father just to be told that it’s not Christ-like. The reality of spirituality is that it will be tested, and this struggle is one writ especially large with Kanye’s turn to God here. Kanye is famous for his emotionality, for his quickness to react, for his inability to think before he acts, and to see him address the struggle is valuable as it’s rare to see someone be honest and personal about how difficult it can be.

“Closed On Sunday” has a bit of the same. The Sabbath is a sacrifice as much as a respite and you can see the intent behind referencing Chick-fil-A’s decision to stay closed on Sunday out of respect for their faith. The production is sober and quiet and Kanye’s rapping is muted through most of it, which gives the music a heft that plays well with the theme and the wariness of the first verse, which then translates well into the second, often-shouted verse.

The Chick-fil-A association still leaves gristle in the teeth though. The company is far more famous for homophobia than for Sundays and to not only repeatedly reference them, but to end the song with a screamed invocation is overtly provocative. You have to expect that with Kanye, it is what he does, it gets the people going, but nevertheless I would have really liked it if he had backed it up a little. He explains “I Thought About Killing You” over the course of the song and that is why that piece is so strong, but here he simply provokes and runs, and it feels less than it should as a result.

The middle is a bit forgettable. It’s reminiscent of some of the more forgettable parts of TLoP to me, but I actually really like “God Is.” It’s just earnest and that’s nice to see. Earnestness is another of those things that’s critical to any understanding of religion, but it’s also one that people are often reluctant to center a song on just because of how uncomplicated it is. Uncomplicated is not the same as inferior though, and I like to see something straightforward every now and again.

For all of that though, “Hands On” calls out the Christians. It’s a necessary part of an album like this, it’s a good reminder that the struggle for spirituality is personal and not just subsuming yourself into a crowd. As above though, it’s also got strong rap from Kanye. His change of pace here is very clean. Again, it’s just nice to see how much Kanye has developed as a rapper. It was never his strongest suit, but his ability now unlocks a lot of musical space.

“Use This Gospel” helps close out the album well. Clipse are acceptable on it, but Kanye is great and bringing in Kenny G for a moment is very unexpected, but remarkably well done. It’s exactly the perfect sax interlude. The actual closer, “Jesus Is Lord” finishes right as it gets started, but that works well. It’s uplifting and beautiful and ends on exactly the right note.

Jesus Is King is not a masterpiece like MBDTF or Graduation and not as groundbreaking as 808s & Heartbreak or Yeezus, but this is possibly the most unique album that Kanye has ever made. I’ve never experienced anything that has quite the same thing to say about religion or Christianity. It’s sincere and honest in the way that only Kanye can be and the result is as personal as a fingerprint. It’s very good music and there’s plenty here to provoke thought, no matter what Kanye himself may have intended to say. It’s not without flaws, but it’s also just excellent music and it’s the album this year that I’m most glad to have heard.

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.

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