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Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

5 Mar

Big Thief has always been a band for whom I’ve had more respect than liking and there have been plenty of albums where I’ve had neither one. This is the first album of theirs that I really enjoy. It is somehow both deeper and more detailed than their previous work. It’s more intelligent and a little off-kilter as in the spectacular “Simulation Swarm.”

More enjoyably though, it’s also much more fun than their earlier work. The two hands clapping in “Time Escaping” is hilarious and on just the right side of camp and the song itself is nothing short of excellent. The country twangs that never move too far into the background of “Spud Infinity” are similarly just funny.

With this humor and humanity, they are more poetic than their usual and more resonant as well. This is really good music with none of the remoteness that often plagued their earlier albums. In fact, it’s hard to think of any real flaw to hold against the album at all.

Saba – Few Good Things

20 Feb

I certainly didn’t expect such a relaxed Saba on Few Good Things. I’m used to a rapper more caught up in the throes of emotion. Here, we see him stretch out a little. He broadens his musical range as a result. “If I Had A Dollar” has him channel Kendrick and “Soldier” brings in something of an Outkast feel. He does well enough with both of them and with the album as a whole. There’s nothing here with much heft, but also nothing here that misses the mark.

Where CARE FOR ME was passionate and heartfelt, Few Good Things is much more muted. Saba is talented enough to make solid music nonetheless, but the album still ends up unfocused and unmemorable.

Mitski – Laurel Hell

14 Feb

Laurel Hell will cut you if you let it. It’s a quiet album and that just makes the cuts deeper still. “Working for the Knife” is painfully sharp and very resonant. It’s great indie rock and pairs clever, evocative rock with clever, evocative lyrics. Her storytelling is top-notch throughout and unmatched in its subtlety. There’s something persistently elusive in the story of “Should’ve Been Me.”

Her music also doesn’t particularly worry about being noticed. The details are often stunning though. She tries sounds that are just a little off-kilter and puts a lot of care into some very small pieces. It’s unfortunate then there are also broad swathes of music that just don’t do anything particularly interesting and not all that much that truly transcends into the magnificent. However, there is still a lot that is quite good and some parts so clever they cannot help but linger.

FKA Twigs – CAPRISONGS

31 Jan

FKA Twigs has made a habit of going from strength to strength over her career, a fact made even more incredible by how much she adds with each iteration and how strong she started in the first place. A mixtape like CAPRISONGS is naturally not going to be her strongest or most consistent work, but it is a space for her to stretch out and experiment a bit and it’s delightful for that.

To start with, she brings Afrobeats into the mix. “papi bones” is a lot of fun and has a lot of infectious energy to it reminiscent of Rihanna in her peak Barbados phase. However, there’s lots of innovation even in the more straight-edged pop. She brings in a fascinating high pitch for “minds of men” that elevates the track from merely good pop to something memorable. Similarly, while “ride the dragon” does have a slightly cliche flute and name tag, it’s mostly very intriguing music.

CAPRISONGS is also just good at being good music. “oh my love” is an excellent track and the chorus is a lot of fun. It is “tears in the club” though that is the real standout. Her collaboration with The Weeknd is a true superstar single. Both of the singers are absolutely at the top of their powers and they work so well with each other.

It’s far from a perfect album. The interstitials alone do more than enough to keep it from that. However, it is a lot of very good, very interesting music. FKA Twigs is always doing something new and always doing it very well and it’s a pleasure to try to keep up.

The Weeknd – Dawn FM

16 Jan

Superstardom was always a strange fit for The Weeknd, but Dawn FM is him conceding all the best parts of his music for it. Trading R&B for disco-pop isn’t necessarily a bad thing and he gets some good music out of it but the result is his weakest album yet.

The style works well for things like the extended and extremely danceable “Take My Breath.” It’s absolutely top-tier synth-pop and Abel gets to use his voice to its full effect in it. Similarly, “Best Friend” is a very good song and an excellent showcase for just how well The Weeknd can sing.

Going disco has highlights, but substituting it for the previous R&B really hurts something like “Less Than Zero” which ends up simply boring and bland. He’s also lost a lot of his edge here. He glories far less in self-destruction now that he’s won a Kids Choice Award.

Even something like the still quite good “Is There Someone Else” doesn’t carry the emotion that he once brought to bear. There’s no bite to this album. He’s much less scary and less debauched than he once was. I like what Wayne does in “I Heard You’re Married” and Abel has moments in there too, but it has replaced his razor blades with safety scissors. Also, while I love Jim Carrey, the interludes are the kind of bad poetry I expect at amateur singalongs.

The strangest thing is that The Weeknd has always been an artist defined by singles and not albums and this album has no single for me to really come back to. Dawn FM does come together in a way that none of his previous albums ever really came close to doing but that doesn’t do enough without the musical peaks that he once had. There used to be gold with the dross. Dawn FM is instead a pretty consistent bronze.

Halsey – If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power

17 Dec

Some albums are more than ready to just come out punching. If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power rocks hard and unapologetically. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do stellar production work, giving the whole album a strong edge, but it’s really in the emotion that Halsey herself brings to the table that makes the project so strong.

At it’s best, in songs like the magnificent “I am not a woman, i’m a god,” the music is maximal and anthemic. “I am not a woman, I’m a god / I am not a martyr, I ‘m a problem / I am not a legend, I’m a fraud / So keep your heart ’cause I already got one” is a good, strong, feminist chorus for a good, strong, feminist song.

“Girl is a gun” has a lot of the same strengths, but is fun and sexy to boot. “In The Lighthouse” has Halsey punch out a chorus over an absolutely filthy riff. It’s very grunge and very clever.

This is unfortunately balanced by a lot of filler though. “Darling” is forgettable, “You asked for this” has nothing interesting in it and some music that grates. “honey” is fine, but predictable and I want to get to the more interesting songs.

Additionally, it often falls into triteness. The surprisingly Foo Fighters cut “Easier Than Lying” is quite a good song, but the lyrics fall more into trite than truthful and that hurts it. “Whispers” features a fascinating flow and has a nice gear shift in it, but the clever music is once again undercut by the uninspired lyrics.

That there are flaws is undeniable, but when the music gets going, it more than overcomes any weaknesses. “I am not a woman, i’m a god” is a sublime achievement and the kind of song that defines an artist. If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is unafraid to just rock and the result is nothing short of stellar.

Xenia Rubinos – Una Rosa

30 Nov

There’s no question that there is now space for music that would never have earlier seen the light. Una Rosa is too Caribbean, too Latin and too individual to have been successful earlier. It’s also proof as to how lucky we are that we get music like this now.

The most interesting music here actually reminds me of Laurie Anderson more than anyone else. With tracks like “Did My Best,” Xenia Rubinos goes deep into a very experimental sound. She takes notes and just sees how far they will go. She takes this base and brings in a lot of Latin for “Si Llego” and the mixture is heady.

The centerpiece of “Don’t Put Me In Red” is far more approachable music. It’s still magnificent, her dragging through each word in the chorus is spectacular. It ends up very reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s last album both in terms of being excellent music and, much more strangely, of internalizing the white gaze too deeply in her politics. There’s a powerlessness in the lyrics that I don’t understand.

The same can be said for “Who Shot Ya” but naming Breonna Taylor holds power in itself and that power can be felt throughout the album, especially in the music. It is, after all, a bold and inventive album from a bold and inventive musician and likeable to boot.

Low – HEY WHAT

15 Nov

I don’t think that I’ve ever come across a psychedelic rock album with as much in the details as HEY WHAT. There’s so much going on in every song. It’s all understated enough not to break the flow of an album more than meditative enough for you to slip in, but any part that you focus on will have little moments of brilliance right underneath the surface. This album is still water over a coral reef.

Take the magnificent “More” for instance. There’s a very good opening static that’s brought into a loop with absurd cleverness and then against this aggressive fuzziness, the vocals play an excellent softness for contrast and the whole thing has top-tier base work behind it. There’s just so much going on. All of the pieces are wonderful in themselves, and yet the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts.

For all of that intelligence, the album never feels purely cerebral. There’s a percussion in “The Price You Pay” that pulsates through the back of my neck and then grows and grows. There’s just uninhibited, raw emotion in “White Horses” that sticks with you. This album really does it all.

Even if you don’t have the bandwidth to spare to focus through this album, it’s an excellent listen. Like all good psychedelic rock, it forms a fantastic soundtrack to anything that you might be doing. If you do pay attention though, it’s nothing short of magnificent and you owe it to yourself to find some time to give it the attention it’s due.

Nala Sinephro – Space 1.8

1 Nov

Jazz certainly loves outer space. Something about the vast expanse of the night sky above speaks to jazz musicians from John Coltrane to Sun Ra and now to Nala Sinephro.

Over 8 songs, Nala Sinephro and her band construct detailed soundscapes. Interstellar space is never as exciting as when jazz musicians get to draw it in. It’s mostly very gentle music. From the opener “Space 1,” there’s a lot of ambient music in here. It has some wonderful tones that are given complete room to breathe and ripples that evoke nature.

It goes into some very classic gentle jazz in “Space 2.” It’s never smooth, but it’s relaxing. “Space 4” works the same way. There’s very good sax work in both. It’s the aggressive saxophone and fuzz in “Space 6” that’s really interesting though. This is a very relaxing album, but there’s more than enough challenge in here to keep you engaged.

This is really an album that does it all and does it well. It’s a relaxing soundscape that you can submerge yourself and an excellent space jazz album and, of course above all, absolutely wonderful music.

Drake – Certified Lover Boy

18 Oct

With Certified Lover Boy, I feel like looking back a bit. Drake has always loved his nostalgia anyway. I remember with Take Care, there was a lot to get excited about. “Headlines” was the single and was necessary as that, but it’s not what I look back at. Even “HYFR’s” excited Weezy isn’t quite it. I don’t think anyone really expected how deep he would delve into the sounds of “Marvin’s Room” and “Take Care.” I don’t think we every really saw how normal they would sound.

The thing is that Drake is now a superstar. In fact, he’s now the superstar. His singing in his raps perfectly meets a world where pop has moved toward hip-hop. His corniness is now virality. Everyone’s a Toronto sadboy in this online world.

Also, there’s no one left on the throne. Kanye’s self-destruction is probably far from complete, but it has done its work. Taylor is off in the wilderness. I haven’t heard from Kendrick or Beyoncé in forever. The new kids are all still too new, too formless and too unaccomplished. Pop royalty is relentless and Drake’s the only person to have kept pace.

It’s very much in character that he does so with an album that’s almost unambiguous trash. When the most exciting thing in your album is a Kawhi cameo, there’s just not much that one can say. It’s just a lot of music that I’m happier not hearing and very little that I’m happy having heard. Something like “In The Bible” is irritating. There’s so much music here that’s just bad.

There’s stuff that could be decent if you squint. He’s got his sound down in “Girls Want Girls” even if the chorus is mind-numbingly stupid. “Fountains” is decent Afrobeats, if nothing special. You have to credit Drake with always keeping up with new trends in rap and he’s always passable at them, but they are never his highlights. He’s got solid beats in “7am On Bridle Path” and “The Remorse” but can’t put a good rap in front of either of them.

“7am On Bridle Path” is the album’s failures in a microcosm. He’s clearly the biggest person in music right now, but it’s such a poor look to stunt about it when he got it by default. It’s a diss track in a supremely uninteresting beef. This is the same guy who ended a feud by going on LeBron’s YouTube channel. There was once a time when he bodied Meek Mill but now he just can’t play it straight. Stick to the topic and go hard. Also, “wheel me to defeat like we rollerbladin'” is unacceptable. In a fair world, that would be sufficient for defeat in itself.

At least “7am On Bridle Path” has some decent music to make up for that though. The lyrical failures elsewhere don’t even have that going for them. “They’re doing something that’s not Pepsi” in “Papi’s Home”? The only thing they should be doing is writing Drake better lyrics because he needs all the help he can get. He gets off one solid line in the whole album with “Look, don’t invite me over if you throw another pity party” and the imitation line has a good sneer, but then he throws away all that goodwill and more by trying to rhyme “disability” with “this ability”. That’s just unacceptable.

It’s very often just impossible to understand. He opens a song with being jealous of a handbag. “You Only Live Twice” makes you regret living the once. I don’t know who told him and Future that “Way 2 Sexy” was a good idea but that person was wrong. Forget all of Drake’s tired Bernie Madoff comparisons, if that person was paid for that advice, that’s the greatest scam the music industry will ever see.

He finds himself on “F***ing Fans,” but that’s the kind of track that should be solid filler on a decent album, not one of the best tracks on the whole project. Certified Lover Boy is so bad that any moment of decent music is an oasis in the desert though. He preceded this album with “POPSTAR” and “Toosie Slide,” both of which were some of the best music that he’s ever made. He will follow this soon enough with more great singles, which has anyway always been his greatest strength, but for now, there is nothing in his past, present or future enough to make this album worth listening to.

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