Royal Blood – How Did We Get So Dark?

15 Dec

Royal Blood

In 2014, Royal Blood was the subject of a massive amount of hype. On the back of a truly electric debut, the band rapidly built a fanbase comprising drunk teenagers, rockstars and living legends alike, and Royal Blood truly deserved all the hype. Their music is elemental testosterone with enough energy to consume stadiums, but it shocks the senses to realize that the sound comes from two people. Mike Kerr shreds a distorted bass to fill the dual role of a guitar and a bass, while being canny enough to sing great tunes as well. Ben Thatcher launches an array of weapons into your eardrums through, well, his drums. And that’s it. No other instruments, no other people.

Royal Blood sounded like the perfect mix of a grittier White Stripes, a leaner Queens of the Stone Age and a more masculine Franz Ferdinand. How Did We Get So Dark?, their sophomore album, doesn’t stray too far from the formula, but don’t get us wrong – that’s a good thing. While most bands tour to promote their new album, Royal Blood literally releases new music to get more people to come to their live shows. So yes, this album feels similar to the first, but that’s entirely by design. And given the fact that the moshpits have gotten bigger and crazier, we’d say Royal Blood is doing very well.

While the sound is similar, their talent has really progressed. The eponymous track starts off with the three Royal Blood tenets – sneering voice, magnetic riff, crazy drumming – but picks up texture through polished vocal layers. “She’s Creeping” slows down the pace, with Pixies-style languid vocals melting into an almost bluesy chorus. If you soften the bass, “Hole in Your Heart” almost becomes radio-friendly indie rock, a la Kaiser Chiefs or the Killers.

The lyrics have changed, too. Royal Blood seethed with the violence of an abusive relationship (“I’ve got a gun for my mouth and a bullet with your name on it,” went one memorable line), but they seemed to have moved on to a richer story. The title track paints a picture of a fitful relationship, and we learn on “Sleep” and “I Only Lie When I Love You” that both parties are cheating on one another. Kerr realizes that she’s not much beyond her looks (“Lights Out”) but he can’t just stay away (“Hook, Line & Sinker”).

Of course, being a Royal Blood album, the lyrics matter only to a certain extent. At the heart of it, the band makes absolutely kicker songs that can rev up large masses of humanity into a rock-induced frenzy. “Lights Out”, for lesser bands, would be a career-defining array of riffs and raw sex appeal; for Royal Blood, it’s just their first single. The opening riff on “Hook, Line & Sinker” might elicit a tear of pride from Ozzy’s eye. The galloping drums on “Where Are You Now?” give way to a riff so classic-rock that the Stones are probably head-banging to it somewhere. Need we go on?

On their sophomore album, Kerr and Thatcher espouse a very similar sound to their lean debut album, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Queens of the Stone Age continue to be a key touchpoint for Royal Blood’s sound, but there’s a happy evolution in the vocals, writing and arrangement to portend a thrilling future.

Best songs: “Lights Out”, “I Only Lie When I Love You”, “How Did We Get So Dark?”

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Spoon – Hot Thoughts

12 Dec

Hot thoughts

No band embodies the idea of independent rock better than Spoon. Since 1996, the Austin band has churned out a great album every two to three years (see: Gimme Fiction, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga).

Every other band with similar discography and enduring success (U2, RHCP) inevitably seems to fall prey to arena rock and millions-strong fan followings. Not Spoon though. They don’t wear leather pants. They don’t talk about their fame in songs. They never moved en masse to LA or NYC; one of them still lives in Austin, where he’s been a key element of the city’s music scene for decades. After all these years, Spoon’s self-worth seems to stem not from the limelight, but from an innate source of cool. And that’s what makes them truly indie rock.

Lead man Britt Daniel doesn’t like the “indie rock” label, though, and it kind of makes sense. In in our present understanding of the term, indie rock often refers to great-sounding upstarts that shot to fame through a combination of luck, marketing and the Internet – but whether their fame endures beyond the debut is a different matter. Spoon grew up in a different world, painstakingly building their sound (and fan base) without sacrificing their passion.

Hot Thoughts, their ninth full-length album, is the latest fruit of this passion. It’s full of the typical Spoon sound – punchy drums, wailing guitars, feverish bass lines and Daniel’s megaphone-via-voicemail singing style – peppered with a certain Spoon-y quirkiness that makes it a unique new album in their discography.

It’s the quirky details that make the songs stick: the first listen may entertain, but the fourth will truly intoxicate. On “Do I Have to Talk You into It”, the swaggering drums over a nervy piano are enough to make a great song, but Daniel’s idiosyncratic renditions of the song title is what stays with you. He shimmies up and down the scale one time; shout-asks in another; fades into the overpowering drums in a third; a magnetic presence on a magnetic track.

One of the verses on “First Caress” talks about a girl who likes to tell Daniel that coconut milk and coconut water are the same thing; it’s such a weird detail, but you somehow end up replaying the song just to hear him say that line. “Pink Up” has a dreamy, atmospheric sound, full of light xylophone touches and folksy maracas, as Daniel exhorts the listener to live life in the moment by taking the train to Marrakesh.

Of course, Spoon isn’t all about the quirk – some of their songs are just pure rock classics. The eponymous song is a good old-fashioned paean to a girl who gives Daniel some sexy ideas, set over fretty licks and Jim Eno’s confident drums. The frenetic energy of the drums and bass on “Shotgun” could and probably will incite a riot at some point, which is fitting because it’s about getting into fisticuffs. “Can I Sit Next to You” thumps along to a funk guitar and dance beats, a strutting theme song to Daniel’s unabashed pick-up line (“Can I sit next to you? Can you sit next to me?”).

Hot Thoughts is a very enjoyable album through and through by the guys who basically invented the genre. You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t give it a listen.

Best songs: “Do I Have to Talk You Into It”, “Can I Sit Next to You”, “Shotgun”

Moses Sumney – Aromanticism

10 Dec

Moses Sumney is a 27-year-old from Los Angeles, but he doesn’t belong at that intersection of space and time in so many ways. While his fellow millennials are eager to jump in – and out – of relationships at literally the touch of a button, Sumney is hesitant to move forward even with someone who loves him. He’s introspective, melancholic and shy to the point of physical discomfort – clashing garishly with the showy extraversion of LA. Sumney doesn’t fit in, and he can’t bring himself to be vulnerable enough to love someone, despite his human need for affection. And worst of all, he’s aware of all of this. The culmination of these themes is his debut full-length album, Aromanticism.

Although the premise may sound too depressing to warrant a listen, Aromanticism is actually a gorgeous and immensely repeatable album. Sumney has an ethereal voice that is amplified in beauty by a moody guitar and a masterful falsetto. His gossamer-silky vocals twist, snake and turn, in line with the churning thoughts in Sumney’s deeply introverted mind. He’s also a great writer; Aromanticism is full of evocative metaphors, references, and a penchant for the dramatic.

Take, for example, the first single “Plastic”. Within the first minute, Sumney’s voice effortlessly flutters across half a hundred notes as he sympathizes with a fellow lonely soul (“I know what it’s like to behold and not be held”) over a barebones guitar strum. He reveals his secret at the end of the sole verse (“My wings are made of plastic”), sung a dozen times but each so nuanced that the message sinks in twelve times deeper. Orchestral drama then segues his other big reveal: “My wings are made up, and so am I”. Sumney is a present-day Icarus, complete with plastic wings to replace the wax of yore. His fragile attempts to connect to another human often end with the melting of his metaphorical wings – and himself, too.

“Quarrel” takes place during one of these wing-melting moments. It’s an achingly beautiful song – a choir of layered voices (all Sumney) blend quite luxuriously with the harp. “He who asks for much has much to give / I don’t ask for much, just enough to live” goes the opening doublet – Sumney tries to keep a low profile in relationships, because he can’t be vulnerable enough to give someone else a lot of love. Unfortunately for him, his lover seems to have put his fragile soul at edge. “If I don’t have tools to fight, calling this a quarrel isn’t right,” he laments, before sinking into the almost-indignant chorus (“Don’t call it a lovers’ quarrel”).

Experiences like these have made Sumney sort of anti-love over the years. In his own words, Aromanticism is a rejection of “the idea that romance is normative and necessary”. But it’s clear that he does wonder about what it means for him, long-term, as a human being that cannot love. “Am I vital if my heart is idle?” he wonders on “Doomed”, so plaintively that it’s impossible to not share his fear.

However, as we’ve stated before, don’t be disheartened by his melancholy, because this man literally has the voice of an angel. His languishing wails on songs like “Lonely World” are almost enough to make one weep, and his falsetto alone has more range than most artists’ singing range. Aromanticism is a flawless debut by a deeply tortured genius.

* In case you were wondering about the album cover, it seems to be a reference to Plato’s Symposium, in which Aristophanes posits that humans were once four-legged, four-armed, and double-sexed, but Zeus cut them in half. Since then, humans have been trying to find their “other halves”, but Moses is pictured on the album cover as a human that’s missing his complementary half. More info here.

Best songs: “Quarrel”, “Plastic”

SiR – Her Too

8 Dec

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R&B has been making quite the quiet comeback over the past few years. It’s not as flashy as the stuff that’s going on in the rap world, but it’s definitely there. This EP from SiR, the new TDE signee, is a brief burst of traditional R&B and a quite good one at that.

The standout here is the wonderful “Ooh Nah Nah”. Full of a soft heat and absurdly languorous, the song is just captivating. Additionally, Anderson.Paak shows up well in the opener “New LA” and is fun as always. I keep coming back to the closer “W$ Boi” though. It’s almost entirely the chorus, which is nothing more than a chant of the words “I’m a Westside Boi”, but imbued with serious energy.

At nothing more than 18 minutes, this EP is compact in all the best ways. SiR’s debut album has yet to drop, but he’s already clearly an artist to watch.

@murthynikhil

Future & Young Thug – SUPER SLIMEY

2 Dec

A collaboration between Young Thug and Future is something that always seemed in the cards. These two Atlantans are probably the biggest young rappers out there this side of Kendrick Lamar. Stylistically, there is quite a difference between Thugger’s yelps and Future’s growls, but the meeting felt inevitable. Now that it’s here, the result is sadly a little less than the sum of the parts, but that total is still plenty.

When they play off each other, such as in the excellent transition between verses in “Three” or build one another up, like in “No Cap”, where Future builds into Thugger who then sets up Future perfectly, this is truly fantastic music. However, “Cruise Ship” is one of the strongest songs in the album despite having no Future in it at all. It’s just classic Thugger. Meanwhile, “Drip On Me” feels entirely like a Future joint. Young Thug is actually quite good here, but it’s really the murkiness of Future that animates this song. Similarly, “Group Home” lies squarely in Future’s drug-hazed lane, and Young Thug is just a little out of place.

The talent is undeniable here. When it clicks, it’s great and when it doesn’t, it’s still fine. This isn’t the strongest work from either artist, but it is a testament to their current powers how good it is anyway.

@murthynikhil

Top Five Rap Albums of 2017 That We Didn’t Want To Write A Full Review Of

28 Nov

There’s been a lot of music out this year and it’s easy for some albums to fall to wayside. Here, we’re going to go over five albums that didn’t lend themselves well to a full review, but that we still wanted to talk about.

FLACO – WKRFRMHME

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We didn’t get a chance to cover the previous FLACO album Gunsforgirls when it came out. This one is not quite as good as their debut, but it is still reasonable and has some clever lines. However, it doesn’t have anything strong enough to push you to seek it out. It’s far too self-indulgent and so is occasionally grating and occasionally repetitive. It’s mostly just solid rap though.

Amine – Good For You

“Spice Girl” is actually very good. It’s a very clever song with an imaginative and catchy hook and is from far enough left field to still make me smile. It’s one of my favorite songs of the year.

Stand-out single aside, “Slide” is reasonably fun, as is “STFU”. There are some other interesting things, like moments of “Heebiejeebies” scattered through the album. Unfortunately, the whole is mostly bland. The single is great though.

Chief Keef – Thot Breaker

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Thot Breaker is fun and listenable. It’s just not really interesting.

Big Boi – BOOMIVERSE

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It’s a shame to put someone with the history of Big Boi in a list like this, but that is where he is now. It’s been a while since OutKast defined Atlanta rap, even if this album would have you still believe that its still the late ‘90s. Big Boi is unabashedly retro here and some of his collaborators play along masterfully. Snoop is smooth as always and Killer Mike shows up well in “Made Man” and “Kill Jill”. This is the style of music that really lets both of them shine. Bringing in the more current Gucci Mane feels off however and the resulting song “In The South” is just irritating to hear.

Leaving aside a couple of misfires, this is actually a solid album. It never comes close to the highs of OutKast’s best, but is still a reasonable addition to the legacy of one of the most storied rappers ever.

KOOL A.D – Sky Ladder

skyLadder

KOOL A.D. is dense and self-referential as always. He’s gotten a bit more experimental than in his Das Racist days. It works in places. “Lapsand Souchang” is quite strong and the jazzy beat works well there. “Glitch Hoperatical” is definitely interesting, but sometimes ends up being more noise than signal. “The Basement” makes a good point when it states that music criticism is a fictional occupation, but he lost all of his hipster credentials when he got the plural of haiku wrong, so I’m just going to ignore that. There’s some reasonable stuff here, but nothing stands out. Rap has grown more interesting, but it feels a little like Kool A.D. is standing still.

@murthynikhil

Hurray For The Riff Raff – The Navigator

18 Nov

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The Navigator is a breathtakingly ambitious album. It draws from a dizzying number of influences, to produce a distinctly New York Puerto Rican rock album. This is lively and unexpected at every point and deftly weaves in a tremendous amount of emotion, especially in the slower steamroller of a song “Pa’lante.”

The music is deeply varied, to the point where even a single song cannot be pinned down to even a family of ideas. The crooning in “Finale” shifts to percussion in a way that should feel abrupt but somehow works flawlessly. “Rican Beach” somehow melds together what feels like fifteen different layers, all of which are interesting enough to carry it alone, into a single juggernaut of a song.

This is one of the most intriguing albums that I’ve heard this year simply due to how far out of left-field it is from. In addition, it’s just eminently listenable. I cannot imagine the person who would not benefit from trying it out.

@murthynikhil

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