Raphael Saadiq – Jimmy Lee

13 Dec

This album is not shy about its strengths. Right from the strong but sincere “Sinners Prayer” and its bluesy groove, you know that you’re getting into something good. By the time you get into the Prince-like “The World Is Drunk” and excellent neo-R&B of “Something Keeps Calling”, there’s no doubt left.

It finishes with fully the same strength. “Glory To The Veins” is the standout track with a dark, pulsating beat and Saadiq shows expert restraint with his voice here. For all of that though, it just grooves. “Rikers Island” moves well and the redux adds some needed profundity in an album which, while very heartfelt, is not quite original in its lyrics.

However, the album itself is just a little muddied. There are great moments in there, like the chorus of “Something Keeps Calling” or the little bit of playful piano in “Glory To The Veins”, but the whole fades a little easily, a fault exacerbated by the weak middle.

It’s still no doubt a very good, if not quite great, album. There are faults, but if you’re looking to see present-day R&B at its best, this is where you should start.

The Black Keys – "Let's Rock"

9 Dec

In a world dominated by global pop sensations (see: Ariana Grande, K-pop), it can often seem like rock and roll is about to doze off at the wheel. Sure, you have the occasional saviors, like Royal Blood or the more derivative Greta van Fleet, but there aren’t too many active and prolific rock and roll artists today.

Except, of course, for the Black Keys.

The Black Keys, comprising of Dan Auerbach on guitar / vocals and Patrick Carney on drums, is as lean and mean as they come. Their songs are – and have always been – loud, effortless, rollicking, and whatever-is-the-opposite-of-pretentious. They are, simply put, a good time through and through.

What’s more, this sound has largely been dependable over the band’s extensive history. The band’s first five albums – The Big Come Up (2002), thickfreakness (2003), Rubber Factory (2004), Magic Potion (2006) and Attack & Release (2008) – were released in quick succession and to moderate fanfare. But it was soon after that they really started to take off. Brothers (2010) and El Camino (2011) would top the charts of any best-of-decade blues rock albums, spawning still-ubiquitous hits such as “Tighten Up”, “Howlin’ for You” and “Lonely Boy”. While Turn Blue (2014) could be considered a slight step down, it was still a great rock album – and that’s our point. There are few, if any, other artists today with such a long-standing, consistent and beloved rock discography.

And all that back-story brings us to the ninth Black Key album “Let’s Rock!” (2019). Coming after a scary five-year gap (“Will they ever get back together?” wondered fans everywhere), the album is sturdy, no-nonsense and catchy as all hell.

It’s also, reliably, packed to the brim with top-notch bluesy hits. “Shine a Little Light” opens the album with about twenty seconds of anticipation, before kicking into high gear with a hard-hitting riff. By the time Auerbach gets to the swashbuckling chorus (“If evil lays its hands on me, shine a little light on my soul / Show me things I cannot see, shine a little light on my soul”), you know what you’re getting for the rest of the album – good old-fashioned rock and roll fun.

And it’s pretty much non-stop from there. “Eagle Birds” is bluesy perfection, equally appropriate for an exuberant road-trip or a raucous dance party. “Lo / Hi” could, and probably will, soundtrack an advertisement for a Cadillac, or a leather jacket, or a motorcycle (or maybe all of those things) – pure swagger and confidence from head to toe. “Go” is an instant rock classic, with a single-word chorus (yep, the word is “go”) that perhaps no other band could really pull off.

In between these hard-rock hits, a few songs provide some welcome contrast. “Walk Across the Water” features gentler vocals with laidback, Hendrix-like riffs – a catch of breath in the otherwise relentless first half. “Sit Around and Miss You” is rockabilly meets Revolver-era Beatles, with warm riffs, old-timey “oohs” and “aahs”, and simple-as-they-get vocals.

Bottom line: “Let’s Rock” is straightforward, old-fashioned, and just plain fun. If you’re looking for something deep or ground-breaking, you’d best look elsewhere. If not – you’re in the right place.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Ghosteen

8 Dec

It’s immediately apparent that this is the album after the death of Nick Cave’s son. The melancholy is beautiful and everywhere. It’s much more of an ambient album than is standard for him and, if anything, benefits from the move outside. It does however also suffer a little from what becomes a slightly unvarying sound as a result though.

However, the grief comes through poignantly throughout. In particular, the retelling of the Buddhist parable of the house that knows no death in “Hollywood” is heart-rending. It’s a touching, beautiful album and one that you will not leave unmoved.

Monthly Playlist: Nov. 2019

2 Dec

Before we swing into the final month of the year – and the decade! – we wanted to do a quick review of a few songs that made our November. Read on below:

5. “Kiss Like the Sun” by Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg has been our radar for about the last seven years, when we covered his fantastic, eponymous debut album. Even back then, the young (1994-born) singer-songwriter had a unique sound, evocative of the good old days (think Bob Dylan) but often ratcheted up to a modern-day streetwise setting (a la the Arctic Monkeys’ debut).

His sparkly debut, unfortunately, was followed by a rather middling series of three albums, with the last being released in 2017. Happily, though, it looks like Jake is making a foray back into music. On the new track “Kiss Like the Sun”, the Nottingham lad taps into a sort of amalgamation of the jangly tunes of a Feist track, and the rollicking bluesy good times of the Black Keys. We loved it, and hope there’s more to come.

4. “holy terrain” by FKA twigs

“holy terrain” is, in our opinion, the stand-out track from FKA twigs’ overall brilliant album from this month, MAGDALENE. Over a glitchy trap beat, twigs’ airy voice seems to speak of a soon-to-be love-hate relationship in its tumultuous early days. “Will you still be there for me once I’m yours to obtain? / Once my fruits are for taking and you flow through my veins?” she asks, hitting about ten emotions and twenty notes on the way. Her lover, here played by rapper Future, doesn’t have a great answer: “Throw loads of gold on you just to fall asleep, yeah / I hope you never take my love, yeah, in vain, yeah,” he answers, putting materialism and love in doomed equal footing. Ouch – good luck, folks. If you loved this track, be sure to check out our full review of MAGDALENE.

3. “Tokyo Drifting (with Denzel Curry)” by Glass Animals

Florida rapper Denzel Curry seems to be having a Brit-heavy collab year. After a joint track with British rap’s reigning king slowthai earlier this year, Curry has a notable stint on “Tokyo Drift” by British act Glass Animals.

For those who are new to Glass Animals, the four piece creates essentially a genre-bending musical mix of pop, R&B, trip hop, and everything in the middle – think Mazzy Star meets Portugal the Man over woozy electronic beats. On “Tokyo Drifting”, the dizzy trap beats and disorienting lyrics do indeed bring to mind a fast, nighttime drive through the glittering streets of Tokyo. And the best part, honestly, is Curry’s fast-and-furious verse right in the middle.

2. “Don’t Look at the Sun (Or You’ll Go Blind)” by Pond

So we’re cheating a little bit here: “Don’t Look at the Sun (Or You’ll Go Blind)” by Perth-based psych rockers is technically a song from their debut, Psychedelic Mango, way back in 2009. However, the song was rerecorded and released as a single on their Sessions live album from earlier this month, so we are considering it fair play.

With the heady reverb and thick basslines, “Don’t Look at the Sun” right from the outset sounds a lot like Tame Impala. We know we make that comparison that a lot – Tame is a solid reference point for lots of new music – but in Pond’s case, the comparison is not accidental. Pond and Tame Impala enjoy a revolving door of Perth-based musicians that play pretty much across both bands, including Kevin Parker himself, who used to drum for Pond. Basically, it’s no accident that “Don’t Look at the Sun”, with its groovy breaks and Doppler-effect vocals, feels like it would fit right in on Lonerism.

If you liked this song, we highly recommend you check out Pond’s 2019 album Tasmania – the eighth (!) full-length album from the good folks Down Under.

1. “Arabesque” by Coldplay

Like the Pond song earlier, this one is a little bit of a cheat too. As our avid readers would no doubt recall, we mentioned “Arabesque” as the paired single with “Orphans” in last month’s Playlist. However, since both songs feature on the band’s new album Everyday Life, out on November 22nd, we are once again considering this fair play.

Everyday Life overall is imbued with the mystique, romanticism and inimitable beauty of the Mediterranean-meets-Middle-East – the broad swathe of countries across the culturally complex top half of Africa. In fact, the essence can be summed up precisely by the name of this very song, “Arabesque” – a little Arabic, a little French, and many other things too.

On “Arabesque”, Chris Martin and the lads do justice to this complexity with a jazzy, bilingual track that elicits a Casablancan air of exotic joie de vivre. The lyrics themselves are not complex: “I could be you, you could be me / Two raindrops in the same sea,” sings Martin across English and French, perhaps speaking to the ultimate commonality in the basic human experience. But it’s the delivery – the band at their liveliest and most exuberant – that really makes the song for us. The best way to experience this song is through its accompanying live music video (which, in fact, was released this month, so I suppose we get points for that?):

Earl Sweatshirt – FEET OF CLAY

28 Nov

Earl Sweatshirt has built a solid pocket of rap for himself. He makes muddy, complex, punishing rap in a way that no one else even really attempts. FEET OF CLAY however may have taken it too far.

His muttered, submerged raps are as awe-inspiring as ever. He puts together sounds and words in a way that’s simultaneously muddy and evocative, like scrying in a swamp. It’s singular and cohesive and often somewhat punishing as a result. He has such complex bars with lyricism as unique as it is skilled.

The punishment was always sort of the point, but this is the one where it feels a little unjustified. The album is just too dense and lacks the reward of a “Chum” or a “Grief” to really pay off the effort. If you’re an Earl Sweatshirt fan, then you already know that you should give this album a couple of spins, but if not, this is not the place to jump in.

Vampire Weekend – Father of the Bride

25 Nov

In May of this year, indie pop-rock mainstays Vampire Weekend released their fourth full-length album, Father of the Bride. We are aware, yes, that we are a little late with this review; but with the end of the year coming up fast, we thought it best to close the loop on some albums that we haven’t gotten around to reviewing just yet.

Vampire Weekend burst onto the scene, almost literally, with a sparkling, eponymous debut album about a decade ago. Their sound was a mystifying mix of mainstream and hipster – think clean-cut prep school kid with surprisingly deep life experiences. That first album had songs like “Oxford Comma”, literally devoted to a grammatical element (but a hipster one!), and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”, a juxtaposition of idyllic New England summers and Congolese dance.

The next two albums, Contra (2010) and Modern Vampires of the City (2013), had a similarly well-traveled mishmash of sights and sounds, with hits like “Horchata” and “Diane Young”. Although their sound was a little more grown-up, the essence remained intact. Things are now different, though, with the departure of one Rostam Batmanglij.

Vampire Weekend, in its original iteration, was a four-piece consisting of vocalist / guitarist Ezra Koenig, guitarist Batmanglij, bassist Chris Baio, and drummer Chris Tomson. Koenig and Batmanglij had a great song-writing partnership. Batmanglij’s wildly creative, global influences provided, in our minds, the X-factor to the band’s otherwise tidy sound. In January 2016, Batmanglij left the band to pursue solo projects – and this is the first Vampire Weekend album without him.

Vampire Weekend without Batmanglij essentially becomes an Ezra Koenig project. That’s not necessarily always a bad thing. For one, Koenig’s ability to write a great indie pop song is perhaps unrivalled today. Also, Koenig now has a celebrity status (see: has a child with girlfriend Rashida Jones, has a Netflix series and an Apple Music radio show) that allows him to pull together a galaxy of musical guests onto the project. The end result, however, is pleasant, charming, polite – and ultimately a bore.

Our readers may be surprised by this assessment; we have, over the past year, done our fair share of gushing over the album’s singles (see here and here). When all the pieces are put together, however, Father of the Bride paints a different picture. It’s the soundtrack to your child’s pastel-themed second-birthday-party. It’s the backdrop to the flowery end of a romcom. It is the sound of entering your mid-thirties considerably less cool than you were in your twenties – albeit armed with a sensible savings account and a postcard-perfect house.

Father of the Bride is packed with fantastic, beautiful songs that deserve to be heard. There are some truly beautiful riffs on here, from the bright “Sunflower” to the deft “Harmony Hall” . Danielle Haim of HAIM joins Koenig for three pretty duets, most notably on the folksy opener “Hold You Now”. It’s a great album – just don’t expect the old Vampire Weekend.

Best songs: “Harmony Hall”, “Sunflower”, “This Life”

FKA Twigs – MAGDALENE

18 Nov

FKA Twigs has long made some of the most interesting pop out there, but MAGDALENE is a full step above her earlier work. It’s easily her best album to date and one of the best albums of the year. She’s sharper, she’s more cohesive and this album just bangs.

There are the obvious parts, “holy terrain” works very well with the Future feature. The trap beat plays nicely against her voice and Future is perfectly understated. The heart of the album is in the thousands of little moments. There’s a beautiful vocal fragment to end “mary magdalene” and the pulsations of “fallen alien” are consuming and intense.

The album even works in the much slower “mirrored heart” and it fits expertly. The feedback in it adds a surprising heft and her lyrics are cutting. Coming as this album did, after a major break-up and a major surgery, it could have easily been a sledgehammer of an album, but her restraint makes the moments that reference the turmoil all the more powerful. Her finesse here is astonishing.

There are a few missteps in “home with you” and “daybed”, which just don’t do enough, but there is much more of note, like the beautiful and clever “sad day”. This is an album from an absurdly talented artist at the height of her powers and an album you don’t want to miss.

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