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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

Megan Thee Stallion – Good News

6 Dec

It’s pretty clear what you’re going to get with Megan Thee Stallion’s debut album. She wears who she is on her sleeve, and as you would expect, this album is good, raunchy fun. Her “Savage Remix” with Beyonce was one of the sounds of the year and deservedly so. “If you don’t jump to put jeans on, you don’t feel my pain.” is one of my favorite lines of the year. Megan Thee Stallion is much more than a one-hit wonder though. She delivers a lot of strong, surprisingly old-school, rap here. “Girls in the Hood” could have been a stand-out track in a classic Beastie Boys album and she puts so much swagger into “I’m a hot girl / I do hot shit.”

Her flow is impeccable throughout. “What’s New” and “Work That” are compulsive. “Sugar Baby” has so much energy and the standout “Invest in this pussy, boy, support Black business.” It’s “Outside” though that really lets her stretch herself. She has great flow there and it showcases her ability to switch up tempo. She’s astonishingly versatile. Popcaan comes in for a Caribbean slow jam sound that’s a nice left turn for the album and plays well against her rap. Lil Durk has similarly great chemistry with her, but brings in an impressive menace. Meanwhile “Don’t Rock Me To Sleep” is disco-infused pop that could easily have slid into the last Dua Lipa album.

It’s not surprising that Megan’s debut album is this strong. It was already clear that she has talent to spare, but with “Good News,” she has shown the ability to deliver an absolutely first-class album with it.

Amaarae – THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW

25 Nov

I would have thought Afrobeats was too new to support something like THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW, but it’s clear that Amaarae is not the type to wait around for other people to catch up. THE ANGEL YOU DON’T KNOW takes pieces from the rapidly rising Afrobeats, but mixes in influences from all over the place to make something that is impossibly even more catchy than any of its sources.

This is exemplified by the sublime “HELLZ ANGEL.” It has a clever, tripping beat and her art-pop high pitched voice plays against it well. When the song gets going, it’s compulsive and then she switches her tempo before diving into a quick rap with the excellent “I don’t make songs / Bitch, I make memories / I don’t like thongs / Cuz they ride up in jeans.”

She has a lot of fun in the album. “SAD, U BROKE MY HEART” is the most Afrobeats of the tracks here and it uses the playfulness of the genre to great effect with the gentle singing and the blunt title and on the complete other side of the spectrum, she brings in some emo-rap for the very cute “FANCY.”

For all of that though, the other album highlight is the amazing “JUMPING SHIP.” The tenderness in her voice is exceptional and the song hits all the right notes of regret. It does a lot to ground the album after all of lightness surrounding. it.

In this fusion that Amaarae found, she’s accomplished something extraordinary. This is an infectious, clever album and some of the best music of the year. You should not miss it.

The Killers – Imploding the Mirage

24 Nov

As we mentioned in our review of IDLES’ Ultra Mono, we will be covering a few albums that we missed out on over the course of the year. The next on our list is Imploding the Mirage, the sixth studio album from The Killers.

“I threw caution ’cause something about that yin and the yang / Was pushing my boundaries out beyond my imagining,” says Brandon Flowers on the eponymous song from the Killers’ sixth studio album, Imploding the Mirage. Although it comes at the very end of the album, the song defines the major themes at play on this record – primarily about choosing between the boundless imagination and existing boundaries that exist in all of our lives. Most importantly, Imploding the Mirage is an homage to the bravest decision you can take: to throw caution to the wind and finally accept yourself for what you really are.

If all of that sounds a bit like psychobabble, it may be worth it to paint the picture of the Killers’ backstory – and specifically, that of its lead singer/songwriter Brandon Flowers. Famously, the high-wire indie rock band hails from the larger-than-life adult playground known as Las Vegas. Interestingly, however, Flowers also grew up as a Mormon – a sect that is equally famous for its conservative orthodox lean.

In the early part of their career, the Killers strongly expressed that first half: a Las Vegas band with all the extravagance and gall that you would expect from growing up next to the glitzy, Technicolor Las Vegas Strip. (Their sophomore album was literally called Sam’s Town, named after the casino Sam’s Town which was itself named after casino tycoon Sam Boyd. Sin City, with all of its tacky, materialistic and larger-than-life trappings, was embedded into the Killers’ DNA.) With the latter three albums, the Killers shifted course toward the Mormon side of Flowers’ background, resulting in a more standard heartland rock vibe.

All this backstory serves to highlight the dichotomy at play on Imploding the Mirage, which Flowers himself has noted stems from his own dual-life upbringing as a Las Vegas Mormon. On this album, the Killers seem to have come to terms with their two halves – the yin and the yang – and have finally started to accept the complexities in their personalities.

Lyrically, the Killers have always been at their best when they tell stories that they have been lucky enough to witness: behind-the-scenes look at showgirls, magicians, performers and all those who labor to entertain America and the world in Las Vegas. That’s no different on Imploding the Mirage.

Radio-friendly single “Caution” paints a picture of a local beauty with Hollywood eyes and dancer mother: “’cause when you live in the desert, that’s what pretty girls do.” The chorus hook is best-of Killers, full of synths and Flowers’ resounding vocals that will one day, when COVID abates, rightly fill up stadia all over the world. The girl in the story wants to break out of the town and throw caution to the wind, a theme reprised in the catchy folk-rock of “Blowback”. “Born into poor white trash and always typecast / But she’s gonna break out, boy, you’d better know that,” croons Flowers. Speaking of typecast, you may recognize this type of girl – poor, young, directionless – in many a Flowers song, including the uber-hit  “When You Were Young”.

A few other songs stand out on the album. “Dying Breed” is likeable with a driving beat that plays beautifully against Flowers’ emotive, delicate vocals – and then the arena-sized synths and drums kick in for the chorus. Album opener “My Own Soul’s Warning” is a Springsteen-esque throwback to the 80s, peppered with Flowers’ trademark beguiling lyrics: “What kind of words would cut through the clutter of the whirlwind of these days?” he asks the listener.

One last note: In case you were wondering about the title, it’s a dual reference. One, to the mirage of having to choose between the dichotomy between head and heart that the band – and indeed, most humans – face. The other, more cleverer, is about the literal implosion of casinos like The Mirage, a sudden and unstoppable blow to jobs and livelihoods that Flowers and co no doubt have witnessed numerous times in their childhood.

All in all, Imploding the Mirage features their best set of singles this side of Sam’s Town (and weaker tracks that make up the rest of the playtime). As always, the Killers are at their best when they make the sort of hyperbolic, Vegas-tinged hits that work everywhere from radio to arena to your favorite workout mix. Although Imploding the Mirage is not endlessly listenable in its entirety – does tend to lag a bit outside of the singles – it’s certainly more notable than anything they’ve released in the past decade.

Rating: 7/10

Best songs: “Caution”, “Dying Breed”, “My Own Soul’s Warning”

Ty Dolla $ign – Featuring Ty Dolla $ign

20 Nov

I absolutely love the concept behind this album. It’s anything but uncommon to see Ty featuring on someone else’s album. He’s a good person to fill a gap if needed and this can make it hard to take him seriously for who he is. Like 2 Chainz, it feels like he’s making a push for auteurship and I’m glad to see it.

The idea of taking a ton of features himself and not only owning his shapeshifting, but using it to make an album that is uniquely his excited me. I was hoping for something like LEGACY, LEGACY with space for the people mentioned to actually show up. Featuring Ty Dolla $ign falls somewhat short of that in a number of ways, but there’s still plenty in here.

He does well in the harder half of the album. “Expensive” with Nicki is a lot of fun. He has a great flow in “Real Life” and “Double R.” “Freak” uses Quavo very well. Cudi also shows up well in “Temptations.”

It’s in the slow tracks that Ty misses the mark. “Everywhere” is fine technically, but is forgettable and doesn’t fit in particularly well. “Your Turn” is honestly execrable and “Slow It Down” is a similar weak point. His crooning in “By Yourself” has moments though, but it doesn’t have the energy of the Afrobeats musicians in the same space and Jhene Aiko, while fine, is forgettable.

It all comes together in the closer “Ego Death” though. The Kanye / Skrillex beat is top-notch and not only is the rap excellent, but the shift in sound for FKA Twigs is exactly what I was hoping for throughout the album.

Featuring Ty Dolla $ign is not exactly what I was hoping for, but there’s a lot of solid music in here. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a good time and a very clever path for Ty Dolla $ign to take.

IDLES – Ultra Mono

16 Nov

With 2020 coming to an end (thankfully), we are looking back at a few albums that we couldn’t quite cover in time over the course of the year. The first of these is Ultra Mono by British post-punk bank IDLES.

IDLES, along with their fellow upstarts Fontaines DC, are one of the bands at the forefront of the United Kingdom’s nouveau punk rock movement. Traditionally, punk has always political, but this latest wave feels different. This new, post-punk wave doesn’t dabble in non-specific references to the anti-establishment message. Instead, they’re laser-focused on a working-class, often leftist sentiment that’s rather in line with today’s sociopolitical environment, especially in the Western hemisphere.

IDLES have walked this path for a while now. Their debut album Brutalism (2017) explored themes of loss and grief through the lens of raw anger – in other words, a perfect concoction for a great punk album. The band’s sophomore album Joy as an Act of Resistance (2018) performed similar feats, topping BBC Radio 6’s top 10 albums list that year. Although the albums were focused on inward feelings – grief, rage, and so on – there are numerous references to austerity, right-wing and anti-poor rule in today’s UK, and so on.

With Ultra Mono, the band is more resolutely political than ever before. The album kicks off with the firecracker single “War”, which we’ve covered in our Sep. 2020 Monthly Playlist on Top Five Records. As the name suggests, the song is a cynical look at war and the lives it takes – from the enemy but from the fighting party, too. “Mr Motivator”, the first single, is laced with references to bellicose boxers to underline its message of self-organization to fight back and seize the day (against fascists, we’d assume, with the positive reference to noted communist Frida Kahlo). “Grounds” can be used to soundtrack populist political campaigns, with resounding lines like “Do you hear that thunder? That’s the sound of strength in numbers”.

Looking beyond the overt populist lyrics, Ultra Mono is oftentimes just catchy as hell, plain and simple. We’ve already lauded “War” with its relentless drums and driving riffs that essentially amount to musical adrenaline. The aforementioned “Grounds” also impresses with a stripped-down, jagged sound that is well-served by lead singer Joe Talbot’s sing-song vocals. “Model Village” is ostensibly about the tabloid-consuming “I’m not racist but…” types from rural Britain, akin to their Fox News-consuming cousins on the other side of the pond, but IDLES manages to thumb their noses at them with hilarious, memorable lines like “I beg your pardon / I don’t care about your rose garden”.

All told, Ultra Mono is a memorable addition to the post-punk discography emerging in the post-Brexit British landscape. File this one next to the equally irreverent Nothing Great about Britain by rapper (and, apparently, IDLES’ friend) Slowthai.

Rating: 7/10

Best songs: “War”, “Grounds”, “Model Village”

Ariana Grande – Positions

12 Nov

Ariana has hit a productive streak of late, and a fairly solid one too. Positions isn’t the revelation that thank u, next was, but it’s still a fun pop album. “34+35” is a cute little sex jam and “my hair” is strong R&B in a Solange vein.

It’s not all what I would hope for though. “just like magic” is a little uninspired and a little grating. “off the table” does nothing by reuniting The Weeknd and Ari, which is a shame given how well their previous collaboration worked. “motive” is effective for most of the song, it’s both suspicious and tender and compelling for it, but sadly the Doja Cat feature detracts from the whole thing.

Still, any flaws are made up for with “positions.” It’s a magnificent song. Her voice is deeply alluring and the song takes an intricate opening and makes it an excellent beat.

Positions is just a good time. Ariana is having fun and being sexy and making frothy pop music that’s a pleasure to listen to.

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