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Little Simz – GREY Area

17 Mar

There’s a pocket of quiet British rap that’s well worth paying attention to and Grey Area might be the best thing to come from it yet. Little Simz is a very talented rapper and she throws a varied assortment of ideas at you over the course of this album. The cartoon effects over the hard beat and strong rapping in “Offence” and the Eastern-tinged beat of “101FM” are particular standouts.

Unfortunately, I feel that this is not the album to really transcend the limitations of the subgenre. Like the contemporaneous Kate Tempest’s work, the album is very impressive to listen to in the moment but a little forgettable after. I feel it just lacks the few real moments of honesty and personal truth that would have drastically elevated it. It could even use some moments of cleverness. It’s just a little too freewheeling where it would have benefited from drilling down into a couple of points that it developed.

There’s a lot of strong music in the album though. The storytelling of “Sherbet Sunset” and the groove of “Selfish” and beat of “Pressure” are all excellent. Little Simz is already a brilliant rapper going from strength to strength and GREY Area is well worth your time.

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Beirut – Gallipoli

12 Mar

Given the Mediterranean undercurrents to Beirut’s music, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Zach Condon spent his pre-Beirut years backpacking around Europe, soaking in the sights and sounds of Sicily and the Balkans. Five albums, a bunch of EPs and 15 years since, those influences still burn bright in his music. Condon has a penchant for drawing a range of different soundscapes with the same set of ingredients. All of his songs sound somewhat similar on the surface but each one surprisingly tugs at a different chord. On Gallipoli, he and his brass army proudly carry on the tradition with predictable but entertaining results.

The album opens with “When I Die”, a classic track showcasing the familiar trumpet-ukulele-kick drum trifecta that’s been a staple with Beirut’s music. Then comes the title track, “Gallipoli”, the musical embodiment of a cavalry of soldiers bidding their kingdom farewell before heading to the frontlines.

That’s the beauty of Beirut. There’s always a very vivid mental picture that gets tied to each song even when there’s barely any lines sung. “On Mainau Island” is a pretty instrumental track that sees Beirut dabble with electronics, a side of him we would like to see more often. The very hypnotic “Corfu” again offers glimpses of where Beirut’s sound could head next, tastefully combining jazz melodies with an almost-tango beat.

On the whole, the album sounds a bit less rough round the edges than what Beirut fans are used to – but not in a jarring way. Experimentation outside Condon’s forte has been kept to a minimum on Gallipoli. It’s still the organ and the brass instruments that take center stage. While songs like “Corfu”, “On Mainau Island” and “We Never Lived Here” attempt to fuse the past with the future, the extent of experimentation seems frustratingly measured. Gallipoli might have met every old-time fan’s desire, but it is also a sign that Zach Condon is in urgent need of evolution. His sound is at risk of growing stale and we’re hoping we get to see a never-before-seen side of him on future releases.

Top Tracks:  “Corfu”, “Gallipoli”, “I Gardini

Higher Brothers – Five Stars

11 Mar

It’s an exciting period for rap and Higher Brothers are one of the most exciting things in an exciting period. This Chinese rap group is talented and raw and innovative. Songs like “Flexing So Hard” and “Sunshine” have some of the most interesting flows that I’ve ever heard. The choppiness is novel and their free-switching between languages endlessly novel. These songs and “Gong Xi Fa Cai” are them at their best.

Unfortunately, the album as a whole is a little inconsistent. “Do It Like Me” and “No More” are not particularly good. The big name guests of ScHoolboy Q and Soulja Boy just don’t do that much. Q is forgettable and Soulja Boy is anaemic. However, “16 Hours” and “Open It Up” are bangers and “One Punch Man” is quite interesting. 

Whatever quibbles can be found with the album, this is simply the bleeding edge of rap and so music as a whole and if you’re at all interested in seeing where things are going then you should be listening to Higher Brothers. Also, they’re just a ton of fun to listen to.

@murthynikhil

Conor Oberst / Phoebe Bridgers – Better Oblivion Community Center

5 Mar

There’s a style of book that I always and incorrectly call modern writing. It’s wry, understated, cynical, honest and very, very clever. It’s also just a little bit precious. It’s Early Work by Andrew Martin but it’s not quite Rabbit, Run by John Updike. It’s also this album.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Both Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst have made their names in this space of indie folk-rock and they’re both very good at it. This album is simply excellent. It’s good, solid guitar work, clean singing and incisive lyrics.

The stand-out is the wonderful “Service Road.” It’s lo-fi and minimal and beautiful. It’s a slow walk in Autumn when you’re sad. Conor Oberst’s voice is excellent here and it delivers the standout stanza of “Asking strangers to forgive him/ But he never told them what it is/ He did to them that made him feel so bad” with so much depth.

That’s far from the only highlight of the album. “Big Black Heart” is excellent with Phoebe Bridgers putting some great snarl into it and with very strong distortion at the end to cap the fuzziness of the song. “My City” is nice and low stakes and relaxing and has a fun jangle behind the verses. “Dylan Thomas” is very clever lyrically and also musically.

Better Oblivion Community Center is a gorgeous album. The singers’ voices mesh well with each other and they think in similar ways. They also have the confidence and sense to know when to let their guitar work stand alone and when to leave space for extended chords and for heavy feedback. It’s a clever, accomplished album and one that’s well worth your time.

@murthynikhil

Ariana Grande – thank u, next

25 Feb

It’s an unlikely thing to say about someone who’s already pop royalty, but thank u, next is Ariana Grande taking herself to the next level. She’s already a superstar and a household name, but this is the album that really pushes herself as maybe the most important act in pop today.

This felt clear from the moment the title track dropped. There’s a maturity to “thank u, next” that was expected at this stage of her career but is no poorer for that. This could have easily come off as cynical and trite but Ariana has an effortless sincerity here that carries the song. Her conclusion of self-love would have been cliche in less skilled hands but instead you find yourself happy for her. Pop has always played out at least in part in the E! News of the day but Ari has made it service her music and not the other way around.

Her voice is the centerpiece of the album. Powerful when it needs to be, delicate when it needs to be, it gets the showpiece here that it long deserved. Her musical instincts are likewise impeccable. “7 rings” felt like a misstep at first as repurposing “My Favorite Things” needs to be handled with care and her interpolation is unconventional. She pulls it off though and pulls off the tonal shift of flossing as well. This is a large part of what makes this album such a statement. She’s built the confidence to inject some strength and variety into her work and the result is eye-popping. 

Unsurprisingly, I also really like the sexy, playful Ari you see in songs like “make up.” “NASA” is a lot of upbeat fun. It even feels a little retro and I’m always a sucker for spelling titles out like it’s the 80s again. Also, the metaphor still makes me smile. “needy” reminds me pleasantly of the last SZA album.

I like her harder stuff more though. “bloodline” has a great, assertive beat and the callousness is delicious. “bad idea” is very sharp. “break up with your girlfriend, I’m bored” is supercilious and excellent for it. This is the Ariana Grande that I am now here for.

This album is Ariana’s best yet and hopefully a blueprint for what is to come next. This album apparently only took a few weeks from alpha to omega and the result is more free-flowing, more honest and more confident than ever before. It’s time to crown a new pop queen.

@murthynikhil

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.

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).

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