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Big Thief – U.F.O.F.

7 Jun

U.F.O.F. is a beautiful, delicate and scarily intelligent folk-rock album. It’s gossamer and lovely in sound and filled with intricacies and flourishes and sparkles.

“Betsy”, for instance, is calm and unhurried and tranquil. “Jenni” feels like a gentler, slower “Jeremy” and while that may sound like it misses the point, the result is no less intense for how slow it burns. “From” is tender and sophisticated.

For all that softness though, the album is also able to carry off the Velvet Underground-like “Contact” which goes from a slow start to a distortion both unexpected in such a soft album and brilliant for it.

The vocal quivering in “Orange” engage and the lyric of “Orange is the color of my love” is novel. Similarly in “Century”, Lenker’s voice wavers around where you would expect and the unbalancedness that engenders is excellent. It slips a little at the end of the song though and it’s not quite strong enough to carry the vocal-only segments of “Magic Dealer”, but those are the exceptions in a mostly wonderful album.

For all of the innovation of the album, it’s still extremely approachable. The country jangles in “Cattails” are a fascinating evolution of this soft-rock sound, but it also works well on the surface. This is an album that greatly rewards effort from the listener. It has lots of little brilliances flowing through it and is confident enough not to clumsily draw attention to it.

However, no matter your approach, you will enjoy this album. Even at the most shallow listen, it’s exceptional. If you’re willing to meet it halfway though, it’s transcendent.

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Monthly Playlist: May 2019

1 Jun

What a month May has been for great music. Stalwarts made a strong mark, with Vampire Weekend releasing a highly-lauded fourth studio album and Tyler the Creator releasing a fifth – and his best-rated – record. Newcomers, too, blew it out of the water: notably, British rapper slowthai and relative newbie Jamila Woods, who has put out one of the best albums of the year. With all this great music, we really had our work cut out this month picking five great songs to share: but here goes.

5. “We Belong Together” by Vampire Weekend feat. Danielle Haim

As longtime readers would know, anything with one of the Haim sisters is almost always alright in our books. “We Belong Together” – the second Danielle Haim collab from Vampire Weekend’s fifth album, Father of the Bride – is a great, old-school duet love song with a quintessentially-Ezra-Koenig melancholy twist. Black and white, day and night, left and right, bowls and plates – Koenig and Haim list off the timeless and kitschy ways pairs the two lovers belong together. But wait, what’s this? “Baby, there’s no use in being clever / Baby, it don’t mean we’ll stay together,” they say, on a sugary-light bop, following it up with a devastating “We go together like lions and lambs / Oh, we go together”. This is another irresistibly great song from what has been a solid album front to back. Look out for a full review of FOTB from us soon – until then, take a listen through this track (and the other we’ve covered in our playlists!).

4. “Doin’ Time” by Lana del Rey

Speaking of melancholy crooners, the absolute queen of mournful murmuring is back. Lana del Rey has announced a new album in 2019 (the brilliantly-named Norman Fucking Rockwell), and “Doin’ Time” gives us a good taste of the excellent things to come. A cover of the ska / punk band Sublime’s 1996 single – and itself sampling the jazz standard “Summertime” – “Doin’ Time” is a head-fake that starts off like a cheery hit and segues into an adult-contemporary drive through Lana’s, well, sublime vocals. The result, as you may expect from a story about feeling trapped by an unfaithful partner, is a mixture between fuzzy contemplation and spiky regret. More to come from Lana this year, and we couldn’t be more pumped.

3. “Record Collection” by Kaiser Chiefs

In another throwback to the mid-aughts, Kaiser Chiefs are back with “Record Collection”, a song that’s basically an updated version of every one of your favorite songs from your high school years (think Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs themselves, and so on). According to lead singer Ricky Wilson, the band recorded their seventh studio album Duck, slated for July 26th (featuring this new track) after going back and reminiscing over their own first few records. You can hear it too: after a forgettable couple of records in the middle, Kaiser Chiefs finally sound rejuvenated. A thick bassline and poppy drums elevate Wilson’s vocoder-style vocals on “Record Collection”, and the song is peppered with the sort of supple hooks that made “Ruby” all the rage more than a decade ago. (Has it really been that long?!) With “Record Collection”, it looks like we have yet another great summer album to await – mark your calendars!

2. “Vacancy” by Havelock

With so many releases from well-known artists this month, it’s easy to miss tracks like “Vacancy”, the second track (ever) by English singer Havelock. But, wow, are we glad we didn’t miss it – and we are so happy to recommend it to our readers, too. “Vacancy” tells a tale well-known by young people around the world – hustling until you make it, with an end in mind but not in sight. Beyond his chill vocals and the warmth of the production, what Havelock really cracks is that clever yet effortless turn of phrase. In fact, there’s a line on here that we loved so much that we’ll transcribe it here in full: “’Cause you got a brand-new vacancy, and I want to join the agency; I hope that it can give me something that I could hold, somewhere that I could go, without working to the bone: can you give me that?,” he asks; achingly poetic in his naivety. “My snooze is on repeat / I know I’d better wake up or I’ll wake up in the streets” goes another splendid couplet. We haven’t been this excited for a new artist in a long time – and we hope you feel the same way, too. (If you liked this tune, you’ll love “Pig Latin”, his debut single.)

1. “Inglorious” by slowthai, feat. Skepta

From an arrangement standpoint, “Inglorious” has a very simple layout: a short intro, followed by a verse by slowthai and the hook, followed by another verse by Skepta and the hook. But what happens in those five parts may well have changed the topography of British rap. Of course, Skepta is already famous; his unapologetic display of British culture – in a genre dominated by American culture – has placed him on a 2017 list of the most influential people in the UK. On “Inglorious”, his talents and persona are put to the best possible collaborative use with newcomer – and inevitable star – slowthai. A dreamlike intro leads into one of the best beat drops we’ve heard all year, along with a volley of British-isms and descriptions of struggle (“Remember when they wouldn’t let me in / Now their wages just a day’s per diem”). “Inglorious” features on slowthai’s debut album, Nothing Great About Britain, which is honestly one of the best albums we’ve heard all year. Listen to “Inglorious” – if you like it, you’re in for a treat for the rest of the album.

Jamila Woods – LEGACY! LEGACY!

29 May

There’s a lot in play with the new Jamila Woods album Legacy! Legacy! The panorama of black excellence is fascinating. Her use of it to examine herself is even more so. Her mixing in of current events is provocative. Above all though, her voice and her sound and the R&B that she has made is exceptional.

Every song here is named after a different cultural bastion and so we see a jazzy, fusiony sound in “MILES”, albeit one that feels a little more Future Shock than Bitches Brew. “EARTHA” has soft R&B with a clever undercurrent of electro-pop underneath it. “SUN RA” is gentle with a hypnotic beat.

Lyrically, it’s just as strong and as clever. “BETTY” has a strong feminism with the uncompromising couplet “I am not your difficult girl / throw away that picture in your head.” The chorus of “ZORA” has the pure truth of “You will never know everything / And you don’t know me.”

Everything really comes together in the two standout tracks of the album. “BASQUIAT” is magnificent. The call and response of “Are you mad? / Yes, I’m mad!” and the twists at the end of each refrain are very well done. Her singing is powerful and the base line is visceral and just when you find your feet with the song, Saba caps it with some very clean rapping.

My favorite track though is the wonderful MUDDY. The blues-rock riff underpinning the song is excellent and her voice provides a freshness and clarity that creates a beautiful tension against it. Lyrically, it’s a calculated sneer that matches the musical tone precisely and the whole sticks with you well after each listen.

What makes all of this even more astonishing is the degree of coherence in this album. Her voice remains the one constant amongst an array of sounds but it’s more than powerful enough to force a singular feel to the entire album. 

This coherence is matched by the quality throughout. This is an excellent album and one that you need to listen to. We highly recommend it.

Karen O / Danger Mouse – Lux Prima

16 May

Neither Karen O nor Danger Mouse really need to another laurel to their wreaths. They are well-known, highly successful and something of an establishment in their fields already. Neither one really needs a boost, which works out, as Lux Prima isn’t the kind of album that can define an artist. It is, however, a skillful pop-rock diversion and a fun 40 minute listen.

“Turn The Light” is just good, infectious pop. Karen O’s voice is stellar throughout. Songs like “Drown” work so well because her voice is impeccably controlled and very personal and that muddies up the slow moving but so intriguing production underneath. The closer “Nox Lumina” has a sound reminiscent of a lullaby, but taken wonderfully out of context and its mirror “Lux Prima” is a clean synth line.

The album as a whole is a little ephemeral though. It’s great to listen to, but forgettable when it’s done. The structure is a little too traditional and the album a little too lacking in innovation. Despite the tremendous skill of the two musicians and the cleanness of their sound, the whole comes off slightly shallow.

The talent is undeniably there though and comes through on every song. If you like any of the earlier work of Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) or Danger Mouse (Broken Bells, Gnarls Barkley, The Grey Album, Danger Doom, lots of other things), you’ll find plenty to like here too.

Gunna – Drip or Drown 2

9 May

Drip or Drown 2 is, more than any other aquatic metaphor, distilled. It is muted and monotonic, taking the already focused subgenre of trap and focusing it even further. This is an album that’s specific in its intent and strong in its speech.

This focus gives it a relentless feel that fully enthralls. “Baby Birkin” takes the trap tic of repeating the end of the line and does it excellently. This may be a cliche in the form now, but it keeps the song from easy resolutions and so fascinates, albeit while being mentally exhausting. There are some very strong singles in here, with “Speed It Up” being similarly intriguing and “Who You Fooling” bringing in some astonishing Japanese strings. The production is consistently excellent and Gunna mixes up the singlemindedness of the beats cleverly with his raps.

This is a very linear album though, and that focus results in clarity at its best, but blandness at its worst. It’s at its best far, far more than at its worst though. This is an exceptional album. However, in it’s commitment to fully explore every idea it presents, it ends up slightly lacking in variety. However, this is a clever, accomplished album and a strong call to attention for a rapidly rising rapper. In his smelting of the genre, Gunna has forged something unique and you should definitely check it out.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall

5 May

Ancestral Recall is fearless. Like a python, its mouth seems to have opened impossibly wide and swallowed influences larger than the album should be able to hold. And again, like the python, these influences may distend the album, but they are consumed, feeding the snake, but never overpowering its own nature.

This is an album that can be heavily industrial in “Prophesy” and then run a saxophone against it for a fascinating juxtaposition. It can be both punishing and fascinating in “Double Consciousness” which has a backbeat that latches onto your spine.

“Diviner” however is just beautiful. It’s complex and sends your mind spinning with a wonderful, delicate counterpoint that wanders through it. “Songs She Never Heard” is similarly surprisingly gentle and almost ambient at points. It does sometimes verge on repetitive, but is a very pleasing listen. “Before” is beautiful and dreamlike and yet fervent in its desire to communicate. There’s a fire underpinning even the softest moments of this album.

This is far from traditional jazz. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah has melded an astonishing array of influences into this album. And he has done it with such consummate skill and imagination that, despite a couple few burrs in the tapestry, the result is magnificent.

Joey DeFrancesco – In the Key of the Universe

14 Apr

There’s a lot to recommend in In The Key of the Universe. The musicians are all clearly highly skilled and it’s a very pleasant album to listen to. Unfortunately though, it lacks the spark that the best jazz albums all possess.

The album never quite falls into easy listening. It is traditional jazz, but just a little too familiar with resolutions that are a little too predictable.  Pieces like “Easier To Be” and “Inner Being” in particular are guilty of this. The entire album functions well in the background while you try some taxing work, but I want to see more from an album like this.

That is not to dismiss the entire album. The opening of “Vibrations In Blue” has a lot going on in a way that reminds me of some of my favorite Herbie Hancock compositions. The sax work in “The Creator Has A Master Plan” is similarly engaging (and surprisingly provided by the great Pharoah Sanders), even if the vocals in that song substantially jar. The tranquility of “A Path Through the Noise” wholly justifies the name. There’s so much undeniable virtuosity in this recording, but it just never stretches itself.

There’s a strong clarity to this album that makes it distinctly approachable and it’s a charming listen no matter your experience with jazz. It skews too far to the traditional though and lacks the fire and inspiration that would truly let it distinguish itself in a world already full of this strain of jazz.

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