Archive | Album Reviews RSS feed for this section

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”

Rubén Blades with Roberto Delgado and Orquesta – Salswing

21 May

I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything like SALSWING! The album takes Latin Jazz and Big Band standards, places them side-by-side and calls it a day. You’ve got standards like “Pennies From Heaven” and then it’s immediately followed by the Tito Puente classic “Mambo Gil” and both are done very well. There’s naturally tremendous similarity between the two styles and between that and the band’s clear competence, it only makes sense how comfortable they are in both styles.

It’s a fun album both ways too. “Contrabundo” in particular is a highlight. It is bright and sharp and has great Latin percussion and an excellent piano solo. Meanwhile, “The Way You Look Tonight” is a classic rendering of a standard.

If you’re looking for either some Latin Jazz or some Jazz standards, this is good and if you’re open to both, this is great. There’s nothing particularly surprising in it and there’s no interesting intersection of the two styles, but as a collection of top quality music from both, there are no complaints to be had.

Xiu Xiu – OH NO

11 May

I’m so used to feast-or-famine with Xiu Xiu that it’s kind of hard to deal with OH NO. This certainly has none of the sheer brilliance of Fabulous Muscles or A Promise, albums which can define a career and forever make a fan. It is however listenable, something that can’t be said for at least half of Xiu Xiu’s music. OH NO is strangely relaxed and surprisingly likable. There’s nothing that tries too hard and so nothing that just falls flat. Instead, it’s just a solid collection of experimental pop.

There are definitely moments that stand out. There’s a percussive crash to echo the line “don’t trip on your skates” that then melds unexpectedly with the song. “Rumpus Room” is unironically a lot of fun and “Fuzz Gong Fight” is a beautifully edged evisceration. It’s a song with weight behind it. It has nothing for me to return to in the way his best music does, but it was a pleasant listen and as such a mildly unexpected surprise.

The Weather Station – Ignorance

18 Apr

It’s not hard for pleasant to be a pejorative. Ignorance is, like many other albums, a nice listen. The music is all fairly reasonable. The vocals are the center of the album and it tends to be quite good singing. She has the occasional promising jaggedness, but it too often ends up predictable. The lyrics are also just not that clever. “Warm” comes close to coming together when the strings swoop and her voice comes close to breaking, but the whole just ends up uninteresting.

Finally, that’s where the album lands. It has neither the jazzy cleverness of a Norah Jones album nor the fun pop of a Haim one, despite the occasional feint towards both. It’s unobjectionable, and again, it’s quite a pleasant album, but pleasant is not exciting.

Joel Ross – Who Are You?

13 Apr

This might be a little unsophisticated to admit, but I like a good vibraphone and Joel Ross’ opening to this album sets the perfect tone to an excellent album. Right off the bat, you can see that Who Are You? is great musicians making great post-bop.

The vibraphone is obviously a highlight, especially when Joel Ross builds his soundscapes, like in “The Nurturer.” It’s a great album for just putting down a pleasant sound. “Gato’s Gift,” for instance, is very listenable, even if you’re not the deepest jazz fan and that holds for most of the album. There’s a lovely bass in “Calling” and “Home” that also has a very nice piano solo

There are some choppier parts here though. “Vartha” has a good, jagged solo from Immanuel Wilkins on the sax, although it could have used a little more pace. The vibraphone solo really picks up the song and there’s good drum work here as well. It crashes like the sea in the background. There’s a strong vein of Trane in here and their cover of “After The Rain” highlights that. Unfortunately though, this is not one of their stronger tracks. It’s a little overfull, especially when compared to Coltrane’s version. Nevertheless, the influence is very welcome.

This is an excellent album, but one held back by these minor missteps and one that I wish was a little bit more than what it delivered. It’s certainly not unintelligent, but I would have loved a couple of places with more challenge and greater surprise. This is, nonetheless, a stellar sophomore album and some excellent jazz.

Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, London Symphony Orchestra – Promises

10 Apr

There’s no shortage of high-powered collaboration in music and there’s such a range of them that it’s hard for anything to really take one by surprise, but you don’t come across a trio of producer, saxophonist and orchestra everyday. You don’t come across an album this good everyday either. The three meld beautifully. It feels like the intersection of three separate strains – the ambient production of something like Green by Hiroshi Yoshimura, the nature-inspired classical music of compositions like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the spiritual jazz of people like Sun Ra and John Coltrane, both of whom Pharoah Sanders played with.

The album evokes lush, verdant scenes whether through Floating Points’ productions as in “Movement 7” or the Orchestra in “Movement 6.” This is not the jungle, because the jungle lacks the intensity of this music. The colors of these soundscapes are too bright, too intense to be nature. They instead capture the feel of nature at its most immersive and leave you with nothing to distract from it. It is that first moment of experiencing a new vista made into a full album.

It’s filled with detail though. The refrain that ripples throughout the album is distinctive and beautiful. It’s wonderfully open-ended and accents the ambient music very cleverly. You can also feel the presence of many different organisms in the music. There are little flourishes of background hollering and chirping that enliven the music and add depth.

It’s the saxophone that really brings the human element to this album though. Sanders’ jazz comes in hot and adds that heat to what might otherwise be a very austere album. He even vocalizes in “Movement 4” and that integrates beautifully with the ripples of the music. He doesn’t go for the sheets of sound you might expect, but instead plays pure, drawn-out notes that express so much in their tone. When he comes in at the 7th minute of “Movement 7” with a sax scream, it’s the perfect way to agitate the existing music. Pharoah Sanders brings such a strong voice to this collaboration and his saxophone is the most noticeable thing here.

This an astonishing addition to some of the more storied careers in music history, a very individual album and music of the absolute highest tier.

Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over The Country Club

5 Apr

So much of art rests on thin margins. Lana Del Rey has made a career out of evocative music, music that conjures a lot out of a few scattered pieces. This understatement was the core of her appeal. With Chemtrails Over The Country Club, the insubstantialness finally takes over and the magic just doesn’t hold and the result is hollow instead.

The biggest failure here is just the music. LDR was always languorous, but here the album is simply mired in tar. She has moved away from the hip-hop that underpinned her debut and suffers for the loss of energy that came with it and her stabs at punk rock are inexecrable. I respect that she loves Joan, so do we all, but the rest of us know to keep our imitations to the privacy of bathroom walls.

Normally, she is cinematic enough with her music that its magnitude gives it momentum. Here, the music is flimsy. The moments of pace and energy that dotted her previous work are completely missing here. Even more damningly though, the album just has far too little emotion.

It does manage some highlights. The title track is quite good and I love the drums at the end and the repeated “My Cancer is sun and my Leo is moon.” “Yosemite” is absolutely gorgeous and there’s a wonderful little Spanish string tilt in there. “White Dress” has the amazing “Men In Music Business Conference,” which I dearly wish she had expanded on more.

It’s a shame that the rest has nowhere near the same quality. Despite “Breaking Up Slowly” being her comfort zone and despite the brilliance of “Are these my good years, or do I have none?/Are there really good years for everyone?”, the song has no substance to it. It’s okay to be vague if you allude to something interesting, and the premise of this song is not. Even so, it’s substantially better than “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost” or “For Free.” These are unnecessary songs which traffic in the most uninteresting cliches and do so in the most boring manner.

Norman Fucking Rockwell was excellent and showed Lana Del Rey as so much more than just her debut album. This album adds nothing to her legacy. With any luck, we’ll remember this as nothing more than an unfortunate speedbump, but it’s more likely that we just will not remember it at all.

Tyron – Slowthai

22 Mar

Tyron, the sophomore album from punky British rapper slowthai, is a twin-headed beast. On the first half, with titles in all caps, slowthai (real name Tyron Frampton) comes to the listener with full braggadocio. The second half, with titles all in lower case, finds slowthai in introspection – about his music, his journey and most of all who he is as a person.

A lot of the context for this album comes from a singular day in the Before Times – February 12th, 2020, the day of the NME 2020 awards. Slowthai was nominated for everything from Best Song to Best Album, and even won the famous Hero of the Year award – so far so good. However, things took a left turn when the inebriated rapper proceeded to hit on the comedian-host Katherine Ryan, and then, when folks started throwing drinks at him, tried to jump into the audience for a fight. Ryan soon after said that she was in on the “joke”, but the damage was done. Slowthai was to be cancelled; but unfortunately for his detractors, the lad wasn’t having it.

Swiftly following the event, Slowthai put out a thinly-veiled diss track called “ENEMY” – which is, of course, phonetically identical to NME (“Keep my name out your dirty mouth / Fightin’, don’t know what you keep on cryin’ ’bout”). In a way, Tyron’s first half represents a further exploration of the themes from that song; including his assertion that his steep rise to fame could not be cancelled by one bad night (really, a few bad minutes).

We’ve already talked about the Skepta-featuring hit “CANCELLED” which finds the grime legend joining slowthai in hitting back against today’s often-too-harsh cancel culture. On “MAZZA” featuring American rapper A$AP Rocky – no stranger to controversy himself – slowthai explores the mantra of “Any press is good press”. “Gin and tonic, I’m a bigger topic / Bigger pocket, can’t close my wallet,” he boasts, tongue-in-cheek reference to his boozy bad day. And he has a point; recent events have done nothing but fuel slowthai’s punk image, on which much of his music is based – surely that can’t be bad for business.

The few others on this half of Tyron see slowthai at peak bluster. “VEX” explores his refusal to get ruffled by things that would earlier bother him (“I used to get vexed, now I just, mmh / Been bad since I stepped out the womb”) while “DEAD” speaks to his legacy that, according to slowthai, is irreplaceable whether he’s alive or not. In line with the twist on the death theme, there are some YOLO lyrics on this track: e.g. “My vida loca, true I lead this crazy life / Tune banging in the motor, gun-fingers to the sky”.

After all that bravado, slowthai switches things up on the more hard-hitting second half. It’s not just the titles that are in lower case; these seven songs find the music toned down, his raps slower. If the first half was the drunken, belligerent NME evening, the second half was the morning after – with a heartfelt explanation of the personal events that led to an embarrassing show like that.

i tried” is a heartbreaking tale of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who wants to be loved but is shunned by a world that only sees the stereotype. It’s a tale as old as time, but the sharpness of his writing lends new texture to the story. “Hug the world with open arms and they treat me like a pest,” he says, followed soon by “Life got me in a headlock, back and forth like a hockey puck / Always wanted muscles, lack of strength made me headstrong”.

terms” sees slowthai realizing the destructive patterns in his life: “Early bird wakes, catches the worm then reverts to its base, regurgitates / And nothing I’ll change / Do it again and I do it the same again and again.” Musically as well, the track’s a stand-out, featuring a surprisingly evocative chorus from rapper Denzel Curry and up-and-coming rapper / musician Dominic Fike. “push” sounds nothing like any other slowthai song, featuring the gentle vocals and guitars of LA singer-songwriter Deb Never. “I grew up ’round toxic / And people can’t see ’cause they live in a pond with some dumb fish,” writes slowthai, wrapping that pearl of truth with coming-of-age snippets from his rough background.

The best of this bunch is “adhd”, which sees slowthai at his most honest and vulnerable. On this track, he paints his hard persona as a shield to deflect from his varied and self-harming internal struggles. If the line “Tryna protect so I project / Deflect and they call it self-defence,” doesn’t get you, this one will: “Overthink, sink in my seat / Eat, sleep, repeat, what you know about T? / Smoke weed only way I fall asleep / Same routine, drink ’til I can’t speak”.

Overall, Tyron adds depth to the slowthai persona, offering up intriguing and well-penned origin storylines that further explain why this lad from Northampton ended up creating a debut album called Nothing Great About Britain. The introspective second-half of the album is far more interesting than the typical braggart first-half, and hopefully slowthai explores that side further in future albums.

Best tracks: “CANCELLED”, “adhd”, “i tried”

Rating: 7.5/10

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.

%d bloggers like this: