Following up his excellent early 2011 LP Space is Only Noise, minimal electronic artist Nicolas Jaar released to short, but very good, EPs near the end of last year. The first EP is self-titled, released under his Darkside moniker, that is more sleek and dark than Space is Only Noise. Don’t Break My Love, released under his given name, follows the ambient textures of Noise more closely.
Don’t Break my Love is essentially a single released as an EP. The title track is the A-Side; “Why Didn’t You Save Me” serves as the B-side. “Don’t Break My Love” is classic Jaar, building itself with drum clicks wrapped in static; soft, wobbly synths; and disjointed vocals. The track is a wistful mix of spooky and alluring moments. The curveball comes five minutes into the track, when the music drops out and demented neo-soul sweeps through the speakers. Once you get over the abrupt shock, it is as funky and commanding as you would ever suspect from Jaar. “Don’t Break My Love” sounds like an outtake from Noise and is a good continuation of his work, even if it isn’t the most arresting track he has ever written.
The real highlight, for me, is the dark, avant-noir stutter of the three song Darkside EP. The tracks seem tailor made for your next car-heist movie, slinky and detached while still packing a forceful punched. Simply named “A1,” “A2,” and “A3,” the collection is a masterstroke in minimal electronic funk. It’s possessed with the kind of restrained urgency that makes you clench your fists and stomp your feet, ready at any moment for the unsuspected twist around the corner. The songs are all tight and rigid, equally suited for a headphone phase-out as a dark and sweaty dance floor. Letting the bass line pulse through the songs and utilizing cutting guitar stabs, Jaar proves he is fully capable of bringing the funk when he wants to, even if his forte is in wandering the nebulous ether of synthscapes.
Both releases serve as excellent addendum to Space is Only Noise and further encouragement for those who haven’t checked out Jaar yet to hop on the bandwagon. While Don’t Break My Love cements his mastery, the Darkside EP is the real stunner, and—importantly—shows that Jaar is more than a one-trick pony. Both are streaming below—two crystal clear examples of why Jaar is one of the most exciting young artists (he is 22) currently working in electronic music.
On her follow-up to 2010’s 1977, Chilean/French rapper Ana Tijoux further explores the nascent jazz/hip hop fusion aesthetic of that record. While 1977 found a balance between hard-hitting rhymes and sultry beats, La Bala tips the scales toward jazz and R&B. Though an extremely capable rapper, Tijoux spends almost as much time on La Bala singing as she does rapping—similar to what we recently heard on Doomtree emcee Dessa’s A Broken Code. La Bala’s most lively rapping can’t even be attributed to Tijoux—a guest rapper from Los Aldeanos takes that prize with some fierce wordsmithing on “Si Te Preguntan,” on which Tijoux mainly sings the chorus (though she does rap a verse toward the song’s back end).
And while there isn’t anything wrong with Tijoux’s singing voice, there also isn’t anything all that special about it. Tijoux brings a fiery passion to her Spanish-language verses when she does rap them. As singer her vocals are merely good without being captivating. Despite a weaker vocal ability, several songs off of La Bala are bound to evoke some comparisons to a “Latin Erykah Badu” (particularly smooth jazz number “Quizas”). Generally, Tijoux strikes a fine enough balance between rapping and singing that her strengths in the former mask any weakness in the latter. In fact, the line between rapping and singing is often blurred to the point of not really being able to pin the sound down firmly in either camp.
When Tijoux does break out and rap, the results are often mesmerizing and enchanting. Titular track “La Bala” and “Las Cosas Por Su Nombre” are both standout singles in which Tijoux shines with expertly calibrated rhyme schemes. The record’s production shines as well—La Bala is drenched in sultry strings (similar in style to Janelle Monae’s recent ArchAndroid) that are the silky smooth foil to Tijoux’s hard-edged words. (However, again, when she sings, the juxtaposition effect is lost.) The beats and sampling also are generally executed well—though “Shock” occasionally falls into the all-too-common trap/trope (in Latin hip hop) of sounding like a Manu Chao song.
If my complaints about Tijoux’s singing voice turn you off, don’t dismiss the album outright–on La Bala Tijoux is as fine a singer as most around, and La Bala is a very successful fusion of jazz and rap. In a world where celebrated female emcees are still rare, though, it can be difficult to see one of the genre’s brightest stars drifting towards the jazz vocal category (which has been brimming with females since Billie Holiday and beyond). It’s Tijoux’s choice though—she’s got the talent to become a great rapper or, in all likelihood, a great singer. My own predisposition biases me towards the former, but I have to admit La Bala shows that Tijoux has got some talent in the latter as well.
Minneapolis duo Tender Meat specializes in gritty, pulse-pounding electronica that combines a sort of free-jazz mentality with a Nintendo-on-acid aesthetic. Until recently their only widely available full length recording was a live album recorded at the 2010 Heliotrope Festival entitled Ritz on the Fritz. Ritz managed to capture the wild, loose energy of Tender Meat’s show while maintaining a degree of audio fidelity that is rare in low-budget live recordings. And considering how good the band is live, when I heard that their newest effort, a record entitled Ripper’s World, would be a studio recording I approached it with some degree of trepidation.
Thankfully though, Tender Meat sounds every bit as crazy in the studio as they ever did in a live setting. Ripper’s World flows with kind of cohesion that almost sounds as if the whole thing was recorded in a single take. And if that is the case, it must have been one furiously manic recording. Despite actual track breaks (something Ritz lacked) Ripper’s World manages to never lose its momentum.
The tape starts with the crackly-static bomb “Brawler’s Bay,” and goes on to fill the following forty minutes with a sound that is futuristically weird while maintaining a grimy low-tech façade. The space of that time is crammed with a brilliant kaleidoscope of electronic exotica: field recordings, steam hisses, bizarre sampling, and 8-bit grooves, not to mention a whole lot more. Standout track “Cockpit Dread” contains a furious collection of rhythms – some electronic, some real drums, that combine for a sound that could melt paint off the walls. The follow up “Funnel” is no slouch either – it contains an amazing array of electronic noise, all composed around an 8-bit beat that sounds as if it was lifted from Konami’s Ninja Turtles Arcade game (I was actually convinced it was but a lengthy search seems to have proved me wrong).
Another major difference between the new material and Ritz is that in the studio recording, Tender Meat does occasionally give the listener a little space to breathe. “If I am, I am I am” slows the album’s pace for a gloomy, dread-filled minute before “Jungle Stalker” ratchets the tension back up with a minimalist beat that utilizes pastoral field recordings to put the “jungle” into the “stalk.” “Tetsuo Shima” (named for the Akira anime character) also pulses with an atmospheric groove that is less in-your-face than the sound I have previously come to associate with the band. Ripper’s World also never shies away from the bizarre – most notably in final track “Zuckerberg Vs. Winklevoss” which contains samples drawn from the infamous Facebook trial case.
While Ritz made me admire Tender Meat for their ability to take the listener on a relentless thrill-ride, the wider range of Ripper’s World makes for a much more dynamic listen. The live format is excellent for capturing the excitement of non-stop bangers, however the studio has freed Tender Meat to explore a much more interesting spectrum of sounds and textures. Ripper’s World really shows that not only are Tender Meat masters of the electronic sledgehammer, they are also artists who are capable of fine, nuanced details.
Flashback Friday is a continuation of our Do Look Back series, in which we took time to look back at albums that are older, forgotten, or just plain undervalued albums from the past and give them a fresh listen. Our first Flashback Friday is the 1970 LP People are Together by soul artist Mickey Murray, an LP being re-issued by the local label Secret Stash.
It would be easy to make this review about the event and spectacle of Mickey Murray, of his record getting picked out of the dustbin of history and re-released by local imprint Secret Stash Records, and especially of his one-off show Saturday night at the Cedar in celebration of said re-issue—but I’m going to stick to the music. No matter the local pomp and circumstance around the release, if the record was a dud, it would put a definite damper on the festivities. Luckily the record is a resounding success. Hearing it actually makes the fact that it has been languishing in the shadows for more than four decades even more mysterious.
While Murray was brought in to take the place of James Brown on the King Record Label, his sound is definitely more refined and subdued than the work of the deceased King of Soul. The tracks on People are Together cover a range of soul music, from the gentle “Try a Little Harder” to the more upbeat material like the swampy organ-driven funk of “Fever” and the funky “Ace of Spades,” a song chock-full of sharp horns and impassioned vocals. Like many singers at the time, the album has tracks written and previously performed by other artists. The highlights are the shuffling funk of “Fat Girl,” an Otis Redding song, and the borderline psychedelic, wah-heavy take on the Motown classic “Money (That’s What I Want).” Interestingly, part of the story why the album wasn’t widely released is that the title track was too racially-progressive in 1970 for southern black DJs to play. I assumed before listening that it would be a riotous, hellfire-and-brimstone song. I was wrong. “People are Together” is a solemn, heartfelt track about working towards equality. It fits alongside the impassioned work of Sam Cooke and Mavis Staples as a song that is both depressing in light of the social reality and uplifting in the espirited people who continued to fight. It pains your heart to think that a song with a message as simple and clear as “People are Together” was not only ignored, it was purposely swept under the rug. The song is the epicenter of the record, tying together the album and really cutting open a vein to highlight Murray’s thoughtful, unadulterated lyrics and powerful singing in a way that should have made him a gigantic star.
In a surprise to no one, the world isn’t fair. Mickey Murray and his excellent LP did not get the credit they deserved. Luckily, we have labels like Secret Stash around that not only do the time-intensive crate-digging for records like this, but reproduce them so they can get into as many people’s hands and minds as possible. People Are Together is a profound and powerful record that also manages to be funky and fun—a success that somehow slipped through the cracks, but is seeing the light of day again—still as relevant and entertaining as the day it was recorded.
If you missed our interview with Secret Stash about the back-story on this album and some info on the one-shot concert they are flying Murray in for on Saturday, read the interview HERE.
The paint is barely dry on his excellent cassette, Time Giver and his late 2011 collection Desolations, but Jon Davis, aka Ghostband, is back in the saddle with another release. The latest release from the mercurial electronic soundscapist is the glitchy electronica of Husbandry, which he dropped yesterday on his Bandcamp page. The eight songs are mellow and subdued, with dusty dubstep beats and unwieldy synths weaving through the collection. As always, it is an engrossing collection of songs and a piece of art easy to get lost in. While I’m still finding my way around his last few releases, Husbandry is another notch in his belt and proof that patience isn’t always a virtue. Stream the record below or download it at the “name your price” price-point on the Ghostband Bandcamp page.
My introduction to Silky Johnson came via a comparison to my favorite beats producer du jour, Clams Casino, which is a risky way to find out about a new artist. Positively, I sought out this free beat tape from an artist that I ended up liking quite a bit. But on the worrisome end of the spectrum, this mixtape, in my mind, was competing with the amazing Rainforest EP and Instrumentals LP that Clams Casino released last year (the latter comfortably snuggling into my 10 favorite records of 2011).
My disdain with most current rappers has led me head-on into beat tapes, and Silky Johnson’s is one of the most fun tapes I have heard recently. Not as dramatic as Dilla or weird as Madlib, Hater of the Year is a joyous, silky and lush collection of __ jams. Album opener “Fuck the Money” is all arms-in-the-air euphoria, while other tracks range from the slippery groove of “Everything” to the stuttering beat and dark soul samples of “Fast Life.” The thing I like most about Hater of the Year is that it never feels like just a collection of his best beats or a hollow cadaver in search of some thick rhymes. The rich collection of songs stand up by themselves, although I am sure more than a few rappers would love to jump on most of the beats. While there is a lot of pretty standard “rap” beats, there are also songs like “Felicity” that meld clapping beats and lush synth flourishes in the style that makes Clams Casino’s work so appealing.
Many rap beat tapes can sound like they are either just songs scrubbed of vocals or tracks that really need a vocal hook to drive them forward. The best beat tapes are stand-alone efforts that don’t need anything but the music to tell a story. They are the kind of tracks that if, say, Ghostface, Black Thought, or Brother Ali jumped on them, yes, they would sound great, but the rappers would just be icing on the cake. Hater of the Year meets those standards in spades and is a highly enjoyable, fully realized beat tape that will put Silky Johnson on the map. You can stream the tape below. Otherwise, he is giving away the record for free download HERE.
I’ve become something of a closeted post-rock fan; pining for the first couple of years when Explosions in the Sky really meant something, trying to avoid the use of the word “crescendo” in casual conversation. Leading a double-life is hard, especially when the genre that turned you into the person you are today has become a clichéd, hollow-out version of its former self. “I don’t want to be that,” I think to myself, “I don’t want to be a cliché of myself.” Nevertheless, when I hear solid post-rock song, I can’t help but bear my soul to the world (or at least to the sliver of Minneapolis’ music community that reads Reviler.)
That’s especially true when the band enlists a couple of members that set down guitars in favor of traditional string or brass instruments. Enter, Group of the Altos. This dodecatet (yeah, that’s right, twelve members) rocks the weeping catharsis like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sparrows Swarm and Sing, or A Northern Chorus in their prime, with forlorn strings creaking behind an impromptu ensemble of earnest-to-goodness singers. The Milwaukee-based collective, led by Daniel Spack of Collections of Colonies of Bees and Volcano Choir, combines folk storytelling with epic composition, dragon-breath jazz, and frigid minimalism.
Take a listen to the groups sorta-self-titled EP, Altos, below.
It’s interesting how your expectations can shape your enjoyment of an album. When I listened to Cate Le Bon’s sophomore effort, Cyrk, I did so with a set of expectations. (Or “hopes” might be the better term.) I hoped that Le Bon would pursue an acid-folk direction in the tradition of the ’60s psychedelic Welsh scene that (in part) inspired her (Le Bon is from Wales). Her last record, Me Oh My,struck a fine balance between pop and acid folk, and with Cyrk I was hoping she would do more to tip the scales. Indeed the new record tipped the scales, just not in the opposite direction I was hoping. Cyrk is a collection of pop rock tunes more in the tradition of Stephen Malkmus than Welsh Rare Beat. For a while, this stylistic coup had me convinced that Cyrk was a lesser album. However, free from those oppressive expectations, I might think differently.
While Cyrk may not be as closely aligned with my own tastes as I would like, I have to admit that Le Bon has crafted some pretty fine pop gems. Synthesizer-driven tracks like the titular “Cyrk” and “Fold the Cloth” contain some incredibly catchy hooks, in addition to enough unstructured weirdness to keep them from sounding conventional. “Julia” even features some pure moments of noise freakout.
Le Bon also seems to have found more confidence with the guitar (perhaps in part to sharing a tour with St. Vincent last summer). Lead track “Falcon Eye” demonstrates Le Bon has the chops to take a strong guitar lead, though she still generally leans on the synths for more adventurous forays. “Ploughing Out Pt. 2” is another good example: aggressive but steady guitar licks over a rollercoaster synth ride.
To my great relief, Le Bon hasn’t completely abandoned acid folk either. Her Nico-esque vocals still give very tune a psychedelic vibe, as do her bizarre and occasionally mystical lyricism. “Greta” drips with dreamy, surreal mood, and Le Bon employs a mix of rambling piano chords, trumpets, and her distinctly unorthodox enunciation to great success. “The Man I Wanted” also hums with a low-key, Velvets-vibe that Le Bon makes her own.
Cyrk may not exactly be the record that I was hoping to hear. For a finely-crafted pop record with psychedelic undertones, though, I do believe it is a success. While my own preference would be to hear Le Bon dive headfirst down the rabbit hole of psychedelic weirdness, I have a feeling that most listeners will prefer it her way. If Cyrk keeps growing on me, I may even eventually be inclined to take that stance as well.
Cate Le Bon will be opening for Veronica Falls on 2/17 at the 7th Street Entry.