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James Blake – Assume Form

1 Feb

Assume Form does two things that immediately catch my attention. The first is feature Metro Boomin, who is the music man of the moment. The second is feature Andre 3000 who will always be the music man for every moment. The trap of the Metro Boomin songs works really well against Blake’s softer production giving the two songs an excellent texture. Travis Scott adds heft to “Mile High” and Blake’s singing forms strong hooks there.

“Where’s The Catch” with 3k is excellent. The production is built off a loop that constantly teases a resolution that never comes and stays intriguing the whole way thanks to some fascinating dives off the base form. Andre 3000 is amazing as always and we’re all still waiting for a new album from him. It’s a song that’s more producer driven than it is standard rap, but Andre still does fantastic work in it and it’s just a great song.

Sadly, the album doesn’t do as well without the guest stars. “Power On” is trite both musically and lyrically, as is “I’ll Come Too”, although that at least has a tiny twist of the knife in it.”Don’t Miss It” doesn’t do enough. I respect how personal it is, but it’s still also shallow and cliche. It needed more personal touches and just takes too much time for too little payoff. ”Can’t Believe The Way We Flow” is just boring. At least “Into The Red” has a solid phrase forming the beat and that does a lot for it.

Overall, this album just has too many songs that do nothing. The standouts are excellent though.

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Deerhunter – Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?

29 Jan

Mixing upbeat pop with depressing lyrics is arguably the biggest cliché in the indie music scene. Juxtaposing the two sounds is an easy way for lesser bands to come off as deep while cleverly hiding an inability to craft complex music. Deerhunter are among a small subset of bands that have proven able to rise above the trope. Over the past two decades, the band has created some incredibly layered music that warrants multiple revisits to understand its intricacies and hidden depths.

Deerhunter’s eighth album Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared thankfully continues this trend, with the 10-song LP finding the band at both their most pop-sounding and their most nihilistic, with polished sounds playing off depressingly bleak lyrics.

Take the album’s second track, “No One’s Sleeping”, where the electric clavichord and up-tempo drums hide the depressing childlike lyrics (“No one’s sleeping / great unrest / in the country / there’s much duress”). Frontman Bradford Cox has commented extensively on the influence played by British MP Jo Cox’s assassination at the hand of a right-wing assailant, but you wouldn’t dwell on it until you dig deeper.

Another standout track that repeats this recurring theme of pop-laden nihilism is “What Happens to People?”. There’s this 2-chord piano phrase that sticks in your head, almost distracting you from the song’s underlying message: “What happens to people? / They fade out of view”.

Disappeared is also notably timely and (very subtly) political, abandoning the band’s earlier nostalgia shtick. This is an album replete with visions of a decaying civilisation that call you not to arms, but to introspective attention, such as in “Détournement” or “Futurism”. It’s almost impossible in this day and age to devoid art from politics and the current state of the world, but Deerhunter’s take is somewhat refreshing even if it does require the occasional hiding-of-sharp-objects to process.

Album opener “Death in Midsummer”

Ultimately, Disappeared is probably not going to make too many year-end lists, nor is it going to drastically expand the band’s wagon. Still, it’s a very solid addition to an already stuffed catalogue, and will definitely have you hitting replay (and, quite likely, a nearby pub).

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Sparkle Hard

27 Dec

Ever since the demise of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus has seldom made an effort to keep up with the mainstream narrative. While his eponymous first effort as a solo artist marked a genuine effort to become more accessible to those alienated by Pavement’s lack of polish, his subsequent releases have been unabashedly indulgent.

Malkmus realized his dad rock fantasies by officially bringing the Jicks into the fold. Their first two outputs, the almost-prog opus Pig Lib and the very jammy Real Emotional Trash, upheld the lo-fi aesthetic. However, with the Beck-produced Mirror Traffic and its follow-up, Wig Out the Jagbags, Malkmus and the Jicks renewed their quest for the perfect summer song, striking gold with tracks like “Tigers” and “Houston Hades”.

On Sparkle Hard, Malkmus and the Jicks bundle the prog rock touches and the sing-songy goodness from prior efforts into an almost perfectly crafted album.

Album-opener “Cast Off” begins on an unfamiliar note but quickly descends into a classic Jicks sound. The song then leads off a chain of solid numbers that tip a hat to almost every phase of Malkmus’ illustrious career. “Solid Silk” is a charming strings-backed track in the same vein as “J Smoov” from Wig Out. “Middle America” is a ballad that wouldn’t seem out of place on a late 90s Pavement record.

While Pavement was almost unanimously considered the intellectual’s band, few could decipher Malkmus’ cryptic, often mangled wordplay. On Sparkle Hard, he remains indecipherable, with a few notable exceptions – for example, references to #BlackLivesMatter movement on the chugging “Bike Lane” and the #MeToo movement on “Middle America”.

There are a couple of weak points, though. On the country-tinged “Refute”, Malkmus trades verses with Kim Gordon of the Sonic Youth about the perils of falling in love; the song has promise but doesn’t quite take off. “Rattler” is confused and laced with Autotune; we consider it a rare wrong move on this album.

However, what really brings his songs to life on Sparkle Hard is the production wizardry of Chris Funk. Malkmus has worked with some big-ticket producers in the past but this albumsets a new standard for production value. Sparkle Hard is arguably the best work Malkmus has put out since his post Pavement career. Let the wine analogies pour in.

Best tracks: “Solid Silk”, “Kite”, “Middle America”

Earl Sweatshirt – Some Rap Songs

26 Dec

Earl Sweatshirt has already staked out his space as one of the most interesting of rappers and Some Rap Songs takes him even further into the left field. It’s a fascinating, muted listen. It’s rough and jagged and made with found sounds. It’s uncompromising and extremely rewarding for it.

The first song “Shattered Dreams” has the strong elongation of the dreams of the chorus which continues into “Red Water”. It’s an album that moves perfectly from song to song but seamless would be the wrong word to use. It’s too ragged for that. Instead they fit together like a jigsaw, asymmetric and bitten, but still inextricable when interlocked.

The whole thing is underpinned by Earl’s strong flow. His voice is immediately recognizable. It’s almost a monotone but he gets so much done with it. He’s just compelling to listen to.

His beats are uniformly submerged and complement him well. “Cold Summers” in particular has an intriguing, textured beat that Earl dances around instead of flowing into. It’s thought-provoking and off-kilter and then “nowhere2go” continues the same thought seamlessly.

“The Mint” has a short and simple beat that loops over and over again and that’s all the song needs. It’s minimal and intelligent and gives Earl lots of space to work with. Similarly, the rough-chopped beat of “The Bends” is endlessly gripping while being slightly dissonant. It’s another fascinating moment in an album that’s full of them.

Earl just has the gift of drawing you in. Something like “Cold Summers” pulls you in like a riptide and doesn’t let you go and then he does it again in “December 24”. His rapping is just so deep and dark. It doesn’t give you any chance to surface.

It ends with a jazz interlude in “Riot!” that’s very fresh and that ends with a quick distortion. It’s a very cool, very unexpected moment in an album already defined by those traits. This is the most interesting album of an always interesting rapper and something you should be listening to.

@murthynikhil

Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy

23 Dec

Chances are, you’ve heard Cardi B rap at some point this year. Maybe you’ve heard her chart-topping hits, “Bodak Yellow” or “I Like It”. Maybe you’ve heard her guest spot on Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You”, or her collaboration with Bruno Mars on “Finesse”, or her verse on Migos’ “MotorSport”. The point is, she was everywhere this year, and for good reason: Invasion of Privacy is the best debut album of 2018.

Part of Cardi’s allure is her stranger-than-fiction, modern-day origin story. At 19, Cardi B (born Belcalis Almanzar in the Bronx) was fired from her humdrum job in a supermarket, and turned to stripping to help pay her way through school. The stripping job led to a buzzy social media persona, which landed a spot on a VH1 reality TV show, which in turn opened up an opportunity in rap. This extraordinary series of events, combined with her livewire personality, have created a brand so strong that sometimes it’s unbelievable to think that Cardi’s been a rapper for only two years.

Of course, as anyone with fifteen minutes of fame can tell you, brand alone is never enough. On Invasion of Privacy, Cardi B pairs this outsize brand with a gift for great beats, amazing delivery, self-confidence and playful wordplay. The result is a fun and surprisingly repeatable album.

Let’s get the famous tracks out of the way first. Unless you’ve been living under a rock this year, you’ve heard “Bodak Yellow” and its numerous instant-classic lines (“I don’t dance now / I make money move”, “These expensive, these is red bottoms / These is bloody shoes”). With its mystical lilt, gunfire flow and inimitable accent, this is essentially Cardi B’s warning shot to the world: “Lil bitch, you can’t fuck with me, if you wanted to”.

The other ubiquitous Cardi B hit, “I Like It”, switches it up with a Bronx take on a classic Latin American vibe. In between the infectious earworm of a chorus, Cardi B lists out some of her favorite things, like a garish, contemporary Maria von Trapp. Any two-bit rapper can list their choice luxury goods – Balenciaga and what-have-you – but Cardi takes it a step further by listing out her favorite power plays: “I like texts from my exes when they want a second chance / I like proving niggas wrong, I do what they say I can’t”. True wealth is power, and Cardi – the self-confident stripper, the viral social media sensation, the reality TV star – is all power.

At all points of her chameleon career, fascinated eyes have fallen on Cardi’s body – and she knows what works best. On “Money Bag”, she gives herself the best compliments: “With them pretty ass twins, you look like Beyonce”, she brags in third-person, following it up later with “I’m like a walkin’ wishlist”. It’s a breath of fresh air from other female rappers whose brags seem to focus solely on bedroom performance (lookin’ at you, Nicki).

All braggadocio aside, however, the best moment of Invasion of Privacy lies perhaps on the stripped-back “Get Up 10”. At over 800 words long and with hardly a repeating line, this is Cardi’s life story told through a raw and passionate voice. From the opening couplet (“Look, they gave a bitch two options: strippin’ or lose / Used to dance in a club right across from my school”) to the chorus (“Knock me down nine times, I get up ten”), Cardi paints her remarkable backstory in equal swathes of motivation, humor and outright defiance.

In his 2008 book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000-hour rule: once you put in 10,000 hours of practice into anything, you suddenly start to notice incredible results. Even though Invasion is a debut, Cardi knocks it out of the park because she’s clever enough to laterally combine bits and pieces of her past into that magic number. She’s already got 10,000 hours of sheer self-confidence, of succeeding under long odds, of monetizing popularity in the digital age. If “Bodak” was the warning shot for Cardi, then Invasion is the warning shot for her entire career. We’re going to be hearing much more from Cardi for sure.

Best songs: “Bodak Yellow”, “I Like It”, “Get Up 10”

The Voidz – Virtue

20 Dec

Over the years, there have been numerous side projects of The Strokes’ members. Lead singer Julian Casablancas had a short-lived solo act, while lead guitarist Albert Hammond Jr has had a string of well-received albums (including one that we loved this year). However, the most intriguing project has consistently been the New York group known as The Voidz.

Consisting of six musicians (and led by Casablancas), The Voidz are perhaps an alternate-reality version of The Strokes: one where the immense mainstream success of the latter’s debut Is This It did not stop them from fully exploring their musical capabilities. Quirky, eclectic, and mind-numbingly creative, Virtue is perhaps Casablancas’ most inspired music since the matchless Is This It.

What stands out the most on Virtue is the vast number of musical styles that it manages to touch. The band has mentioned in interviews that their creative push comes from the members’ wide-ranging tastes – and it’s easy to see that here.

QYURRUS” can perhaps be described as Arabic Autotune, with Casablancas’ literally unintelligible vocals often sounding like a foreign language (and / or a cult leader). Strangely, though, the song’s freakishly morphed melody gets stuck in your head; sort of like musical Stockholm Syndrome. On the immediate next song, The Voidz swerve with “Pyramid of Bones”, featuring hard rock verses that devolve frequently into a full-on death metal chorus.

Pink Ocean” is something else altogether: a slinky, vaguely pessimistic number that relies on Casablancas’ famous falsetto (see: “Instant Crush”). Toward the end of the album, “We’re Where We Are” frazzles the soul with its barked-out political commentary (“New holocaust happening / What, are you blind? / You’re in Germany now, 1939”) and hell-raising anger.

Not to say that all of Virtue is crazy stuff, either: Casablancas thankfully dips into Strokes-y brilliance once in a while. Album opener “Leave It in My Dreams” is an instantly nostalgic tune with clean guitars, sharp drums and some of Casablancas’ most emotive vocals. “ALieNNatioN” is more sinuous and mysterious, but has many of the same broadly pleasant elements. There may be a lot of strange sounds on “All Wordz Are Made Up” (cowbell, anyone?), but the classic dance-pop beats push the marker from weird to fun. “Wink” and its cousin “Lazy Boy” could make frequent rotations on your favorite pop station, with lush rhythm guitars, laconic vocals and beautiful melodies.

There are fifteen songs on Virtue, and frankly, each of them deserve their own page-length homage. This is an album that rewards you with something new on every single listen. Highly recommended, no matter what your tastes are.

Best songs: “Leave It in My Dreams”, “QYURRYUS”, “All Wordz Are Made Up”

P.S. The album has generated many great music videos, but perhaps the best is the one for “All Wordz Are Made Up”. If it’s this interesting while sober, we can only imagine…

88Rising – Head In The Clouds

19 Dec

88rising is my pick for the most exciting label around right now. There’s a lot of talent in East Asia and some truly excellent music is coming out of the area. Some people have already seen some amount of crossover appeal and Head In The Clouds is a solid attempt at expanding that reach.

A good amount of the album is quite good. Most of the music with the headliners of Higher Brothers, Rich Brian and Keith Ape are quite good. “Disrespectin” is a really interesting cut with a fascinating trap / world beat, a great chorus from AUGUST 08 and excellent rapping from DZ and Maswei that mixes Chinese and English. The polylinguism is one of the coolest things about the album. Many of the artists are fully capable of smooth transitions from one language to another and it makes for quite impressive listening. Keith Ape switches both language and flow on a dime in “Japan 88”, although unfortunately the chorus and beat both drag a little too long in that song.

Unfortunately, past the main attractions, the music is largely a little weak. Some of the guests, like BlocBoy JB do nothing and I’m not into “La Cienega”. Even “Midsummer Madness” is just unlistenable due to the terribly trite chorus and beat. The rapping is solid in parts, but not solid enough to save the song and it’s actually bad in the rest.

However, much of the music is excellent. “Nothing Wrong” is solid Higher Brothers and “Lover Boy 88” is quite fun with some excellent crooning. It’s not a flawless album, but it is a very worthwhile look at some really interesting music coming from contemporary East Asia.

@murthynikhil

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