Frank Ocean: Channel Orange Review (Four Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Four reactions, Four impressions, Four Takes on Chanel Orange by Frank Ocean.
Michael Herriges (Midwest Broadcast)
Frank Ocean has been a central figure in music news since a few weeks ago when he shared his beautiful and courageous “coming out” letter. Since then, the private and esoteric Ocean has made very public waves through a myriad of stories — his Fallon performance of “Bad Religion”, releasing Channel ORANGE early on iTunes, Target not carrying his CD, and countless reviewers declaring it an early album of the year candidate (perhaps a bit overzealously). But in the end all of this would be irrelevant, if not for the fact that Channel ORANGE is, in fact, a truly stunning debut album, and among the best to be released in 2012.
In a year where R&B traditionalists like Usher and R.Kelly have gotten praise for new albums, I’ll take Ocean’s hipster brand of nu-R&B instead. Channel ORANGE is all over the place sonically. There’s the meandering keyboards of “Sweet Life,” the throwback 90s R&B featured on “Thinkin About You” and other songs, the orchestral strings on “Bad Religion” and the futuristic funk of the epic 10-minute opus “Pyramids.” Unlike many reviewers of the album, I was thrown off by this dissonance at first, and felt disappointed by the album. But each new listen of Channel ORANGE finds me loving it more, and now I think it holds together as an album remarkably well.
This is due to the fact that Ocean has already vaulted himself into an elite group of contemporary songwriters. The songs on Channel ORANGE cover a wide range of themes and topics: life in high society, drug abuse (and its relation with the previous theme) and love, both found and unreturned. Gender is unimportant in most of these songs; Ocean’s strength is writing songs that are universally relatable, yet also rich in meaning. I’ve been listening to Channel ORANGE regularly since it came out, and I still feel like I’m digging deeper with each listen. To me, Channel ORANGE is an album that feels very of the moment, but also the work of a singular talent that I’ll return to for years to come.
Kyle Tran Myhre (Guante)
If you watched Frank Ocean’s virtuoso performance of the song “Bad Religion” on “Late Night,” let me warn you now: this album doesn’t get any better than that track. But that’s not necessarily a criticism; “Bad Religion” is about as good as modern R&B music gets—a beautifully-performed and powerfully poetic, multi-layered song that manages to tackle complex ideas about love and religion and identity inside a straight-forward storytelling frame. It’s smart and ambitious without being art-school pretentious or overly obtuse, and it’s just straight-up gorgeous on top of that.
And while the rest of “Channel Orange” doesn’t come close to reaching that perfect storm of substance, technique and originality, the general pattern still applies: these are R&B songs that do not fit the formula, songs that would rather challenge the audience than pander to them, songs that may not be as immediately catchy as the new Usher or Justin Bieber track, but will undoubtedly reward patient, active listeners, especially those listeners who value substance and poetry.
Other highlights include the sprawling, ambitious “Pyramids,” the slice-of-life profile “Crack Rock” and the California-girl/boy deconstruction “Sweet Life.” All of these songs—and the album as a whole—explore the relationship between addiction, hedonism and unrequited love; I wouldn’t call “Channel Orange” a concept album, but it is impressively cohesive, both musically and thematically. This cohesiveness covers up some of the not-so-strong tracks and creates a strong, holistic hour-long listening experience.
While comparisons to Maxwell and Musiq Soulchild might be more obvious, I’d argue that Ocean draws more from Prince, Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder than any true contemporary, though even those comparisons risk underselling how fresh this album feels. “Channel Orange” is more than “neo-neo-soul;” it’s something truly new and exciting.
While “Nostalgia. Ultra.” caused all the hype for Frank Ocean, it’s easy to see why. This is echoed ten-fold on “Channel Orange” an album that is pretty much psychedelic-and-b styled music. While many people have had time to absorb the hit “Thinkin Bout You,” the 10 minute time travel that is “Pyramids” best describe Ocean’s greatest strengths as a singer – his comforting voice and a flawless falsetto tend to accentuate the production throughout “Channel Orange” whereas you have Andre 3000 doing his best “SpottieOttieDopaLicious” impression on “Pink Matter.” Fellow cohort Earl Sweatshirt stops by on “Super Rich Kids”, and even John Mayer shows up too on “White.”. While the now infamous tumblr post he made has everyone talking, there isn’t any doubt or uncertainty about what “Channel Orange” provides, which is a wonderful time trip further down the rabbit hole of what music should sound like when being as adventurous as Frank is.
Jon Jon Scott (Black Corners)
Odd Future’s soul crooner Frank Ocean released the breakout modern soul record of 2011 with his mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra. Nostalgia, Ultra’s gorgeous melodies showed the promise of a new paradigm by creating a R&B record that reached for the outer limits. Since then, the singer-songwriter has penned tracks for Beyonce, John Legend and made appearances on Kanye West & Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, as well as various music with his Odd Future crew. He has emerged as avoice of a changing generation whose vulnerabilities are on full display. Along with the The Weeknd’s Abel Tesaye, they have changedwhat “R&B” means as they take different paths down the same lane. While Tesaye seduced with his drugged out references, Frank Ocean wins with the charm of a clean cut, golden church kid. On his debut full release Channel Orange, Ocean’s voice commands center-stage with clever production assistance from Om Mas Keith, formerly of Sa Ra Creative. Ocean takes us in a personal journey of his emotions and struggle to find himself with attention to everydetail. That focus is powerful, but sometimes gets caught up in its own artiness.
The feel good summer vibeof “Sweet Life” imagines a prime Stevie Wonder with co-production from Pharrell Williams. “Super Rich Kids” pokes and jabs atrich kids with a cameo from Earl The Sweatshirt over Elton John’sclassic “Bennie and the Jets”. Ocean also explores the darkerdemons on “Pilot Jones” and “Crack Rock” where he offers another bleak view into the epidemic’s effect. On his epic 9 minute “2 songs in 1″ track “Pyramids”, Ocean’s displays passion for watching strippers over a Micheal Jackson style mid-tempo jam that after the five minute mark the track shifts gears into a lush, seductive slowjam.
The emotional centerpiece is the grand indictment, “Bad Religion,” where he questions religious truth, and who can tell someone whom they should love. Drenched in beautiful gospel inspired strings and piano he seeks counsel from a taxi driver. “He said “Allahu Akbar I told him don’t curse me,but boy you need prayer, I guess it couldn’t hurt me. If it brings me to my knees its a bad religion”.Outkast fans are going to go crazy over the subdued space funk of “Pink Matter” with an assist from Andre 3000. Along with some of the skits and having John Mayer on his record there’s many confusing moments like “Fertilizer”,“Forrest Gump”, “Pilot Jones” and “Monks”. There’s alsoa bonus track “Golden Girl” featuring Tyler The Creator that’s surprisingly listenable.
Frank Ocean has made a quite a powerful statement, colored in so many shades of pop music’s kaleidoscope. Whether as keeper of the flame of a Wonder or Prince or as playfulwith the experimental cadences of Kayne West and Fiona Apple. Itseems he was inspired to deliver a great record full of bold confessions, joy, personal tragedy, dark views of city life andbeautiful conceptual narratives. Ocean’s falsetto is rich, nuanced and full of drama. With standout tracks like “Thinking Of You”,“Pyramids”, “Bad Religion”, “Sweet Life” and “PinkMatter” Frank Ocean has arrived as this year’s Bon Iver.
Stream the whole record HERE.
Chromatics: Kill for Love Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Three reactions, Three impressions, Three Takes on Kill for Love by Chromatics.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
Read the Wikipedia page for Chromatics and their bio compares closely to the Libertines in one familiar facet: numerous lineup changes saw the Chromatics go from noisy punk-pop to dreamy shoegaze electro-pop. But the great thing in Chromatics is that regardless of those lineup changes, they have albums that speak volumes. Take, for example, their fourth effort, Kill For Love, a 17-track, 92-minute tour de force that basically carries a torch-bearing standard full of great progressions, such as pulsating kicks and building bass lines in “Back From The Grave,” and the slow but ethereal “Into The Black.” All the while the band remains close-knit, regardless of their line-up changes, and provide us with an album that provides great mid-tempo-energy-ridden songs like “The Page,” and the electro-jam-packed “The Streets Will Never Look The Same.” If there’s one thing that still stands true for Kill for Love, it’s that Chromatics albums all have a different feel. Kill for Love is another notch in the belt of the band’s great discography.
I have been struggling to think of much to say about the new Chromatics record. On one hand, it sounds pleasant enough, if this kind of chill, electronic groove music is your thing. But for me, whenever I listen to it, I find that I can scarcely remember any song after I have heard it. While listening my impression is, “yeah, this is nice,” though nothing sticks out about it enough for it to not be instantly forgettable. (I seem to have the same issue with most of the output on the Italians Do It Better label.) They consistently put out stuff that gets respect, but it just doesn’t really interest me. If my opinion sounds a little vague, I guess that’s kind of how I feel about the entire record. Vaguely dancy. Vaguely pop. Female vocals that are good but not so good as to really stick out. There are too many great albums out there to waste a lot of time banging your head against the ones you are lukewarm about, and for me anyways, I am ready to give this album up as a lost cause.
I am late to the Chromatics bandwagon, but I am now fully on board. The band’s fourth studio LP (and first since 2007) is a dark soundtrack to an unwritten film noir epic (or Drive), and a resounding success at that. From the chilly, detached, yet funky ”Broken Mirrors” to the to anthemic, hazy dance title track, Kill for Love is an engrossing and commanding record. Songs like “Lady” find the group sharpening their dark pop-disco chops with stuttering synth tracks and darkly sensual vocals from lead singer Ruth Radelet. Producer Johnny Jewel, who is also in the band Glass Candy and runs the band’s label Italians Do It Better, helps to give the band a huge sound that never ventures into creepy or cheesy territory, which is a real fear for this type of music. Kill for Love is a stunning achievement and should give the band the attention that they have worked for many years to achieve.
Killer Mike: R.A.P Music Review (Four Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Four reactions, Four impressions, Four Takes on R.A.P Music by Killer Mike.
Kyle Tran Myhre (Guante)
It’d be easy to judge this album, “on paper,” and love it without really listening to it. An unjustly overlooked underdog rapper with a mean political streak (and the street cred to back it up) hooking up with an underground rap legend, one of the most unique and talented producers ever to emerge from indie hip hop—it’s Def Jux meets the Dungeon Family, NYC sewer-rap meets the Dirty South, a new millennium version of the Ice Cube/Bomb Squad collaboration. How could it not work?
I’d say that the album just about lives up to the hype. Mike has always been a good MC knocking on great’s door, and while there are a few “look at me” moments on this album where Mike flexes and shows off his technique, he really shines on substance-oriented tracks like “Reagan” and “Anywhere But Here,” where he slows down and just spits from the heart. Overall, he still has a few too many filler lines and awkward punchlines, a few of his hooks fall flat, and his hyper masculine schtick sometimes bumps up against his political content, but he’s still a monster of an MC with as good of a combo of content, ability and voice as anyone in hip hop.
El-P is a surprisingly great match, too. The cinematic scope and density of his production is as impressive as always, and Mike has a delivery powerful enough to cut through the noise. After a few listens, I think I prefer this album to El’s new solo album (at least musically); it feels like working with another artist has really focused his production, stripping away some of the longer instrumental breaks and more experimental sounds without losing any of his sonic personality—it’s just trunk-rattling, neck-breaking, beautiful rap music.
Michael Herriges (Midwest Broadcast)
“This album was created entirely by Jaime and Mike” is the statement that opens “Jojo’s Chillin,” an essential track on Killer Mike’s excellent new album, R.A.P. Music. Seeing Mike and El-P team up for a whole album is a prospect that would have seemed unfathomable a few years ago. But, the pairing actually makes a lot of sense. Both artists share influences (the two have frequently name-dropped albums like Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted in recent interviews) and address similar themes and topics in their music. Furthermore, Killer Mike, despite putting out increasingly strong solo albums, has yet to issue that career-defining statement album, while El-P is a master of crafting start-to-finish cohesive projects.
Lyrically Mike is as razor-sharp as he’s ever been. On album-centerpiece “Reagan” Mike is name-checking Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama as “just another talking head telling lies on teleprompters” and discussing the racist implications of the War on Drugs. There’s enough topical content here for a sociology dissertation, but the album never comes off as too dense or preachy. Plus Mike is just as potent on the less-serious tracks like “Go!” and “Southern Fried,” where his second and third verses contain some of his finest technical delivery on the entire album.
El-P brought his A-game for R.A.P. Music, too. El-P was making his solo album Cancer for Cure at the same time he and Killer Mike were collaborating, so he could have easily taken throwaways from his solo work and gave them to Mike. This is not the case. In an interview with The Fader, El-P stated, “I knew what I wanted to bring for Mike and it wasn’t what I wanted to bring for myself.” He toned down his signature futuristic low-fi boom-bap sound to craft excellent beats that push Mike slightly out of his comfort zone. And while the styles switch from song to song — the industrial thump of “Untitled,” the funk of “Ghetto Gospel,” and the arena-ready synths of “R.A.P. Music” that would sound just as fitting for Watch the Throne — the album maintains a sonic cohesion throughout that holds everything together. (Special shout out to local legend DJ Abilities, who did all the scratching on the album.)
Killer Mike and El-P stay focused throughout to keep the entire album free of any filler, and as soon as the album ends, you find yourself returning for a repeat listen. In the end what we’ve got is one of the leading candidates for rap album of the year, Killer Mike’s first undeniably great solo album, or maybe just what he describes R.A.P. Music as in its title track: “What my people need and the opposite of bullshit.”
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
When you got El-P as the main producer behind your record, you better come with some interesting ideas and things to the table. Killer Mike, having had 5 records to his name, delivers that promise in spades on “R.A.P. Music,” which not only places his fury and intensity on the mic in the proper spot, but he rises to the occasion and then some, be it delivering a punishing political critique on “Reagan,” and “Untitled,” or going toe to toe with T.I. and Bun B on the albums ferocious single “Big Beast.” Elsewhere he also delivers wonderful, detail rich stories on “Don’t Die” and also still manages to flex his double time muscle on “Go!” with some awesome scratches thrown in by Minneapolis’ own DJ Abilities. We’ve been blessed this year with a lot of great releases, but if this isn’t in your album of the year contenders, you are sorely mistaken.
It’s pretty rare for me to love a rap album all the way through as much as I have Killer Mike’s new record R.A.P. Music. It’s not that I don’t love rap – I do, but more so than any other genre (at least in my opinion) rap is frequently subject to inconsistency. I don’t know why that is – whether it’s a bad skit, a poorly thought out guest appearance, or just a plain bad song – just about every hip hop album that I know of has its Achilles Heel. What makes R.A.P. Music so amazing to me is that if it has a fatal flaw, I certainly can’t hear it.
Lyrically Mike is a chameleon. At times he sounds like he’s fully embracing his Southern roots. At others, he sounds like an ice-cold East Coast wordsmith or even a West Coast gangsta rapper. At all times though he is lyrically flawless – never getting lazy, never relying too much on the beat to carry a song. R.A.P. Music is angry without sounding out of control. It’s political without being unintelligent. Its humorous without seeming like a joke. Killer Mike has been in the business of producing good albums for years but with R.A.P. Music he’s gotten as close to perfection as anyone else in the game. OK, so maybe following up “JoJo’s Chillin” with “Reagan” sends a bit of a mixed message (in the space of two songs he seems to both embody as well as discredit the playa lifestyle) but since both songs are stone cold jams it is easily forgivable. I am ready to put R.A.P. Music up there with the greats and for me at least, that is a pretty exclusive list.
Spiritualized: Sweet Heart Sweet Light Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are three reactions, three impressions, three Takes on Sweet Heart Sweet Light by Spiritualized.
It’s always taken me a long time to get into Spiritualized albums. I never really “got” the band until I saw them live in 2008. Though I loved Spacemen 3, Jason Pierce’s more recent project didn’t do it for me for many years. Despite the band being perhaps one of the least interesting live acts on the planet, somehow hearing them live was what eventually changed my mind. Still, it took me many listens to warm up to the band’s most noted recorded works, namely Let it Come Down, Ladies and Gentleman… and A&E. Listening to each, I was always struck by the fact that for every Spiritualized song that I loved, there were at least three or four that I thought were pretty unremarkable. However with repeat listening somehow I was only able to recognize the greatness a little bit at a time. It was an effort that required discipline but one that also generally paid off in the end. I feel as if I have only just begun the process for Sweet Heart Sweet Light. My impression right now is that there about three songs I really enjoy, and a bunch of other stuff that sounds kind of boring. I imagine that after I listen to it enough, I will eventually begin to appreciate it more and more (just as I have past Spiritualized albums). Until that day though my score for the record will remain steadfastly in the average range.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
Looking at the album artwork for Sweet Heart Sweet Light, the 7th record from Spiritualized, your first word about it might be what’s on the album’s cover, the word “Huh?” Regardless of the album art however interesting or stupid it may look to you, the proof is in the music itself that Spiritualized has put together, and starting with the numerous movements involved in “Hey Jane,” this picks up definitely where Songs in A&E left off. Then the melancholic yet rhythmic awesomeness of “Little Girl” sets in, and the melancholy continues on with “Get What You Deserve,” and it proves what’s so great about Spiritualized. They’re constantly at an endless bout of experimentation, sweeping instrumental changes over Jason Pierce’s amazing vocals, that end up giving tunes like “Too Late” and the acoustic guitar backed “Freedom” legs to walk out these really great pieces of work that dazzle throughout the 60-minute opus. Spiritualized is still one of those rare bands that still manages to get better and better with time, regardless of their line-up changes.
On their first full-length in four years, Spiritualized hit many of the same notes they did on their last, Songs in A&E, with gospel-inflected pop melodies arranged with electric guitars playing in front of classical orchestration and choir. And what worked on that album works on this album. However, many of the songs on Sweet Heart Sweet Light lack the punchy concision that characterized Songs in A&E. Half of the songs here run somewhere between 6 and 9 minutes, and what they all have in common is that if they had been cut to 3 minutes, they would have been great songs. As they are, they feel like 3 minute songs that just keep going and going . . . until you hit the skip button.
Jack White: Blunderbuss Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are three reactions, three impressions, three Takes on Blunderbuss by Jack White.
Steve Skavnak (@steveskavnak)
I’ve always enjoyed Jack White’s work in his other projects, but I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been a devout follower of his career. With that, I went into Blunderbuss with absolutely zero expectations. I had heard “Sixteen Saltines” and “Love Interruption,” thinking favorably of both, but not blown away by either. I came away pleasantly surprised, fond of the large majority of the record and more appreciative of the man who has become a musical icon of our generation.
Anyone that saw Jack White’s recent SNL performance witnessed the adorably campy way White switched from an all-female backing back to an all-male one of the second song of the evening. While this seemed to be all for show, when listening to Blunderbuss’ 13 punchy tracks, you can actually envision this change and understand that it’s for sound. The album alternates between White’s signature crunchy guitar hooks and a newfound (or at least more prominent) love of piano, which works the best near the middle of the record on the emotive “Hypocritical Kiss” and the urgent bellowing on “Weep Themselves to Sleep” (which also boasts one of White’s killer screeching guitar solos). Then there’s the beginning of “I’m Shakin,’” which could easily be mistaken for a tune by The Black Keys (the irony has seemingly come full circle). The standout for me, though, may very well be the most timid track on Blunderbuss. Take away the intermediate drumming and “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy” sounds like a White Stripes outtake done right, with White utilizing some of the same production mastery he used on Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose.
Now if Mr. White would just visit Minneapolis for a night or two, it’d be nice to hear some of this new material live before he moves on to his next endeavor.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
Numerous side projects, managing the day-to-day at Third Man, and a daunting task to show what’s so different about Jack White aside from the band known as The White Stripes, how does one overcome all that to create Blunderbuss? There’s really not a question as to Jack White’s virtuosity, and Blunderbuss showcases that in a lot of ways. What comes in this debut solo record from Jack White is not so much drastically different from his work with his various side projects and his work with the White Stripes, if anything it sheds another layer as to what Jack White can do with all that influence, and its evident in “Freedom At 21″ where a nice groove settles in and Jack blurts out lyrics similar to bounce type hip-hop, riding the rhythm perfectly. ”Sixteen Saltines” is an outright rock jam, whereas “Love Interruption” is a nicely tinged acoustic song with some well-done keyboard work. Which brings us back to the initial question: what’s so different about Blunderbuss? Really, if you’re looking at the album from an aesthetic point of view, not much has changed. Sure there may be more mid-tempo jams around and a fair share of nicely done acoustic ones, but one thing is for sure, Jack White continues to be a man who can wear many hats and still treat every project like its something new.
I didn’t jump into the Beach House review we did last week, but despite the fact that I like Beach House much more than Jack White, I couldn’t help but having the same thoughts about both albums. How many times can you go back to the same well before people get tired? With his first solo LP Blunderbuss, Jack White goes back to the sounds that have made him so famous with the White Stripes, Dead Weather, The Raconteurs and his other various projects. White takes the listener on a tour of his previous greatest hits, ranging from the hard charging garage blues of “Sixteen Saltines” to the melody rich piano jaunt “Hypocritical Kiss” to the folk-y “I Guess I Should Go To Sleep” and back to the sultry, organ groove of “Missing Pieces.” Like always, there is clear talent present on the album, with White able to wring a slightly new sound or different take on a sound that is many lifetimes older than him, but how long can you walk down the same path before it starts seeming a bit redundant? Like Beach House, most fans with previous experience with his work would be able to pinpoint that this a Jack White effort within the first minute of any of these songs. This speaks to a distinctive and meticulous sound that has been perfected over the years, but I couldn’t help but thinking what could have been if he had taken his talent in different directions. His work with Loretta Lynn was cool—why not a rustic, old school country album? He put out a White Denim LP on his Third Man Records—why not a pysched out blues meltdown? Blunderbuss will appease current fans of White, bring in a few new listeners and leave causal fans like myself feeling wildly indifferent.
Death Grips: The Money Store Review (3 Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are three reactions, three impressions, three Takes on The Money Store by Death Grips.
Matt Helgeson (Game Informer, Unknown Prophets, Maps of Norway)
My first exposure to the Cali noisenik hip-hop destructionists Death Grips was the video for “Guillotine” off the trio’s Ex-Military mixtape. Riding shotgun in a mid-sized sedan against a backdrop of digital static, vocalist Stefan Burnett lost his mind over an abrasive minimalist beat (though, oddly, he remembered to fasten his seatbelt). The striking, low-budget video was an effective statement of purpose for Ex-Military, a rap record that was punk in philosophy and, at times, practice (the Black Flag sample seemed to place it explicitly in the tradition of American underground rock – if the participation of Hella drummer Zach Hill in the proceedings wasn’t enough). The mixtape itself was bracingly urgent, all sheet metal electronics, distorted rock samples, and vocal rage.
Amazingly, this uncompromising album somehow got Death Grips signed to Epic. For its first commercial release, the trio has abandoned the sample-heavy format of the first (or was forced to, I suspect, by the realities of sample clearance) for subtler electronics – the disjointed rave of your nightmares, emceed by the absurdly apoplectic Burnett.
In comparison to the visceral Ex-Military, The Money Store is the proverbial “grower.” From the opener “Get Got” on, the album feels more refined, if less bracing. Burnett’s vocals are pulled back in the mix, blending into the off-kilter digital assemblages instead of dominating. It’s not always easy to discern individual lyrics, but memorable non-sequiturs like “teaching midgets how to swim” or “hustle bones comin’ out my mouth” stick in your head long after you’re done listening. I found I enjoyed the album more once I accepted that Burnett was just another part of the music, much in the same way The Fall’s Mark E. Smith functioned in Von Sudenfed, his electronic collaboration with Mouse on Mars.
Still, it’s becoming apparent that, for all his outsized personality, Burnett isn’t much better than average as an MC. And let’s be honest: a rapper yelling over ominous electronics isn’t as novel as most of the people writing about this album would have you believe. It’s also deceptively poppy. Strip away the distorted sonics from “I’ve Seen Footage,” and the song is a foursquare rock/rap song reminiscent of classic Run-DMC.
Musically, it’s more diverse and, in many ways, a better album than Ex-Military. If it’s not as thrilling, it will probably age better. I’ve liked it more every time I’ve listened to it.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
Death Grips, the three-man group from Sacramento, CA made up of Stefan Burnett, Zach Hill and Andy Morin have put out a debut album in The Money Store that at first glance will have you jarred. Dirty percussive elements mix with the industrial sound gives the album The Money Store a feel that is almost nihilistic and fascinating. Stefan Burnett’s vocals have this haunting baritone that sounds like its on the verge of a chaotic downslide, which definitely adds character to such crazy mayhem as “Get Got”, and the dark and eerie panic that sets in on “Lost Boys.” Elsewhere on the album, you have such tunes as the laser-guided pulsating synths of “Blackjack,” whereas “Hustle Bones” sounds like the Mr. Hyde to A$AP Rocky & Schoolboy Q’s “Brand New Guy,” every line has no energy wasted, and its just as sporadic and chaotic elsewhere on this album. Given that this project is only one of two projects that are set to arrive this year, The Money Store is probably one of the most troublesome and intriguing listens this year.
It took me a long while to really come around to the Death Grips’ first record Ex-Military. My impression of the band upon first hearing them was that it sounded like a group of drunk, white boys trying to act hard while also rapping as loud as possible (to make up for a lack of rhyming ability). And yeah, I know (vocalist) Stefan Burnett isn’t white – but to me the sound immediately reminded me of the over-the-top-ness you often hear from white rappers to try and overcompensate for the fact that they are, well, white (think Vinnie Paz).
But I came around and I came around hard. There is still something about the aesthetic that turns me off, but the attitude and sheer audacity of the trio’s style is undeniably infectious. They aren’t really very good at rapping from a technical standpoint, but they have turned sloppy, hardcore rhyming into their own unique form of art. That being said, though it seems to be getting more praise, I think that the new record The Money Store isn’t quite as good. There is just something about the first album, from the Manson snippets onward, that makes it pretty much cohesively perfect. And when I say cohesive I mean from a chaotically non-cohering standpoint that in itself, forms a sort of cohesion. A cohesion of thrilling manic energy. The Money Store has great moments as well but I don’t find it quite as exciting. Maybe like Ex-Military it will just take me a while to warm up to it. I mean it is great, but from a comparative standpoint I think just a tad disappointing. Or perhaps it is just because the sound isn’t “new” anymore.
Beach House: Bloom Review (Four Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Four reactions, Four impressions, Four Takes on Bloom by Beach House.
Beach House seem to have settled on their sound. Their latest LP, Bloom, feels like a continuation of the same mournful dream pop explored on their previous full-length, Teen Dream, with Victoria Legrand’s husky alto grounding the organ / guitar interplay, all of it backed by a hollowed-out drum machine. They’re not shaking things up much here or breaking a lot of new ground, but it’s hard to see that as a bad thing. They have such a unique sound and such a gift for melody, that I’d be content with them making albums in this vein indefinitely. Bloom may lack some of the magic of Teen Dream, but it doesn’t contain a bad track, and fans of that album will find a lot to love here.
I have enjoyed every Beach House release since the duo started recording in 2006. It’s with some disappointment though that I have not been able to greet Bloom with the same enthusiasm that I did Teen Dream, which I loved. Maybe Bloom isn’t as good. Or maybe I am just getting tired of Beach House. Their sound has changed so little over the course of four records that I think it’s probably normal for a bit of fatigue to set in. The dreamy hooks, the soul-grabbing apexes, the plodding drum machine beats: the band does it here as well as they ever did, and from a completely objective standpoint, Bloom is probably awesome. If it was the first BH album I ever heard, I probably would have loved it. In fact, listening to the record I can pinpoint exactly the moment’s in it that the Jon of 2010 or earlier would have eaten right up. And sure, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scallymake some effort to mix the sound up a little –a few sound samples here, a beefed up guitar sound there. Overall it still doesn’t do much to mask the fact that these feel like slightly different variations on dozens of earlier Beach House tunes.
I don’t really know if it is me or if its them. I can still feel the band’s magic, but for whatever reason with Bloom it just isn’t as strong.
Steve Skavnak (@steveskavnak)
Sweeping Declaration: Beach House is the best band in the world.
Never did I think that the band that released the near perfect Teen Dream two years ago could give us a follow-up that not only lives up to its predecessor, but in fact surpasses it in many regards. There is not a single bad song on Bloom. Hell, there’s not even an average song. The gamut runs from great to excellent to untouchable. It’s almost unfair how good Beach House has become.
The lead single and album opener, “Myth,” encapsulates Beach House’s sound, descending chord structures mixed behind breezy vocals that are somehow chill and funky at the same time. This would be the best track on any album by any other band. But on “Bloom,” it’s simply one of the many standouts. “Lazuli” may be the best song they’ve ever written. “New Year” makes me pine to play music again. “Irene” is disgustingly simple in its creation and meticulously abstract in its delivery…I listened to it 6 times in a row and got pissed when the phone rang and interrupted my 7th straight spin.
I will be so disappointed in myself if I ever get tired of this record.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
Following the success of Teen Dream, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally didn’t just rest on their laurels. They got right back to work, and that work expands upon the dreamy, melancholic sounds that Teen Dream provided. What came out was Bloom, their fourth record as a duo, and if anything, the work on this record continues to cement why Beach House is such a hot commodity, such as the beginning soundscape “Myth,” but then its quickly followed up by the head-nodding percussive elements in “Wild,” whereas afterwards you get “Lazuli” which hits hard at about 47 seconds inward, and then you come to the realization that Beach House has come quite a long way to get to Bloom, because as a whole it sticks with the dreamy pop aesthetics, yet keeps the arrangements lively and progressive, Victoria’s vocals continue to become the glue that cements these aesthetics together to create an atmospheric feel without getting drawn down to boredom, and the arrangements make for some of the most wonderfully produced music yet from the duo.
Shins: Port of Morrow Review (Three Takes)
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Three reactions, Three impressions, Three Takes on Port of Morrow by The Shins.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
Since Wincing The Night Away, we didn’t think we’d ever see a Shins reunion per se – but we certainly didn’t expect a whole new group appearing alongside lead singer James Mercer. Since his bout with experimentation along with Danger Mouse as Broken Bells, most folks expected a Shins reunion to be just that, but one must ask how Port of Morrow sounds in that context. In that question, it’s technically like the Shins have never left, and if anything, it shows that in some reunions or comebacks so to speak, one person bringing back that certain nostalgia is just as powerful, take a listen to such tunes as “Simple Song,” or “Fall of ’82″ and while Port of Morrow is certainly a more subdued affair, its material hasn’t affected the potency that Mercer has as a force to be reckoned with in the indie singer/songwriter realm.
If you had asked me two months ago, I would have told you that The Shins have probably hung it up for good. And well, actually all of them have, except James Mercer. He has assembled four new musicians, called them “The Shins” and recorded this album. (Apparently, “The Shins” is just a stage name for Mercer and whomever he happens to be playing with at the time). It’s been five years and a very successful “side project,” Broken Bells, since the Shins’ last LP – Wincing the Night Away. It’s been eight years since Zach Braff asked Natalie Portman what she was listening to, and she replied, “The Shins. . . .You gotta hear this song. It will change your life. I swear,” as the opening bars of “New Slang” rose to a slow-motion close-up of Portman’s smiling face, introducing most of America to this band. That moment lead to the Grammy – not for The Shins; they’ve never won one – for Zach Braff. (Did you know that you can get a Grammy for what is essentially producing a mix-tape? They call it “Best Compilation Soundtrack”). But I digress.
Mercer may be a bit of a self-regarding solipsist, but no one denies that he has some serious songwriting chops, at least when it comes to the melodies (the lyrics are another matter). He has the ability to craft beautiful tunes that meld folk and jangle-pop, and when delivered by his paper-thin voice with ethereal backing harmonies, it can add up to something quite singular. Some of that old beauty comes through on Port of Morrow. “September” and “Simple Song” stand out. Even the weaker moments on this album are mildly pleasant, if a bit bland. Yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is an album from a band whose moment has come and gone. If you’re looking for a few nice songs to listen to, or if you’re looking to rekindle some mid-90’s nostalgia, this might be your album. If you’re looking for today’s “Best New Music,” you should look elsewhere.
I actually liked the Shins at one point. Somewhere along the way something changed, and listening to their latest release Port of Morrow, I really feel like it wasn’t me. Yes, I like weirder crap now than I used to, but especially for a band I had a genuine affinity for at one point, I have not gone so far that I wouldn’t be able to acknowledge if the album was decent. After the solid opener “Simple Song,” I had a hard to giving the rest of the record a chance after the awful dud that is “It’s Only Life.” Sounding like a terrible mix of Our Lady Peace (are they still a band?) and a christian rock group, the song is as trite and lifeless as a song can be. James Mercer doesn’t bother with creative melodies, lyrics or arrangements. There are moments of equally poor judgements sprinkled throughout (like the weird falsetto of the title track) and scant few times where Mercer seems capable of the soft rock ditties he once spun out effortlessly. It isn’t the lack of energy on the LP that makes the album so weak as the band never won over listeners with volume or intensity, but simply the lack of discernible songs. If you aren’t creating atmosphere or getting the listener moving with a groove, you damn well better write good songs. The Shins (basically James Mercer and mercenaries) did that in spades on their first two albums, lost some of the sparkle on their last LP Wincing the Night Away, and competently dropped the ball on Port of Morrow.
Three Takes on the spring 2012 Triangle Records EP’s
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are Three reactions, Three impressions, Three Takes on the Triangle Records released EP’s by Howse and oOoOO.
oOoOO 74/100 | Howse 52/100
Between Tri Angle Records’ two co-released EP’s, oOoOO’s is by far my preferred title. I found the Howse release to be something of a formless ambient snooze. It’s not an unpleasant listen, but it is fairly innocuous to the point of being boring. I can see it having a time and a place (perhaps the soundtrack to an IMAX aquatic feature or perhaps an evening on Quaaludes) but outside of that potential scenario I have a difficult time engaging with it. There’s barely anything to engage with – I mean sure, ambient electronica isn’t made with choruses and pop hooks, but at least take some chances within your own genre. Throughout most of Howse’s EP the mood’s smooth surface is never really broken by so much of a ripple.
oOoOO has some similar qualities to its sister EP, but also fleshes it out a bit with sonics that are a bit less uniform. The distorted vocals and moody synth tones give it a sinister dark edge, even if it too generally plays it on the safe side of the spectrum for the most part (it’s almost as if both these guys are creating music that is carefully calibrated not to disturb anybody’s chill trip by experimenting or trying anything new). Still, for the most part I enjoy the druggy, soporific vibe the Ep holds to.
oOoOO 60/100 | Howse 55/100
Whenever one of the standard bearers of a genre releases a pair of EPs in tandem, it’s hard not to look at it as a of a “state of the art” moment. Fairly or unfairly, this is the case for Tri Angle Records, which is one of the more reputable names in witch house (or drag electronica, as some call it). Their spring release schedule includes Our Loving is Hurting Us by oOoOO, something of a scene veteran, and Lay Hallow by Howse, a relative upstart. Both EPs showcase the stereotypical, stagnant drag sound, and a peek at how artists in the genre might sail out of their artistic doldrums.
oOoOO doesn’t stray too far from his tried-and-true sound: big fuzzy beats with a West Coast hip hop flourish, orchestral overlays, chirpy female crooning. Much of the EP is exactly what you might expect from the producer. A new element to his music, though, is pervasive, obnoxious use of cheesy synth melodies. Actually, cheesy is the wrong word. They’re campy. Like if Jar Jar Binks made a wandering cameo through a bleak Tarkovsky film. The hooks—which would sound more at home on a Nicki Minaj joint—always seem to worm their way out of a song’s lush layering right when you thought you’d make it through without any funny business. “Starr” is the clear exception. Both arrhythmic and lurchy, the song features a fun star-guitar solo and throwback ’80s vocals—and unprecedented and fairly surprising track that also seems like a long-lost friend of the genre.
Howse’s Lay Hollow is quite different from oOoOO’s EP. In general, it’s more informed by ambient and drone, and doesn’t stray from abrasiveness. If you just listened to the first minute or so, each song on the album would fit perfectly on a Pop Ambient compilation. “Old Tea,” the EP’s standout track, starts with a Tim Hecker-esque cathedral rafters drone scape, and then adds a tinny, skittering beat. The two elements complement each other’s more aggressive sides. Unfortunately, most of the songs lack the balance or the purpose of “Old Tea.” The vocal samples sound arbitrary and arbitrarily placed, like Howse just needed something—anything—to fill in the gaps. Although many of the producer’s builds are satisfying, when songs reach their climax, he typically can’t resolve their tension except by unplugging. They end when he runs out of things to do.
Signature sounds, be damned! Both producers need to exercise their muscles and cast off the crutches. oOoOO’s catchy hook pandering belittles his cerebral, tobacco-haze dance music, and arbitrary pacing and sample use on the Howse EP is confusing, if not infuriating. The most memorable songs on the Tri Angle EPs are those that find the artists experimenting outside of their usual mode.
oOoOO 76/100 Howse 57/100
Triangle Records had a pretty stellar year in 2011, which only leads to increased notoriety (and scrutiny) for their 2012 releases. The label has decided to release a pair of EP’s to kick off the year, one from newcomer Howse and the other from oOoOO, who has been an intrgal part of the label from its inception. Both continue the labels “witchhouse” sound, using slightly different approaches.
oOoOO’s half of the equation, the five song Our Love is Hurting Us, is a dark, hypnotic journey through the underbelly of jittery synth based R&B. There are movements where the slickness gets applied a little too heavy, like on “Springs” when the female vocals and synth flourishes are a little to prickly. The sound is most developed on the boom bat of “Starr,” where the melody and vocals are murky and cut by a skittish, haphazard beat. Like the bands previous, self titled EP, Our Love is Hurting Us sounds like a R&B/Hip Hop instrumental album run through a old tape machine in a haunted house, and is going to annoy as many people as it intrigues.
The Howse EP, Lay Hollow, is a little less gloomy, but still is a convoluted and sonically rich album. Despite the sonic clarity that Lay Hollow has over Our Love is Hurting Us, the record feels even less focused and is much more prone to drift. This isn’t your standard “ambient” drift, either. The songs neither seem thought out (think Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds) nor have any of the intrinsic curiosity that comes from a record that is more free form (think Food Pyramid or Mark McGuire). Tracks like “VBS” fail to either build to a logical conclusion nor have that free form exploratory sound. It isn’t ambient synth and it isn’t the typical Triangle sound of warped R&B (like oOoOO, Clams Casino or How to Dress Well). Lay Hollow feels like the worst case scenario to where the Triangle Records sound could end up if it is watered down and left in the hands of those who aren’t as talented or creative as has been the case so far with the label.