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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

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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

SZA – Ctrl

29 Aug


Ctrl, the debut SZA album, is beautifully heartfelt R&B. Despite a staggering variety of poses, both lyrical and musical, Solana Rowe’s personality shines through on every track, making for a very coherent whole. She puts forward supremely confident R&B, not just for a new singer, but for an established star, yet retains the honesty of a fresh artist. The album starts with a statement about sleeping with her ex’s friend and continues the confessional from there. Watching her face during the cameo in the video for “Drew Barrymore” is an education in itself. Additionally, “Go Gina” and “Prom” are well worth a listen and “Normal Girl” strikes real honesty. This is an album that you should listen to.

@murthynikhil

Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes

20 Aug

Los Campesinos! exists in a very specific space and it’s not a space for everyone. The cleverest line there, “31, and depression is a young man’s game” really tells you how much you’re going to get out of this album. It’s easy to dismiss if you’re not the kind of person it hits, but there’s some good music here.

It’s glossy clever-clever pop that is pleasant to listen to, but is largely forgettable. There’s a plethora of catchy tunes, and something like “Got Stendhal’s” is completely ready for radio play. However, despite the braininess that Los Campesinos! feels the need to exhibit at every turn, there’s no standout line and a lot of what they pass off as profound feels naive. While I like “I Broke Up In Amarante”, I feel that their refrain of “It seems unfair to try your best, but feel the worst” to be banal instead of cathartic. Even the music, while solid, lacks the innovation to help it stand out. Songs like “The Fall of Home”, while solid slow alt-rock, never really lives up to its potential.

This is an album for a time and a place, and it does an admirable job at that. It’s unable to transcend that as the best albums do, but it never needed to.

@murthynikhil

Haim – Something To Tell You

8 Aug

Four years after their excellent debut album, Days Are Gone, Haim have returned with another fun, eminently listenable album. While it’s not quite as strong as their debut, they remain well worth the listen. Their 80s flavored pop-rock is a little less fresh than it was in 2013 and there’s a little less earnestness than there was in the debut as well, but they’re still easily the most likable band in the world. Songs like “Ready For You” are guaranteed to put a smile on your face and I love the actual song “Something To Tell You.”

Something To Tell You is a safe album and one that hews quite close to the old classics that shaped Haim’s sound. It’s not an album that’s going to convince you to like them if you didn’t before, but what kind of monster doesn’t like Haim in the first place?

@murthynikhil

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