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Billie Eilish – Happier Than Ever

20 Sep

Happier Than Ever is the highly-anticipated sophomore album from superstar Gen Z singer-songwriter Billie Eilish. Her debut album, cryptically entitled WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? (2019), rocketed her to worldwide fame and success – highlights include sweeping the Grammys, creating a flagship AppleTV+ documentary, and meeting her idol Justin Bieber (after all, she was until recently just a teenager). Happier Than Ever is in many ways a snapshot of Billie at this moment, that encapsulates all of those things that happened to her (and for that matter, to any huge pop star) in the past few years of her crazy life. Is it as earth-shattering to the world of popular music as her debut was? No. But it does have its moments, and points to a new direction for the still-growing artist.

Although Happier Than Ever released on July 30th, 2021, Billie’s been leading up to the album for exactly one year prior. Moreover, she’s been carefully laying down the foundational tone of Happier Than Ever – especially the confident and, well, happier persona – through the numerous singles that she released in that one year timeframe. These singles kicked off on July 30th, 2020, with the light and tender “my future” – which we mentioned at the time was a rare light-pop departure from the usually gothic Billie. In November 2020, she released “Therefore I Am”, which further highlighted her bloom out of the larger-than-life teenage years into a life where she has more control. “Your Power” (April 2021), “Lost Cause” (June 2021) and “NDA” (July 2021) spoke to adult themes like betrayal, power dynamics, growing out of substandard teen relationships and more.

Outside of this admirable singles-driven chunk, the album has other great tracks too. We’ve already spoken about “Oxytocin”, a heady electropop song that grips you from the first second. “OverHeated” is in the same vein, a sultry and intoxicating track that plays like the soundtrack to every bad romantic decision you’ve ever made (“Stop being flirty / it’s kinda working,” she says with a laugh). Another stand-out track is “Billie Bossa Nova”, which as the name suggests is jer pitch-perfect take of the seductive genre of bossa nova. It’s not just her musical knowledge that is growing; Billie is a woman now and not a teen any longer. “I’m not sentimental, but there’s somethin’ ’bout the way you look tonight, mm / Makes me wanna take a picture, make a movie with you that we’d have to hide,” she croons on this track.

And a note on the suggestive lyrics here in general. On this album, they actually sound like they’re really her words, in contrast to the vaguely edgy lyrics from her debut album (e.g. “bruises on both my knees for you”) – which often came across as performative given that she was a teenager still living in her childhood bedroom.

On the eight or nine tracks that we haven’t called out above, there are definitely a few winning moments – for example, the reverberating pre-chorus break-down on “GOLDWING” – but on the whole, we’d be hard-pressed to remember too much of them. Billie is still discovering her voice as an adult, as a woman, and as a teen pop idol who’s experimenting with other genres, and hopefully the proportion of “forgettable” tracks will be much fewer on future albums.

Billi’s debut album clicked so well with so many millions of people for a few reasons. First – the truly unique beats courtesy her genius producer slash brother Finneas O’Connell; second – her creepy yet old-timey vocals; third – the multimedia experience that she offered for each hit track, including a typically creepy music video. All of these parts are still there where it counts, and she’s also added a few things to her arsenal, such as an authenticity to her lyrics that only comes with more grown-up experiences and life choices. Happier Than Ever is a fine addition to her discography, but she definitely has room to grow.

Rating: 7.5/10

Best tracks: “Oxytocin”, “Therefore I Am”, “Billie Bossa Nova”

Emma-Jean Thackray – Yellow

29 Aug

There are some really interesting pieces in Yellow. The chorus of “Third Eye” is a very interesting progression. The haunting in “Spectre” is also very well done. Unfortunately though, the whole doesn’t add up to anything quite so interesting itself. The genre-spanning music here has a lot going for it. There’s plenty of technical skill and some really clever moments, but there’s just not enough to grab attention or really reward it.

“Yellow,” for instance, would fit well on an Erykah Badu album, but not as one of the stronger cuts. The voice is a little weaker than it should be and the music doesn’t do enough. Overall, it’s just not interesting enough. It fades too easily into the background. It’s also not helped by the bog-standard spirituality either. The Hinduism in particular feels like a shallow reading.

Yellow still ends up a pretty decent album though. As it turns out, good jazz is good jazz and this is definitely good jazz.

Vince Staples – Vince Staples

9 Aug

Vince Staples has always felt like the most straightforward person in rap. No matter how honest someone may come across in a song, we only fool ourselves when we think we know the person behind the music. Nevertheless, it just feels like Vince Staples makes fewer concessions to marketing, to a persona than anyone else out there. It comes through in things like putting out a 22-minute album with no weak spots instead of the bloated albums built to top streaming charts that are now de rigeur. It comes through in how much this album just lets him rap.

The thing about letting Vince rap is that he is very good at just rapping. You can see it in “THE SHINING” or “SUNDOWN TOWN” or “TAKING TRIPS” and you can really see it in cuts like “MHM” and “LIL FADE.” His flow and his control are nothing short of superb and are enough to carry an album in themselves.

It’s true that Vince Staples maybe takes that a little too far. I would have liked some more variety or a couple of particularly inspired cuts. There’s nothing here that is less than excellent, but there is also nothing here that truly transcends.

Sometimes though, you can do without the egg in your beer. It’s just such a pleasure to hear Vince rap. Any album that gives you more of that is more than good enough.

Olivia Rodrigo – SOUR

29 Jul

If you haven’t heard of Olivia Rodrigo yet, we hate to break it to you but you are living under a musical rock. The singer-songwriter – not even out of her teens yet – is comparable in her pop culture heft to other voices-of-the-generation; think Britney, Miley and so on; so powerful, in fact, that she recently received a highly-covered White House invite. After a break-out year of songs permeating every corner of TikTok, Rodrigo has finally released her much-awaited debut album SOUR – and happily enough, it lives up to the hype.

At its essence, SOUR is a break-up album – but don’t let the cliché fool you. Where Olivia excels is in capturing every shade of the period after a young person’s break-up, from the heartbreak to the misery to the angst.

Her famous single, the one that put Olivia on the map, is the chilling “drivers license” (all caps and no punctuation, as is the wont of Gen Z). There is very rarely a song that’s catchy, well-written, truly heartfelt and universally beloved; and no song in recent times has come as close as “drivers license”. The song essentially follows Olivia’s train of thought after getting her driver’s license. Her initial motivation in wanting to drive to her now-ex’s house; imagining what the ex must be doing while she’s aimlessly driving around; and finally to her sad-schmuck jaunt around suburbs imagining a parallel-universe life with him. The backstory behind the song, and who the guy was, is the subject of many a gossip rag page, so we won’t bore you with the details here. What really sells the song is Olivia’s tenor – moving from warbly near-tears to straight-up misery at a forever-lost love. Of course, she’s young and probably won’t remember this heartbreak in as much detail ten years hence; but for a moment, the listener is transported to the dramatic, emotional turmoil of their late teens.

But it’s not all misery after the break-up. The pop-punk banger “good 4 u” is Olivia at her most sneery with some great burns (“And good for you, I guess that you’ve been workin’ on yourself / I guess that therapist I found for you, she really helped”) and an insanely catchy 90s-style chorus. However, she’s still hurting behind the sneer (“Well, good for you, you look happy and healthy, not me / If you ever cared to ask”). It’s perhaps a perfect pop song in its endless relatability. The softer “deja vu”, with hints of Lorde-style vocal stylings – cleverly claims the upper hand in the bitter break-up. “She thinks it’s special but it’s all reused / That was our place, I found it first / I made the jokes you tell to her when she’s with you,” she croons, and you can’t help but be on her side. The piano-driven “happier” sees Rodrigo at her most jealous and insecure: “But she’s so sweet, she’s so pretty / Does she mean you forgot about me?”

Beyond the core material around the break-up, there are several other great tracks; for example the would-be teenage anthem that is “brutal”. We’ve already spoken about this track back when the album first came out, but “brutal” is essentially a teenager’s look at the world. The hard-hitting riffs are straight out of a 90s teen movie where the young lass or lad slams the door on the parents’ faces and plots an escape to a nearby rock venue (yes, we’re channeling Freaky Friday on this one). The lyrics are somewhere between a rant session and a diary entry, with Rodrigo listing out various things that she’s not good at (making friends, parallel parking – see: “drivers license”).

Overall, the subject matter is undoubtedly a little limited, but it’s content that really speaks to her generation. Moreover, her voice is quite undeniably powerful, with an ability to switch between sugar-sweet and angst on the flip of a coin. Plus, her Disney Channel experience ensures that she has the connections – and commercial wit – to keep churning out hits and make it far in the industry. SOUR is a great start, and we’d be curious what the sophomore album would like – assuming there’s not another break-up to write about.

Rating: 7/10

Best tracks: “drivers license”, “brutal”, “good 4 u”

Tyler, The Creator – CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST

23 Jul

I don’t know if you follow the sport, but NBA season just finished. I follow the NBA fairly closely and one of the things that keeps coming up is the “if X would do Y” pattern. If Ben Simmons would shoot the three, he’d be unstoppable. If Joel Embiid could stay healthy, he’d dominate the league. For years, it was “if only Tyler would mature a little, he would make some of the best music out there.” This is Tyler’s third album in his more mature vein and all three have been excellent.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is strong music with the kind of freewheeling variety that you expect from anything out of Tyler’s mind. Songs like “CORSO” and “LUMBERJACK” just go hard. Pairing with DJ Drama works really well for Tyler. He brings a little extra fun, a little extra chaos and a little extra energy to the album. It’s not that Tyler is ever short of these, but having someone else to bounce off adds fizz. Similarly, bringing in Weezy for “HOT WIND BLOWS” makes for a standout track. Wayne just adds so much pace to the song.

He also does well for getting so personal in this album. Learning about his mother in “MASSA” is a strong moment and recontextualizing an old feud in “MANIFESTO” is a very interesting change in perspective. He doesn’t really have anything to say in his political jaunt in that song, but I appreciate the honesty he brings. The song has a sick beat too.

It’s in “WILSHIRE” though that he really has the scope to tell his story. A lot of what makes for Tyler’s best work is just letting him be himself. He’s very smart and very sensitive and when he’s just talking to you those come through. His story about his friend’s girlfriend is the strongest thing in this album. When he drops lines like “And they say, “Bros over hoes,” I’m like, “Mm, nah, hey/I would rather hold your hand than have a cool handshake,” it’s really hard not to agree.

This trilogy from Tyler has been brilliant throughout. He’s always had the talent, but now that he’s got the direction as well, he’s just making really good music. There really is nothing that this man cannot do.

Jihye Lee Orchestra – Daring Mind

11 Jul

This album does a lot to recommend itself. It’s got substantial pieces of good, strong, aggressive jazz. “Dissatisfied Mind” is fun and energetic and delivers on the chaos promised by the title. “Relentless Mind” has some great moments that grab attention and complex, rewarding subthemes behind it. There are some interesting thoughts made more interesting for their interweaving, but they suffer a little from slightly predictable conclusions. It’s a very fun piece though and that does a lot for it.

Even where the album is not as strong, such as in “Suji” which is overlong and a little shallow, it’s just such lovely music that my complaints are minor. Similarly, although “Unshakeable Mind” is too placid and doesn’t do anything of interest, it doesn’t really need to for it to still be a pleasant listen. I may have preferred an album that did more to stand out, but this is an album that left me with a smile after every play. I’m glad I picked this one up.

Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey – Uneasy

22 Jun

Uneasy certainly delivers on the title. This is jazz that is very good at putting you off your ease. It’s always got something to surprise you with. It’s very skilled jazz and very listenable for all the sharpness. It doesn’t thrust itself on you, but it always has something interesting to say and when you pay attention to it, it’s very good at sweeping you away. You’re just compelled to follow it from point to point and see what comes next.

There’s a wonderful loudness in “Touba.” It makes you sit up straight and enervates you. “Drummer’s Song” holds a single pattern for an unsettlingly long time while threading lots of different things around it. It’s a startling and captivating effect. There’s great chemistry too. There’s a wonderful bass solo by Linda Oh in “Night and Day” that transitions smoothly a piano solo that moves smoothly into a drum solo that stretches into an excellent play with the piano and some very understated bass work. It lets everything settle for a moment and then picks things back up with excellent energy and finally ends beautifully.

Uneasy takes this intelligence and sharpness and it’s ability to disorient the listener and uses it for meaning. The political statements running through this album are powerful and reinforced by the shock of the music. It elevates the album and takes it from merely an excellent jazz album to essential listening for anyone at all interested in jazz.

J. Cole – The Offseason

14 Jun

At some point, if you want to be a conscious rapper, you have to actually say something smart. With J. Cole, that moment has passed. It’s time to accept that he is never going to mean anything as a rapper. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen quite as shameful a waste of talent.

I’m going to start with the talent though. We all know about the triple double, no assists of 2014 Forest Hills Drive and while I wasn’t the biggest fan, there was at least promise in there and sometimes that promise is undeniable. I loved “MIDDLE CHILD” when it came out because it was great music and because I thought it signaled J. Cole figuring things out. When he can put things together, he makes absolutely top-tier music.

With “a m a r i”, he has something. The “made it out, gotta mean something” of the hook hits hard and he shows here why his flow is probably his best strength. He does need to give up on DSJ though. That man doesn’t even play for the Knicks anymore. It’s still clearly the highlight of the album though and a single well worth checking out.

It’s followed by “m y . l i f e” which is solid, but cannot help but be unfavorably compared to “a lot”, the earlier and excellent 21 Savage / J. Cole joint. “p r i d e . i s . t h e . d e v i l” also has moments. The hook is good and he flows into the rap well. It’s not smart, but it’s not dumb either. Choosing that song to stunt about wealth though is almost parody.

This is the issue with him. He keeps bucking for the absolute top tier of rappers and yet he’s just nowhere near as intelligent as Kendrick and, for all of Drake’s Drakeisms, at least Drake knows exactly who he is. J. Cole wants to be dumb and still be treated like he’s smart.

The fact is that there’s a ceiling you hit as a rapper if you have nothing to say. Someone like ScHoolboy Q is never going to be a rap superstar. J. Cole has too much ambition to relax into a role like that though, so he pretends. It’s just hard to take him seriously as a thinker when he doesn’t seem capable of thinking of anything other than himself.

It feels like he raps more about being rich than Drake and Drake wallows in his shallowness. At least “God’s Plan” showed Drake giving out money. J. Cole just keeps stunting instead. The worst part of it all is that he doesn’t even seem to enjoy being rich. It’s all material that’s not quite strong enough to make the jump from his diary to his album, but it’s all here anyway.

This just runs into the second issue though. He’s just not good enough to carry an album without a concept. Snoop Dogg could do it because he’s such a pleasure to listen to. Uzi can keep you engaged with just his flows. J. Cole is not either kind of guy.

The most compelling thing about his music to date is in his naked attempts to be part of rap’s pantheon. The clarity of his struggle to be an all-time rapper at least gave him a point of interest. It was often also the weakest part of his album. KOD attempting to show him as a deep thinker made for its worst parts and they dragged the whole album down. However, letting go even a little of the legacy for The Offseason just leaves the album empty. There’s really not much more to J. Cole than the ambition.

He claims verses that I will “forever playback” in “a p p l y i n g . p r e s s u r e”, but doesn’t actually drop any. There’s a lot of talking in the song that he never backs up and his clowning a millionaire line is just out of touch. The outro is just embarrassing. Some of the verses also just don’t work. That awkward twisting to fit in birthday is far too forced.

He wants to play at being a fighter in “l e t . g o . m y . h a n d” as well, but we all saw him get bodied by Noname and it wasn’t close. It was also just because he chose to be an idiot. No one asked him to make a fool of himself like that. I will say that this song has a great beat though and his talking about the beat was excellent pensive rap. That’s a vein that he really should explore more and so most likely will not.

This is not an album worth spending time on and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that the same is true for J. Cole himself. Maybe after The Offseason finishes, I’ll check him shooting hoops in Rwanda instead.

The Black Keys – Delta Kream

9 Jun

Less than two years after their 9th studio album “Let’s Rock” (2019), blues two-piece heavyweights the Black Keys are back with another album – kind of.

Delta Kream, released on May 14th, consists of eleven classic blues songs as covered by Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney of the Black Keys, along with various industry veterans on supporting instrumentals. As the album’s name suggests, the tracks here all originate from the Mississippi river delta, and the great blues tradition that has been institutionalized there for the past century. Delta Kream – beyond serving as the Black Keys’ 10th album – also acts as a fantastic primer into the very specific Mississippi hill country blues sound.

Seven of the eleven songs here are from North Mississippi contemporary blues legends RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. The other three songs here are from Mississippi hill country blues progenitors Ranie Burnette, Mississippi Fred McDowell and John Lee Hooker, and Delta blues musician Big Joe Williams. Between these six original songwriters, one can truly feel the essence and tradition of the Mississippi hill country blues – the hypnotic groove, the steady repeating riffs, the lilting vocals and so much more. On Delta Kream (and really, in their whole career), the Black Keys have paid respectful homage to these classic blues songs, and elevated them for modern times with their own signature electric blues style.

We have already written about the album’s first “single” – if you can call it that – called “Crawling Kingsnake”, a rollicking, Doors-esque take on a blues standard that was born sometime in the 1920s. However, that’s far from the only stand-out track on here. “Poor Boy a Long Way Home”, a traditional blues song that has been around since at least the 1920s, sets the record on fire with the boisterous slide guitar taking center stage. “Going Down South”, an RL Burnside classic, centers on a surprisingly good falsetto from Auerbach, with the entrancing guitar and steady drums providing almost a rail car sound – as if one really is traveling down south in the olden days.

Probably the two best songs on the record are both by Junior Kimbough. On the yearnful “Stay All Night”, Auerbach’s soulful vocals run as a common thread through the mesmerizing exchanges between the various musicians on the track. “Do the Romp” has already been covered by the Black Keys as “Do the Rump” in their 2002 album The Big Come Up, but on the Delta Kream version, they strip it back to a much cleaner, bouncier, classic sound.

According to the Black Keys, the album was recorded in “about 10 hours” in a sans-rehearsal jam session with guitarist Kenny Brown and bassist Eric Deaton, who have literally worked with some of the aforementioned hill country blues legends over the course of their careers. In its own way, Delta Kream is more iconic than just a cover album. It is an honest distillation of musical history spanning ten decades; a living, breathing artifact of a storied, hyperlocal musical tradition. The more you dig into it, the better this album gets.

Delta Kream retains all of the spontaneity and charm of a recorded live concert – which is essentially what it is – while adding the signature Black Keys touch to a truly classic blues repertoire. Highly recommend for anyone with even a passing interest in blues rock.

Rating: 9/10

Best tracks: “Crawling Kingsnake”, “Do the Romp”, “Stay All Night”

Royal Blood – Typhoons

7 Jun

Typhoons is the third studio album from British two-piece band Royal Blood, following the eponymous debut (2014) and the sophomore album How Did We Get So Dark? (2017). The band’s signature sound comes from singer Mike Kerr’s vocals and hard-hitting guitars, paired by the machinery that is Ben Thatcher’s drum kit – the result being a catchy, lively output of songs. On the third album Typhoons, the boys have infused this sound with a more dance-rock vibe (reminiscent of the Kaiser Chiefs and other such bands of the mid-00s).

The album has been a long way coming: their first single “Trouble’s Coming” came out in late 2020, and as our readers would know, we loved that track. Title track “Typhoons”, released in January of this year, similarly caught our fancy, as did fourth single “Boilermaker”.

All signs were pointing to a fantastic album. The question was, would the rest of the album stand up to the monster singles? Our answer – not really.

Oblivion” is definitely the best of the new tracks, wedged right in between two lead singles but standing up to their weight. Ominous synths lead into a beastly opening riff and Kerr’s apathetic vocals, all leading up to an explosion of beats and riffs in the main chorus.

By the time you run through the first three tracks, you’re pumped up and ready to go – and unfortunately, the largely unremarkable fourth track “Who Needs Friends” doesn’t pack enough of a punch for the adrenaline to land.

A few other tracks on the album are in the vein of this so-so track. For example, “Hold On” sounds like a mash-up of the average parts from their other songs, mixed with tunes from any forgettable bands from mid-00s alt-rock radio stations. “Either You Want It” is interesting for Kerr’s falsetto style vocals and slight lead into wailing psychedelic-esque guitars, but ultimately it doesn’t quite click. The slow, piano-led “All We Have Is Now” is quite unusual for the band, but the overt focus on the piano as opposed to the too-ethereal, too-echoey vocals makes the song feel like it’s missing an element. Maybe someday Royal Blood can put out a legitimate rock ballad, but this isn’t it yet.

Now that we have had a chance to listen to the full album, it’s clear that the best song on the album is “Boilermaker”, which was produced by Queens of the Stone Age singer and desert-rock purveyor Josh Homme. It’s an absolute riot of a track, all sludgy guitar riffs that showcase Kerr’s sneering vocals. Another great track is third single “Limbo” – filled with traditional guitar-and-drums in the verses but drifting into a hypnotic, psych-rock vibe in the chorus. The band recently did an orchestral version of the song that’s definitely worth checking out!

All in all, Typhoons produced a good number of decent additions to the Royal Blood repertoire, and perhaps marks the start of the band’s more dance-rock edge. The singles are definitely still the best songs on the album, but there are a couple of notable additions for it to be worth your while.

Rating: 7/10

Best tracks: “Boilermaker”, “Oblivion”, “Typhoons”

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