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HAIM – Women In Music Pt. III

18 Jul

HAIM’s debut album in 2013, Days Are Gone, instantly made them the most likeable thing in music. It just felt good to see three sisters making really good pop-rock together, like a Jackson 5 without all of the ugliness. Now, with their third album, the novelty is gone, but instead they have a sophistication to their music that wasn’t there before.

The core is still the L.A. pop-rock that they’ve always unabashedly been, but now more experimental than most of their earlier sound. There are excellent screams in “All That Ever Mattered”, for instance, that feel like something they wouldn’t have tried before and which elevate the song now.

The album highlight “3 AM” has a deep funkiness that they have flirted with before, but never fully committed to. It’s a sound that they pull off expertly though. The stuttered cadence is compelling and the groove is undeniable.

None of this pushes them to let up in their more comfortable songs though. “Man from the Magazine” is fairly straightforward guitar rock, but impressively stark, which works very well with the chorus of “I don’t want to hear / it is what it is, it was what it was.” I really like their single “I Know Alone” despite a mild dislike for the music video. It’s both gentle and heartfelt and the electronic twinges are very nice. “Summer Girl” is a standout with a memorable brass lick and clean, understated singing and is matched perfectly by the other bookend “Los Angeles” with its still-funny gratuitous put-down of New York winters.

Women in Music, Pt. III is exactly the album I wanted to see after HAIM’s mild sophomore slump. It’s bold, it’s confident, it’s intelligent and it’s very listenable music.

@murthynikhil

Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways

12 Jul

It’s a little bit against the spirit of the man, but listening to Bob Dylan in 2020 is reassuring. His voice has just been a part of my life for my whole life, as with practically everyone else with access to American music and born anytime in the past 50 years. Despite the irony, Dylan is an institution.

Rough and Rowdy Ways may not be quite at the standard of his absolute best, but it’s not that far either. It’s alive and accomplished and empathetic and funny all at once.

The opener “I Contain Multitudes” contains the wonderfully bald line “I paint landscapes and I paint nudes / I contain multitudes.” that still makes me laugh. He drops in excellent body-horror in “My Own Version of You” that takes the high concept of the title and makes it an earthy thriller of a carnival.

For all of that though, he can still rock hard as in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and even throws a couple of harmonica licks in there. He follows it up with an equally good treacly ballad in “Mother of Muses” and goes from there to a strong laid-back blues rock track with “Crossing the Rubicon.”

The album ends with the 17 minute “Murder Most Foul” which naturally is quite a ramble, but Dylan has always been at his best when rambling. He has a gift for phrases with exceptional resonance and it’s always enjoyable to just float with him and let thoughts bubble up from the music.

It has been close to 60 years of Dylan now and with Rough and Rowdy Ways, we don’t have Dylan at his most urgent or meaningful, but we do have a wonderful, quiet and very human album to listen to and as I listen to it, there’s nothing more that I could want.

@murthynikhil

Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off The Floor

29 Jun

There’s nothing extraneous in Pick Me Up Off The Floor. It’s stripped down in the way of lo-fi rock, but has sort of come to it from the other side. There’s just a sublime confidence in this music. It never overwhelms. It just takes things out one at a time, gives you time to examine it and then puts it away so that you can see what’s next. It knows that everything it has for you is worth your consideration and so there’s no need to hurry you along.

It has the cleverness to justify that confidence too. Right from the opener of “How I Weep” which draws out the first two words into a hurried “weep” at the jump and then draws out that same “weep” on the next go-around. Norah Jones’ singing is impressive as ever. Her voice has the strength to pull off all her gambits and fluid enough to work as well in the barnstorming blues of “Flame Twin” as in the country / gospel ballad of “To Live.” It’s clever and jagged in “Say No More” and yet filled with personality and irresistibly seductive. She dances across genres with very light feet and never stumbles once. There’s not a single point here where she feels less than completely in control.

Furthermore, it’s a sharp enough tool to need little else. The stark structure of “Were You Watching” would have been repetitive with a lesser musician, but between her voice and the clean piano, there’s just no need for anything else. This is a delicate, understated album and an achievement as one. In a turbulent time, it is a respite to have this album playing. It might have benefitted from delving deeper into the current moment than it does. There are references to the world right now studded throughout the album, but there’s also a lot that floats context free. Still, it floats so beautifully that it’s hard to complain.

It is very satisfying that Pick Me Up Off The Floor is the perfect sound to get up to after a fall. It’s always the dream that you build something from an experience that helps others with the same one. I’m listening to the soft, noodling instrumental piece at the end of the final song “Heaven Above” as I write this and it has been a hard and disappointing day and this is the gentleness that I’ve forgotten I need. This is a deep breath and a quick stroke on the back before I get up and now, I get up.

Run the Jewels – RTJ4

20 Jun

With their debut album RTJ in 2013, hip-hop super-duo Run the Jewels broke the mold of what intelligent, anti-establishment rap would look like. Naturally, they then proceeded to create even better versions, with the well-received RTJ2 (2014) and RTJ3 (2016). In that time, Killer Mike and El-P have also been hugely successful in a commercial sense, sound-tracking everything from Black Panther to FIFA18.

But despite this commercial utilization of their music, Run the Jewels is, at their crux, an anti-establishment act. Like their pre-COVID planned tour-mates Rage Against the Machine, Run the Jewels excel in just that – raging against the Machine, whether that’s the police, racists, or the wealthy.

In the summer of 2020, the world is battling the triple threat of a global pandemic, racism and wealth inequality. In that environment, Run the Jewels’ latest output RTJ4 is prescient and essential – and to put it bluntly, the record of the moment.

Throughout the album, RTJ make mincemeat of current times with chilling lines that were, astonishingly, recorded sometime in 2019. On album opener “Yankee and the brave”, the zeitgeist fire delivers stinging burns. “Pardon them as they work until every pocket’s been picked and soul been harvested / I’m ready to mob on these fucking charlatans,” announces El-P, while Killer Mike follows up with a could-have-been-recorded-yesterday swipe at police brutality: “A crooked copper got the dropper, I put lead in his eye / ‘Cause we heard he murdered a black child, so none of us cried.” An eye for an eye indeed.

 “Walking in the Snow” sees El-P delivering a searing indictment of Trump-era pseudo-Christians (“Kids in prisons ain’t a sin? Shit / If even one scrap a what Jesus taught connected, you’d feel different”). The fantastic “JU$T” drops a deep thought: “The Thirteenth Amendment says that slavery’s abolished / Look at all these slave masters posin’ on yo’ dollar”; and somehow, this aligns perfectly with statues being pulled off their pedestals across the world just in the past few days.

But Killer Mike and El-P aren’t just eerily clairvoyant – they’re also eerily intelligent. We are so used to mainstream low-IQ rap that it’s honestly a thrill to hear clever, laugh-out-loud brags. For example, on “Out of Sight”, Killer Mike belts a stone-cold classic metaphor: “Colder than your baby mama heart when she find out you been fuckin’ with that other broad / And you ain’t got that rent for her”. Elsewhere, El-P casually drops the instant-classic line “Got a Vonnegut punch for your Atlas shrug” – pitting the socialist Kurt Vonnegut against the libertarianism of Ayn Rand (interestingly, of course, she herself clashes the same two archetypes on Atlas Shrugged, with Howard Roark and Ellsworth Toohey).

Yes, they’re intelligent. Yes, they’re anti-establishment. But lest you think this is a spoken-word recitation of the latest Jacobin issue, it must be said that this is, above all, a great music album.

Killer Mike and El-P are blessed with sonic gifts like few others.  “Out of Sight” in particular is a prime example of Killer Mike’s masterful flow, with four gerund-filled lines (“motivating, captivating, devastating…”) effortlessly hitting beats that you didn’t realize existed. El-P isn’t far behind; on “Holy Calamafuck”, for example, he plays with the same vowel sound on about 12 different words. The album is also packed with great riffs. We’ve already gushed about the fun single “Ooh La La” but don’t underestimate the hook on the aforementioned Pharrell Williams-Zach de la Rocha double-feature “Ju$t”.

Run the Jewels have been railing against all forms of injustice for their entire lives. But now, in a perfect storm of Black Swan-like events, the world has caught up to them. Like Killer Mike’s political hero Bernie Sanders, they get extra credit not just for saying the right things, but for having always said the right things – even when they weren’t considered right.

RTJ4 is prophetic, thoughtful, complex – and most of all, highly enjoyable. Whether this album is better than its predecessors is really up to the listener, but this one will always be memorable for perfect alignment with the moment in which it was released.

Best tracks: “JU$T”, “Out of Sight”, “Ooh La La”

John Coltrane Quartet – Africa / Brass

17 Jun

It’s easy to latch on to the monkeys and elephants that show up partway through the first piece and hear the clear jungle noises there and think that this album is less than it is, but this is first and foremost excellent, inventive jazz. Like Olé Coltrane, which was released in the same year, the theme comes through strong and the jazz is richer for the flavor, but the soul of the album is in the superb hard bop that it’s built on.

Most interesting though is the big band that backs the quartet throughout. Adding the larger band of older styles of jazz adds a lot of swing, both in “Africa” and in “Blues Minor” and also shows what big band jazz could have been had the genre not shifted to more intimate groups. Between that and the jungle themes, “Africa” comes off as very reminiscent of possibly the best known verdant jazz of all, Louis Prima as King Louie in Disney’s version of The Jungle Book, something I’m always glad to be reminded of.

“Greensleeves” is another classic Coltrane pop track, taking as it does a British folk classic and effortlessly reimagining it as post-bop and “Blues Minor” is fearlessly improvisational. However, it is “Africa” that is the clear highlight. Elvin Jones has a stellar drum solo in there and as always, Trane’s sax work is unparalleled.

This is something a bit out of left field for Trane and he never did revisit the ideas he played with in this album, but that should in no way be taken to imply a misstep. This is, if anything, more special for its uniqueness. It’s a legitimate masterpiece and an essential album for any fan of this style of jazz.

@murthynikhil

Ka – Descendants of Cain

4 Jun

There’s nothing extraneous to Descendants of Cain. This is the leanest of lean cuts and glories in it. It’s serious, it’s to the point and it’s forceful throughout. Ka’s pairing of stripped down beats and muted raps is intense and claustrophobic. This album is a coffin that you’ve been sealed in with him.

He has plenty to tell you in there. The biblical theming played against the realities of his life is a strong conceit to build an album around. In “Patron Saints,” Ka uses this for irresistible storytelling and strong lines. The theming also just fits perfectly with the tone of the album. “My Brother’s Keeper” has an ominous, sunken beat and hushed rapping that just builds the scene. “Land of Nod” takes the same menace and has Ka change pace midway seamlessly.

However, here is the major flaw of the album. It bleeds together. There’s no real standout track in here and nothing to shake you out of the groove it lands you in. The closer “I Love (Mimi, Moms, Kev)” is softer and slower and might have done it, but it’s out of his range and he just can’t pull off the change in tone.

It’s still a strong album though. You have to respect something so single-minded and so proficient. Descendants of Cain is a solid addition to an always intriguing pocket of rap and one well worth listening to.

@murthynikhil

Charli XCX – how i’m feeling now

26 May

Pop is the medium of the present. Other genres can try to make an album that future generations will love or something that speaks to the older generation of established critics or just to be something their parents would listen to. Pop is about the now. Sometimes, like photos of ourselves from the nineties, we can only look back in bemusement, but that’s missing the point. how i’m feeling now is about just that, how I’m feeling right here and right now.

Make no mistake though, this is music of the present done very well. “claws” is a propulsive stream-of-consciousness with a chorus that extends exactly one beat longer than expected and is perfect for doing so. It forces the listener to pay attention and pulling out the phrase “I like” into the conclusion of “everything about you” is cute and yet intense in the way feelings are when you’re young. It’s some of the best pop that she has ever made.

She’s got that aesthetic down pat by now. “7 years” and “party 4 u” are good pop and very cute for that feeling of young love. Similarly, “i finally understand” puts a smile on your face for how well it expresses the feeling of being understood yourself. It’s upbeat and energetic and just feels happy. For an album about living in a pandemic, this is mostly a joyful album and it achieves that through just being honest. There is still a lot to celebrate in the now.

That’s one of the biggest strengths of how i’m feeling now, Charli brings the sincerity that great pop needs. It feels raw, it feels unpolished and it even feels a little rushed, but none of these detract. It’s not sloppy, it’s authentic. It’s straight from the feelings. It’s not an album to study, it’s one to experience in the moment. “pink diamond” opens the album strongly with just how uncompromising it is. The harsh noise and unforgiving beats hit you from the jump. It’s a very aggressive sound.

It’s also just masterful pop. Charli has been one of the most interesting musicians in pop for quite a while now and how i’m feeling now continues to prove how good an ear she has for pop. “detonate” is proper club pop in an age of no clubs and the breakdown at the end is genius for how it reminds you of that. “c2.0” has her at her most playful with her sounds. She lets pieces bubble into each other and burst through and it’s very clever. “enemy” has bright, blinding synths and while the lyrics never deliver on the promise, it doesn’t matter. It’s a shimmering, not a textbook.

This is an album of the moment and it’s transient in the way all pop must be. I don’t know if it will hold up at the end of the year or if it’s the kind of thing that I’ll ever come back to, but right here and right now, it’s perfect.

@murthynikhil

Rina Sawayama – SAWAYAMA

23 May

Nostalgia in pop is having a moment. The Weeknd and Dua Lipa, for instance, have mined this vein heavily, but no one has done it with the intelligence of Rina Sawayama. The trick to nostalgia is not to sound like what music used to sound like, but to sound like what you remember things to feel like. It’s not about the sound. It’s about the feel. I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t the most sophisticated of listeners in the early nineties and much of what I was listening to wasn’t that sophisticated either. Sawayama draws from wells like Korn, Evasnescence and above all Britney for the album, but through an astonishing alchemy serves something as sharp as any of the most experimental pop today.

The best tracks, “XS” and “Comme Des Garcons” have all of the energy of Britney, but with a complexity that it’s hard to imagine Britney bringing. “STFU!” is as hard and as fun as any Korn track, but it’s not dumb and that’s a pretty big difference. Her upbringing further sharpens the album. “Akasaka Sad” and “Dynasty” both layer in her personal story and in doing so further evolve the music. The pop she draws from never thought to speak of the immigrant experience. She astutely and cuttingly speaks of tourists in “Tokyo Love Hotel” and the storytelling there is made better for the earlier contrast of “Bad Friend.”

It does occasionally slip too close to the well and so “Paradisin” has nothing interesting. The sax there almost sticks it, but is just too cheesy and her voice is not enough to carry the song through. Similarly, “Chosen Family” is just a traditional pop ballad and can’t hold up to the more interesting music here.

At its best though, this is absolutely incredible pop. It’s whip-smart and yet highly approachable from its sources. Outgrowing old tastes has never been this fun.

Drake – Dark Line Demo Tapes

11 May

Dark Lane Demo Tapes does one thing in particular, it reminds you that Drake has talent. That talent gets lost a little in all of the stuff around him. He’s a superstar in a real sense. He is the upper echelon of the upper echelon of fame and it can be easy to forget the music what with the shoes and the viral videos and all that, but even with a loosie like this, Drake just puts out very good music. 

“Toosie Slide” has the viral dance that it was built around and the virtual tour of his mansion and it’s probably already something I can do in Fortnite, but it’s the song that’s stuck in my head, not the accessories. His flow is excellent. He’s greyed the area between singing and rapping so thoroughly by now that the question of what is what feels empty, but it’s still incredible. The pauses in his chorus are nothing short of genius. The song is infectious and every bit as good as anything Drake has ever put out.

He’s got a great sneer in this album. “When To Say When” takes well-placed shots at the people biting at his heels. The stunting in “From Florida With Love” is excellent bragging, even if the jetsetting lifestyle seems a little quaint at this exact moment, as is also the case in the fun “Landed.” Drake wears his superstardom well.

However, this is where the mixtape fails a little. Drake sticks to comfortable poses throughout. He plays superstar in the ones above, he plays Toronto sadboy in the rest, and I’d like to see him try something new. “Pain 1993” gestures at that growth, but it still feels like the old Drake. “Losses” talks about changing, but he’s still as quick to mope and as petty as he has ever been. “D4L” is quite good trap, but the man has worn these topics through. Even reimagining “Superman” in “Chicago Freestyle” while clever and solid rap feels a little pointless at the end.

Drake is a father now, and while it’s trite to expect family to change a man, it’s unbelievable that it doesn’t. Drake only ever shows us what he wants to show us, but his music suffers for running the same themes again.

Musically though, he’s as inventive as ever. His proficiency at trap is no surprise anymore, but “War” is excellent British rap. Drake has been both willing and able to experiment with everything in rap and beyond and he does it with consummate skill. His shapeshifting is as much a part of his legacy as any of the shinier parts.

This is where the mixtape ends up falling overall. This is some of the most consistent work that Drake has ever put out. It’s all good, high-quality rap. Drake has perfected his molasses sound, it’s sugared, but dark and viscous and it sticks to you, but he adheres to the same limited issues and it’s beginning to hold him back. Nevertheless, he’s good enough to make this mixtape stand out. This has some of the best music of the year and while Drake is definitely capable of more, he still delivers in a way that most cannot.

Childish Gambino – 3.15.20

8 May

Today is the 8th of May , which marks exactly 54 days since 3.15.20 was released. Numbers are a recurring theme on this album, which is both intriguing and frustrating, because it is legitimately difficult to remember tracks – most of the track names are the actual timing at which they appear on the album, such as “42.26,” more familiar as last year’s Feels Like Summer. A nightmare for people like me with 0 memory ability.

But (as dozens of other critics have already pointed out) it does fit well with the current culture and our bizarre time-dilated COVID-19 shared lockdown experience. Day, date, time have all lost meaning in our socially-distant reality, just as the process of listening to this long flowy interwoven album renders time into a True Detective reference.

Meta-relevance aside, is it good? Short answer… yes?

We are, we are, we are…

3.15.20 is complex, rich, conceptually heavy. It is both musically challenging and easily consumed. It continues Childish’s ability to mix hard topics with soft sounds, complimented by long-time collaborator Ludwig Goransen’s steady producer hands. It is perfectly in sync with Gambino’s current downbeat vibe. It is critically and artistically important. It proves Gambino’s unchallenged dominance in the rapper/actor scene (suck it, Drake), and will no doubt be on pretty much everyone’s best-of- lists for the year, if not decade.

And yet…

I miss the old Childish. The straight from the go Childish.

The younger, more fire-fueled Childish ceded space to this new, chill Gambino years ago, but each new release still makes me miss that version. The kid still young and hungry and trying to prove himself with a high voice laden with anger and desperate braggadocio. The artist has long since moved on.

But I haven’t.

– Karthik.

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