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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.

Monthly Playlist: Feb. 2021

2 Mar

We are two months into the Year After. Cases are declining worldwide and vaccines are on the way. However, the cultural issues that rose to boiling point in the turbulence of 2020 are still at a steady roil. It’s a strange, bittersweet time in the world, and in that context, we took a look at the five best songs from this past month.

5. “So Pretty” by Reyanna Maria

Our first reaction to Reyanna Maria’s tinny beat and sultry, swaggering rap on “So Pretty” was vibes of fellow Aussie Iggy Azalea. “So Pretty” was the flavor of the month on TikTok this month – which means this song is already more popular than you can possibly fathom. With all the outright mentions to lady parts on recent cultural phenoms like “WAP”, it’s almost coy to hear Maria talk about her “kitty cat” and all the way it makes her man feel. Even if you’re not listening to the lyrics, though, this one’s a bop. If clubs come back sometime this year, expect this one to be on the playlist – until it’s inevitably dethroned by yet another TikTok super-hit.

4. “Spirals” by Django Django

British band Django Django occupies a strange space in the experimental-mainstream music divide. Although their music is decidedly art rock – strange textures, unpredictable speeds, all that jazz – they also manage to feature regularly on everything from the FIFA 13 soundtrack to, well, the FIFA 18 soundtrack. “Spirals”, from their fourth album Glowing in the Dark (out in February), is a psychedelic romp through what we assume is a timeshare in Kevin Parker’s head. In here you’ll find strong basslines, echoey vocals, punctuating cymbal crashes, and so on. If you like Tame Impala, especially “Elephant”, you would likely like this track.

3. “you were right” by Bass Drum of Death

Bass Drum of Death mixes the lean-and-mean tones of Royal Blood with the bombastic rock of Queens of the Stone Age; so if that sounds like your jam, then read on. If you can believe it, the “band” has even fewer members than two-piece band Royal Blood; for Bass Drum of Death is simply the moniker of one-man drummer/guitarist/singer John Barrett. (There are a few others who join on tour, but it’s all mostly from Barrett’s head.) “you were right” is a tight, bluesy jam with an unmissable bass line, emphatic vocals and some excellent licks – and it’s all from one dude!

2. “CANCELLED” by slowthai feat. Skepta

Reader, if you are a regular on Top Five Records, then you know that we write quite frequently about the reigning British troublemaker known as slowthai. The London rapper is brilliant, funny, incisive, and more than a little problematic. We’ve already written about his fiasco at last year’s NME Awards (which produced a great track called, of course, “ENEMY”) but he wasn’t done being cancelled at that point. After a year of being in the public’s grinder, slowthai reacts by coming out with a song titled (what else?) “CANCELLED”, featuring the inimitable grime legend Skepta.

These two gentleman have collaborated before – on our 2019 Song of the Year “Inglorious” – and the fireworks are in full flow again here. Skepta readies the stage for slowthai with his opening verse (“How you gonna cancel me? Twenty awards on the mantelpiece / Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury / Girls in the crowd got their hands on me,”). And slowthai does manage to get one more in against the pearl-clutchers at NME: “See you throwing stones in your glass house / Evidently nothing is going the way that you said it would be / Middle finger to my enemy.” Classic.

1. “Rainforest” by Noname

As we wrote about in our review of Noname’s debut album Room 25 (2018), the Chicago rapper’s music is really like nothing else out there. Noname (real name Fatimah Warner) is exceedingly literate and blessed with a natural, soulful flow; in fact, she began her career in slam poetry. On “Rainforest”, she centers her thoughts around the damage being done to rainforests and works her way up from there. What causes human beings to trade nature for profit? What makes them believe that that’s a fair trade? What causes that sort of cognitive dissonance?

Through deft turns of phrase, she follows the chain: from exploitation (“They turned a natural resource into a bundle of cash / Made the world anti-Black, then divided the class,”) to forced rehabilitation (“How you make excuses for billionaires, you broke on the bus?”) and all the way to her own full-blown reaction (“Dyin’ on stolen land for a dollar like that ain’t fucked up / It’s fuck they money, I’ma say it every song / Until the revolution come and all the feds start runnin’”). Noname lies at the intersection of rap and spoken-word poetry, and this song is a great example of her output and talent.

Celeste – Not Your Muse

24 Feb

This review is for the 12-track international edition of Celeste’s Not Your Muse. The international deluxe edition features an additional nine songs that we highly recommend you check out.

British pop singer Celeste’s star has been on the up-and-up for the past couple of years. Starting off her career providing vocals for the likes of Avicii, Celeste built a name for herself in the British music press with a pair of well-received EPs – The Milk & the Honey (2017) and Lately (2019).

By the time Lately made its rounds around the world, the singer pretty much became an unstoppable force. Tastemakers of all swathes, from GQ to the prestigious BBC Sound of… poll, named Celeste as a breakthrough act for 2020, and she didn’t miss.

In January last year, she released “Stop This Flame”, a rambunctious jazz-pop number centered on her powerful and impassioned vocals. Her second single of the year, “Strange”, is a beautiful, downcast ballad that falls somewhere between an emotive Paul McCartney-penned Beatles track and – on the modern end of the scale – the whispered stylings of one Billie Eilish. And we’re not the only ones who thought that, for the track seemed to have brought in the talents of Billie’s Grammy-winning producer brother Finneas on the next single “I Can See the Change”.

If you thought that was the extent of Celeste’s star-making year, then you would be wrong. She then went on to perform three songs for The Trial of Chicago 7, a star-studded Aaron Sorkin-directed venture focused on the tumultuous anti-Vietnam war years. One of those three songs – “Hear My Voice” – is now nominated for Best Song at this year’s Oscars. Celeste closed off the year with a duet on the latest Pixar film Soul (“It’s Alright”) for which her soulful, playful vocals are perfectly suited.

So, yeah, Celeste has had one hell of a breakthrough year.

With so many well-known singles that have had their time in the sun, there was always a risk that Celeste’s Jan. 2021 debut album Not Your Muse would not hold up in its entirety. Luckily, that’s not at all the case. We’ve already spoken about the alluring “Tonight Tonight”, a poppy-yet-pensive track that sounds like Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” set to an alt-rock drum beat. Another stand-out track is “Beloved”, where Celeste’s deft vocals and the romantic strings bring to mind a dramatically broken heart in, say, snow-covered Christmastime Paris. (Or something equally bittersweet.) The more rock-infused “Love is Back” sounds like it could be a hidden B-side to Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” – and really, could there be a greater achievement for a young British jazz-soul singer?

As we wrote in our song review for “Tonight Tonight”, Celeste feels like an artist who’s just on the precipice of household status – think Adele the year before 21 was released, or Lizzo right before “Juice” came out. Not Your Muse is an ode primarily to Celeste’s magnificent voice; but also to her genre-bending sensibilities across jazz, soul, R&B, pop and even rock. It’s early, but we can see this being one of the best debuts of 2021.

Rating: 8/10

Best songs: “Love is Back”, “Tonight Tonight”, “Stop This Flame”

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.

Monthly Playlist: Jan. 2021

31 Jan

A new year, a new hope and – depending on where you live – the same old lockdown. One thing keeping us going is of course the music, and so without further ado, here are the top five tracks of this month.

 5. “Vintage” by Blu DeTiger

Blu DeTiger (unbelievably her real name) is a 21-year-old NYC DJ whose added color is that she also plays a mean bass. She released two songs in 2020 (but don’t let the low rate fool you – as a Gen Z DJ-slash-female-bassist, DeTiger is, as you would imagine, big on TikTok). Last week, she followed those up with the expectedly bass-heavy track “Vintage”. The gist of the song is that DeTiger is stuck in a love/hate equation with a throwback boy who loves all things 00s and 90s (which, for someone born in 2000 like herself, is vintage I suppose). Overall, the Tame Impala-esque bass line paired with DeTiger’s slightly aloof vocals makes for a cool, fresh track.

4. “Typhoons” by Royal Blood

After the massive thumping hit that was last October’s “Trouble’s Coming“, Royal Blood have finally expounded further on said trouble. The two-member rock band’s third album Typhoons will be out on April 30th, and the title track was released earlier this month. “Typhoons” is classic Royal Blood from start to finish: a dense, hard-hitting production between Mike Kerr’s bass/guitar gymnastics and Ben Thatcher’s simply tireless drums. Also notable were the Foals-like jagged elements on the chorus vocals, as well as the more layered sounds in the pre-chorus and outro portions. At this point, these two are such a ruthlessly efficient sound machine that any audible change implies significant experimentation, so this is a promising taste of the upcoming Typhoons.   

3. “Tonight Tonight” by Celeste

Almost exactly a year ago, Celeste was named as the BBC’s Sound of 2020 – an annual poll of the most likely new act to breakthrough to the mainstream. The prediction was echoed by everyone from GQ to Gucci, and by all measures, they were correct. The British singer-songwriter has had a glamorous year (despite everything), including an Oscar-nominated song for The Trial of the Chicago 7 and an end-credits duet with Jon Batiste on the new Pixar movie. Earlier this month, Celeste released her hotly-anticipated debut album Not Your Muse, from which “Tonight Tonight” is a standout new track. On this song, Celeste’s nostalgic, slightly melancholic vocals meld seamlessly with brisk, modern jazz instrumentals – something that has been done before, for sure, but there’s a certain undeniable freshness that she brings to the table. Keep your eye on Celeste – she’s on her way to household-name status, if she isn’t there already.

2. “No One Knows” by The Vaccines

“No One Knows” from the Queens of the Stone Age’s landmark 2002 record Songs For the Deaf ranks among the best songs of the decade. It’s no easy feat to cover the track in a refreshing manner that’s also respectful of the original’s relentless, raw energy – but The Vaccines have done more than alright here. “No One Knows” takes QOTSA’s hard-hitting LA-cool-meets-leather-jacket vibes and turns it into a dream-pop, mellow track with a pared-back version of that famous beat. This one-off cover is apparently from their upcoming Cozy Karaoke EP and a prelude to the fifth album that they’re seemingly set to release in 2021 – good stuff so far!

1. “Don’t Be Dumb” by Dizzee Rascal feat. Ocean Wisdom

There isn’t much breathing room on the new track “Don’t Be Dumb”, a collab between UK grime legend Dizzee Rascal and compatriot rapper Ocean Wisdom. The entire track is structured like a no-holds-barred cypher, with Dizzee and Ocean Wisdom exchanging zingers and brags at speeds that your brain can just barely process. And as if that wasn’t enough, the track is loaded with Dizzee’s trademark deep, bouncy grime beats. This is the kind of track that makes you (rightly) wonder why you don’t listen more to UK rap. Our pick of the year’s tracks so far.

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.

Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon III: The Chosen

18 Dec

Like with Lupe Fiasco before him, there’s always the worry with a Kid Cudi album that he’s found a new way to sabotage himself, or even just that he will reuse one of his old methods of sabotaging himself. Man on the Moon III doesn’t use any of his old tics of poor beats or weird idiosyncrasies. It’s Kid Cudi in the space where he’s at his best, and that should be a relief. It’s just a shame that it’s still so boring.

This is at its worst in the centerpiece of the album, “Elsie’s Baby Boy.” It’s built up, it’s got a story, it feels like it’s meant to be something and it does nothing. I’ve heard it many, many times and I still can’t tell you a single thing about it. It just doesn’t stick, and sadly too much of the album follows suit. There’s some forgettable trap and some forgettable rock-tinged rap and some other forgettable music and that’s most of the album.

It’s tempting to say that I’ve just outgrown Cudi and to internalize the problem, but that’s not the problem. The issue is that the songs just don’t resonate the way his best stuff did. He came in as an everyman in a time of rap excess, and now he doesn’t feel human at all. His old stuff can still hit hard. They were honest and that still shines through. MotM3 has none of that. Also, where’s the fun of taking something like “Poker Face” and making that into a beat?

There are moments here. I like the “get it, get it” in the middle of the solid “Sad People.” It’s mostly listenable, albeit uninspired. He’s definitely had worse albums than this, and during some of the low points, I would have killed to have even this. His single with Travis Scott had seemed to signal a shift for Cudi, it had seemed to be his breakout moment, but instead it looks like it was a lone bright spot and not a star taking shape.

Immanuel Wilkins – Omega

14 Dec

This is the kind of jazz album that I love to review. You can’t get away from the fact that jazz is forbidding. The more that you give to jazz, the more that jazz gives back to you and so it can be hard to start. That’s why albums like Omega are so great to see, this is the kind of album that can start the virtuous cycle of jazz. It’s approachable, it’s very listenable and yet still smart and able to reward any kind of listener.

Despite simple, accessible foundations, the tracks quickly become clever, intricate pieces. “Warriors” opens the album in a very straightforward way, but then goes into a lovely, thought-provoking piano solo. It’s in the next song though that Immanuel Wilkins really takes flight. “Ferguson – An American Tradition” is fiery and filled with agony. It returns to a simple, but stimulating off-kilter refrain about 6 minutes in that gives a bit of respite from the emotion of the rest of the track, but ends with a heartfelt cry of pain. It’s a magnificent statement and, after “The Dreamer” as a nice bit of softness in between, the album goes into further injustice with “Mary Turner – An American Tradition.” This is a more muted track than “Ferguson,” but persistent. About two and a half minutes, there’s a straining horn that’s excellent and then returns to the persistent noodling of before and that journey makes for a very powerful statement. The song suffers a little from my one complaint with this album, I would have liked to see the musicians cut free a little more and really push their ideas as far as they would go, but this is a minor quibble and a choice that brings benefits as well.

This is not an opinion that you should let cut too deeply though. This is a very clever album. “Grace and Mercy” is delicate and soothing, but has a flair for the unexpected. It’s quick to surprise and filled with sharp ideas. “Saudade” is a nice shot of energy and change of pace. “Guarded Heart” both demands and rewards attention. It has aggressive saxophone riffs that are compelling and clever and a wonderful, minimal ending.

If you’re looking to pick up a recent jazz album, this is the one you should look to. If you’re new to jazz, this is a great place to start with. It’s just easy to appreciate that this is very good music. If you can invest in it though, it pays you back in spades. I highly recommend you give this a spin.

Gorillaz – Song Machine, Season One: Strange Timez

9 Dec

The music industry has suffered dreadfully in 2020. Artists new and old have been forced to forego their primary resource of revenue from gigs and events, and a locked-down world’s unparalleled dependence on social media means that great music doesn’t always get enough of the public’s mindshare. 2020 has also ruined the culture of the music festival – where you can walk a hundred feet and be transported from rock to hip-hop to EDM, where you can witness exciting musical connections in real-life, where you can truly get absorbed into the sounds around you.

Of course, no one can make music festivals happen again, for some time now. But Song Machine Season One: Strange Timez – the latest album from Gorillaz – comes close to approximating the music festival experience on its eleven-song tracklist. 

If you’re new to the Gorillaz world, you should know that it primarily consists of musician Damon Albarn of Blur fame and artist Jamie Hewlett. Gorillaz is a virtual band, with four virtual, animated band members – and they have been for 20 years (talk about being ahead of the curve!). Albarn and Hewlett craft the storylines and artwork of each album to match and often augment the music, usually with the help of carefully-curated featured artists. 

Song Machine is billed as an audiovisual webseries project – which, in 2020, could not have been more apt. What that means, realistically, is that Gorillaz has completely upended old-fashioned concepts such as albums and lead singles. Song Machine began way back in January 2020 with a theme song, the first “Machine Bitez” (short teaser snippet) and the first song from the album – “Momentary Bliss” feat. Slowthai and Slaves. Since then, the band has periodically released almost all of its eleven songs as a separate single, each with teasers, snippets and enough space to grow in the listener’s mind. Why should songs be delivered as an album, all at once? Why should some songs be “leads” and others be fillers? These are the questions that seem to have driven Gorillaz on Song Machine, and frankly, the results are remarkable.

Every track on the album features one or more selections from an eclectic collection of guest artists. Elton John shows up on a song with an Atlanta-based rapper. The anti-establishment British hip-hop star Slowthai shows up with his compatriot punk rock band Slaves. French-Malian folk star Fatoumata Diawara shines on her feature, as does The Cure frontman Robert Smith. The entire experience, start to finish, is exhilarating in its sheer mix of genres, artists, tones, styles and so much more – with the underlying thread of Albarn and Hewlett’s creativity running through. (If you are interested in that thread, we highly recommend watching the episodic webseries on YouTube.)

Of course, fantastic features don’t automatically make fantastic songs, but in this case, there are no weak links in the entire eleven-song run. We’ve already spoken at length about the sparky “Pac-Man” feat. ScHoolboy Q (song review), the joyous trip of “The Valley of the Pagans” feat. Beck (song review), and the perfect vocal mash-up that is “The Pink Phantom” feat. Elton John and 6LACK (song review) – but there’s so much more to unpack on Song Machine

For example, the opening track “Strange Timez” with Smith takes an ethereal look at our planet and the strange times it begets (“Spinnin’ around until the Sun comes up / Strange time to see the light”); truer words have never been spoken, in hindsight. “Aries” featuring Joy Division bassist Peter Hook and English dance-pop producer Georgia is reminiscent of the “On Melancholy Hill”-era Gorillaz in all its smoothness and subtle beauty. “The Lost Chord”, featuring British soul singer Leee Jones, is the song that Arctic Monkeys wish they made on Tranquility Base: ethereal yet packed with rock-infused drums and bass. And we admit we haven’t heard much of Fatou before this, but her powerful vocals on the groovy, beautiful “Desole” has suddenly made us want to learn a lot more about Malian music. 

Simply put, Song Machine is a near-perfect album of eleven songs that all deserve single-worthy status. Gorillaz has rethought the entire album concept into a collection of equally-good songs that are all equally-deserving of their own time to shine. With Song Machine, Gorillaz has provided the fun and exhilaration that has been amiss in our 2020 lives, and for that we couldn’t be more grateful. We’ll be listening to this album for years to come, and cannot wait to experience the upcoming Season Two.

Note: This review is for the Standard verison of Song Machine Episode One: Strange Timez, which consists of 11 tracks. There is, happily, a deluxe version with six extra tracks, of which we particularly recommend “MLS”, featuring rapper JPEGMAFIA and Japanese all-girl rock group CHAI.

Best tracks: “The Valley of the Pagans”, “Desole”, “The Pink Phantom”

Rating: 9.5/10

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