Unknown Mortal Orchestra: II 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 II by Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Steve Skavnak (@steveskavnak)
My infatuation with Unknown Mortal Orchestra has been steadily growing the past two years, ever since they easily blew the headliners out of the water, opening for Smith Westerns at the Triple Rock in February 2011. Their self-titled debut made my Top 10 of that same year, and when they came back to town that summer supporting Yuck at The Varsity, they again proved why they’re so buzzworthy, all while shrouded in complete darkness.
Just a few tracks into the aptly titled II, though, I realized that this infatuation had blossomed into a full on love affair. Ruban Nielson’s guitar playing sounds effortless, resulting in blissful, reverb-rich psychedelic hooks bleeding from your speakers, none that are more in your face than that of “The Opposite of Afternoon” (never mind the James Mercer-esque intro). The most surprising success, though, is Nielson’s knack for true pop sensibility, something that didn’t present itself as noticeably on UMO’s first record. “So Good at Being in Trouble” is oozing with R&B undertones, even allowing Nielson to belt out a little falsetto, showing that the frontman might not be as shy as his live performances indicate.
While the energy and exploration of II definitely tapers off with the pointless “Dawn” and dreary, confusing “Secret Xtians,” UMO have 1) triumphed in avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump and 2) proved that they’re anything but a one trick pony.
UMO’s sophomore record II starts promisingly enough. The first two tracks “From the Sun” and “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” are each excellent mix of pop and psychedelic funk. Just when you begin to think that UMO is going to pull off a successful sequel of their excellent debut though, starting with “So Good at Being in Trouble” things start to get a little stale. If “So Good” was the album’s worst track it wouldn’t be all bad – but from then on things get progressively worse. Not offensive – just kind of bland, aimless guitar noodling and vapid harmonies that never seem to muster the strength to get out of bed. Luckily that only lasts for a few songs but it stops the record dead in its tracks. A few good tracks bolster II’s back half (namely “Monki” and “Secret Xitians”) but it’s not enough to really spread the weight of the album’s middle out evenly. The semi-ambient “Dawn” is stalls out any kind of backend rally, leaving II on a relatively flaccid note. II definitely shows signs of what UMO are capable of, but unfortunately on a very uneven basis. For the time being I will stick with their debut for primary listening.
I don’t know why it is I have a soft spot for the squeaky clean, pop-psychedelia of bands like Tame Impala and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, but I do. Both released debut albums that I liked quite a bit, LP’s that I found were perfect for spinning when spending time with people who didn’t want to hear the usual ambient/noise/scuzzy garage rock that I would choose (you know, “normal” people). They both have recently released follow up records, with Tame Impala doubling down on the wide-eyed, colorful version of their first record (the buoyant “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” was a stirring, successful version of this). Where Tame Impala seem hell bent on revisiting the tie-dyed, pie in the sky vision that wobbled into our conscious with their first LP, Unknown Mortal Orchestra created a sleepy follow up to their (sometimes) funky debut.
If Tame Impala’s music is the world through a rainbow tinted kaleidoscopic, II from UMO is the world from behind droopy eyelids. On tracks like “Monki,” I almost wondered if they recorded them late at night as they were falling asleep. Tracks plod along at a snail pace, preformed almost in a hushed reference. Even the more “upbeat” tracks like “Faded in the Morning” and “One at a Time” feel a half step behind the tracks on their debut and can seem distant and hollow. There is some beauty in the distance, namely the sweet “So Good at Being in Trouble,” but often the record feels under cooked, especially when contrasted with the slinky grooves on songs like “How Can U Luv Me.” While they still show themselves to be adapt at writing pop-psychedelia ear candy, via their warm arrangements and Ruban Nielson’s pristine falsetto, the sleepiness on the record, like someone yawning, is contagious. If they were shooting to create a record to spin while you are drifting off to sleep, they have succeeded, if not, they need some Red Bull.
Toro Y Moi: Anything In Return 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 Anything in Return by Toro Y Moi.
Jon Jon Scott(Sound Verite)
Referencing many genres, including the galloping grooves of house, the bedroom production of chill-wave, and rather cool pop, Chazwick Bundick (aka Toro Y Moi) produces a multicultural lollypop.
Opening with the lightweight house workout “Harm In Change”, things get off to a decent start. The dance groove continues on the mid-tempo flex of “Say That”. The jewel here is “So Many Details”, which slows down to a bedroom jump, with vocals just behind the beat. “I just want to tease your eyes, I just want to go inside”. He almost does a Dam-Funk with repeated looped vocal “what happened to us” – which sounds super cool. Although he has dabbled with actual R&B, covering the slow jam classic “Saturday Love” by Cherrelle & Alexander O’Neal, he’s best at not going there. The nice thumping basslines of “Rosa Quartz” sounds like the background music at Abercrombie & Fitch. There’s a few fine moments with “Cola” and “High Living”. Then there’s “Cake”, which is a disaster. This is followed by “Day One” which has a nice flourish before “Never Matter”, a throwaway funk slab. He closes with “How It Wrong”, by which time you’ve likely fallen asleep.
As its title “Anything In Return” suggests, any good here is enough. There are moments in the front of record that suggest a spirited journey before descending into Pet Shot Boys minus the hooks and detail. It seems Toro y Moi simply has fun making non-committal music, slashing and slightly burning through a few genres of mainly dance and pop stylings that make for an evening of faux chill-out music .
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
Chaz Bundick likes making music. That should be the clear and apparent statement when one takes a listen to Anything In Return, his third effort as Toro Y Moi. Listening to his music, there’s a lot of gems to be found on the new album such as the frantic and rhythmic “Harm In Change” and the house influenced, head-nodding “Say That” (which has a surprise rap verse!). On Anything in Return, there’s a lot of progress to be found from Bundick in terms of melody and arrangement, which features is a very welcome shake-up from the more low key sounds of his stellar sophomore album, Underneath The Pine.
I have had sympathy for Toro Y Moi (Chaz Bundick) as he has fought valiantly to shed the “chillwave” label he helped usher into prominence, mercilessly shifting from one form to the next to rid himself of the genre albatross. His electro-funk makeover started live a few years back, bringing the more colorful, bass heavy flavor to the forefront of his sound. In the studio, he ventured outward on the more dancy Freaking Out EP before stepping back a bit with the more ambient LP Underneath the Pine. While I can’t say I have found his trajectory always on the upward slope (more zig zag), at least he isn’t releasing the same record over and over again. On his latest LP Anything in Return, he seems to split the difference on the sounds from his first three releases. Many of the songs have a slinky bass line that woozes out from under the synths, but the general feel of the record is the kind of low key haze that first brought him into our stereos. There are house grooves pushing the songs forward, but tracks like “Harm in Change” and “Rose Quartz” don’t quite make it to the 100% Silk level of energy, withdrawing themselves into the shadows of minor keys and Bundick’s weary (yet pristine) vocals. I think Toro Y Moi has made some great music over the last few years, but the project is beginning to feel a bit like a wandering soul. Like Sufjan Stevens, he is a talented artist who seems to feel the seven year itch about every two months, for better or for worse. Anything in Return is another wrinkle in the Toro Y Moi “sound,” a fuzzy picture that hasn’t really come into true focus yet. He is still a young guy, so hopefully he can slow down enough to take the best pieces of his repertoire and make a standout LP in the coming years. Anything in Return isn’t that album, but like his previous releases, it has more good than bad and is enough to keep me on the bandwagon with my fingers crossed that the stars will align in the near future.
A$AP Rocky: LongLiveA$AP 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 LongLiveA$AP by A$AP Rocky.
Jon Jon Scott(Sound Verite)
Following up on last years Live Long A$AP mixtape Harlem’s new “it” dude A$AP Rocky made a big impression with his southern crunk flavor to New York. Channeling the syrup flows of the South through Three-6- Mafia, U.G.K. & DJ Screw as much as the glamor lifestyle of Harlemites Cam’ron & Jim Jones. On his proper debut Long Live A$AP, he goes all in. With a dizzying selection of beats that are both clever and simple. For some strange reason NYC has always had a fascination with South and A$AP explores that with a delicate A&R touch. Through a mixture of purple drank, yellow drank, all kind of hallucinates, pills, ecstasy, cocaine and white chicks and boom, you’ve got yourself a party starter kit. It’s all fun, no old school rules of authenticity through peers. Nope this is Action Jackson fuck bitches, getting’ money and smashing all the suckers who ain’t them.
With a sonic collage of new school producers and electronic dj’s to produce an intoxicating array of modern crunkness. Opening with the dark look inside with “I thought I’d probably die in prison, expensive taste in women … a bunch on hypocritic Christians, the land of no religion, my Santa Claus was missing, catch you slippin’ then it Christmas” on “Long Live A$AP” as he calls for the reaper. On the bouncy hit “Goldie” with Clams Casino behind the boards for a baked-out screwed head nodder with irrelevant lyrics like “Cristol by the cases oh that shit is racist”. Before launching into “my nigga’s” every other word as matter of fact.
While it’s nowhere near their hit “Hands On The Wheel” from A$AP’s Live Long A$AP. The sinister “PMW (All I Really Need) featuring Schoolboy Q with lines like ”My bitch white, my dick black”.
Recapturing that raw mixtape status on “LVL” with Clams Casino on production with lyrics like “what I’m posed to do with all this money…I’m been impatient waiting to show you niggas Satan” . “Hell” is at first awkward then works with Santigold proving a soft melody refrain. There’s a completely retarded song here with the obvious radio hit “F_ckin Probems” with Drake, 2 Chainz & Kendrick Lamar. “Wild for the Night” is an interesting turn with dubstep’s stadium king Skrillex. Recalling the early nighties NYC rap scene at it’s finest with the golden posse track “1 Train” with Kendrick Lamar, Joey Badass, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson & Big Krit. There’s a little ode to his ladies “Fashion Killa”. The slowed down on the emotionally melodic “Phoenix” produced by Dangermouse. A$AP comesfrom a place where he was “baptized in the gutter, motherfucker you decide. Cause the rides come with doors that be suicide…Painting vivd pictures call me Basquiat Picasso”. He also is tired of the old hags around him “I grew up with niggas, but I don’t fuck with niggas, I ain’t got no love for niggas… now the worlds in my palm, take cover niggas.” There’s also the introspective “Suddenly”. Closing out with “Ghetto Symphony” with rookie thug Gunplay and the trill ballad “Angel”.
With just enough charisma A$AP Rocky successfully straddles the line between appealing to the streets and hipsters, he ain’t talking about shit except kickin’ it with tales of sex, drugs, expensive clothes and his niggas and he’s cool with that.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
Many wanted to count A$AP Rocky out of the conversation, especially since the lapse of time between LiveLoveA$AP and his debut album LongLiveA$AP. With his debut, A$AP Rocky has created something that is instantly catchy upon first listen, by sticking to the aesthetics that made us gravitate towards him on LiveLoveA$AP; he proves that he’s still very versatile with his flow, be it having suicidal tendencies on the Danger Mouse highlight, “Phoenix”, or even being able to stick out in a good way on such posse cuts as the lead-off “Fuckin’ Problems” featuring Kendrick Lamar, Drake & 2 Chainz or even on the monstrous, 6-minute posse cut “1 Train”. From a production standpoint, the album proves to be just as fluid as Kendrick’s “good kid, mAAd city”, but the difference is in the aesthetics of the production, a lot more stark sounds and reverberating percussion are entered into the mix. Even “Wild For The Night” which pairs Rocky with Skrillex still manages to sound very much in place with the rest of the album. The naysayers and doubters who thought that maybe a $3 million advance would have gotten to Rocky’s head have no doubt been proven ineffective, as Rocky churns out an album that makes us understand what we enjoy in the first place about him.
I will admit I am probably not who A$AP Rocky was thinking of as his target audience when he created LongLiveA$AP, but he actually had a chance to win me over. I loved his selection of songs he chose for his attention grabbing mixtape, especially the Clams Casino productions and the darkly melodic “Peso.” On the mixtape Rocky’s rhymes were more DMX (grunt and yell nonsense) than Rakim or Nas (you know, actually rapping about stuff), but I thought maybe he would sharpen things up for his major label debut. He didn’t. At best, this is an album where Rocky is little more than a gravelly voiced annoyance over some great beats, at worst it is the misogynistic, hoes-cars-money crap that rap music has (d)evolved into over the last decade. It is an album that contains the lines “Yes, I’m the shit, tell me if I stink.” And that isn’t the worst line (most of the contenders I didn’t have the stomach to type out). Based on both the lowest common denominator content and star powered guests (Skrillex, Schoolboy Q, Drake, 2 Chainz, Kendrick Lamar), I am sure this album is going to sell large numbers and further rocket A$AP Rocky into superstardom, but it isn’t for me.
Grizzly Bear: Shields 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 Shields by Grizzly Bear.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
A lot of people thought it couldn’t be done. A lot of people saw the burst that was the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Veckatimest and thought how are Grizzly Bear going to top that? Well the answer is in Shields, Grizzly Bear’s fourth album. The album definitely continues to showcase the band’s amazing maturity, the fact that the focus is less on themselves and moreso in making a complete work shows the testament to their virtuosity and their amazingly uncanny knack for keeping the detail in their arrangements. It’s what allows the lead-off “Sleeping Ute” to shine, and allows something like “Yet Again” and “The Hunt” to really show off their growth. It’s really hard not to like their new work because it isn’t Veckatimest, but then again, with Shields, Grizzly Bear still create an awesome masterpiece.
I mainly think the new Grizzly Bear record is great – let me just get that straight first of all. If I had to find faults though I wouldn’t have minded more of Chris Taylor’s vocals. For me Taylor’s high pitched eeriness has always been one of the things that sets the band apart from say, Department of Eagles. To me this sounded more like a thoroughly Daniel Rossen dominated project – which is fine, I generally love Rossen – but at the same time I wouldn’t have minded more variety. I would prefer more Ed Droste as well – though as long as it isn’t in the form of songs like “Yet Again,” which sounds like a bit of an attempt to ape Arcade Fire. It isn’t half bad but it’s definitely not my favorite. Those would be: “The Hunt” and “Gun Shy,” both beautiful meditations on baroque chamber pop.
The record could also use a few frayed ends. Everything is so tidy, so beautifully elegant and soberly composed that I think a few raw edges here or there would have made for a nice dynamic. Still, I can’t complain much – even perfectly coiffed Grizzly Bear are still pretty gorgeous to listen to – and this album is no exception.
If you ever have been lucky enough to visit a city bursting with art and culture (I am thinking Florence, Italy), you know that feeling that can come from being slightly-to-completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of beauty that slaps you in the face around every corner. You try not to become apathetic to the beauty, but it can be so overwhelming, so omnipresent, that you can’t help but feel at times like you are not capable to absorb all that you should be absorbing. I have often felt that way with Grizzly Bear, and that feeling is amplified with their latest LP, the lush, ornate and exceptionally beautiful Shields. From the rich, multifaceted jangle of album opener “Sleeping Ute” to epic, six plus minute closer “Sun in Your Eyes,” Shields grabs the listener by the throat, albeit with a velvet glove, and doesn’t let up over the staggering 10 song album. From the Radiohead-esqe pop dissonance of “The Hunt” to the breezy harmonies of “Gun-Shy,” there wasn’t a point on Shields were I desperately reached for the “next” button. Yet I left feeling distant. Maybe it was the grandeur. Maybe it was that the record felt too immaculate, too groomed for its own good. I felt myself enjoying it from a distance, appreciating more than engaging. It was the fancy painting that I could not help but acknowledge, but it just didn’t hit that spot. Just like my college self walking past a museum to go to the bar, I will whole heartedly admit that Shields is an impressive record, one that I can and do like, but to be honest, I mostly just want to listen to the new Ty Segall record until my eardrums bleed.
Swans: The Seer 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 The Seer by Swans.
Chris Besinger (STNNNG)
I’ve never been too fond of the Swans particular brand of blare. Despite great claims of the punishing and bludgeoning music (and hey I like getting bludgeoned) I usually found it boring and one note. It never sounded intense to me, at least never as intense as I wanted or needed it to be. Not that it didn’t have its moments, just for the most part their specific type of audio torture I was never drawn to. And those feelings were more or less confirmed when I saw them live last fall. So, let’s just say I was approached the idea of two hour new record with no small amount of trepidation.
And honestly the first song, “Lunacy” which sounds like “Tubular Bells” before it turns into a merry-go-round chant of “lunacy” certainly made me feel like I was in for a rough road to hoe. But soon the album’s centerpiece and title track “The Seer” turned my head, here was the first time I felt that the band truly lived up to their hype. A circular, keening wail, this was the Swans we were always promised, hypnotic, and primal, channeling Branca’s guitar orchestra theories back into rock, climbing to a majestic pummeling, before breaking it down to build back up on the back of coruscating guitar noise and then again diving deep into a lonesome valley of wet reverb and harmonica. The song runs over 32 minutes and is followed, in a hilarious bit of black humor, by “The Seer Returns” with a guest spot from former vocalist Jarobe and it could easily run for another thirty minutes or hours, frankly. Gira has noted that this is the album that combines all of the Swans version visions and incarnations into one and it is the perfect description. This has always been what they are pointing to, a sort of brutalist mood music.
But the album is more then just “The Seer”, it is surprisingly varied, highlighting much of what this current incarnation of the band is good at, with “The Seer Returns” a processional march in which Gira depicts an apocalyptic possession of spirit, “93 Ave B Blues” starts as a shrill wolf whistle of abstraction that is soon buried under an avalanche of drums, and “A Piece of the Sky” which starts as drone piece, chugs through the middle and goes all Nick Cave Xmas at the end. Not that the record is without a mis-step, namely “Song for a Warrior” with Karen O on vocals (and really it’s fine but I liked it better when it was called “The Evening Bell” on the Sunn O))/Boris colab) And for a band that prides itself on being so listener unfriendly the record rewards quite a bit too repeated spins, I’ve even kind of come around to some of those tubular bells. Some.”
I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to start listening to Swans – on paper everything about their sound is something I tend to be interested in, but somehow up until now the band only existed to me as an abstract. I didn’t know what they sounded like. I assumed – incorrectly – that they were probably just another one of the hard rock groups prevalent in the late 80’s and early 90’s that I had no interest in listening to. As it turns out they were (and are) a lot more than that.
So since Seer is my first proper listen of an entire Swans record my thoughts should be taken with a grain of salt. I have no idea how Seer compares to the Swans discography, but I do know that I (mostly) really like it. I tend to love dark, bleak, uncompromising music – and Seer takes those themes to such an extreme that it’s something of a Pride parade for dark, bleak, uncompromising music. It’s that over the top. It contains a dizzying array of musical instruments (including notably a Rufus Harley-esque bagpipe section(!)). It is thematically consistent from start to finish (ruthlessly serious) and it frequently attains moments of sublimated beauty that are brutally pounded out of discordant noise.
In short it’s great.
The band, however, seems painfully aware of its own greatness to an extent that it can get a bit tedious. A two hour noise opera might seem, in itself, to be a bit on the extravagant side – but generally I don’t mind it. In fact, I think that overall more musicians should take their art more seriously as opposed to less. Seer takes the seriousness to an entirely different plane however, and though I mostly can vibe with it, I occasionally found myself rolling my eyes. The prog-rock chorus parts in particular seemed a bit over-wrought. It’s one thing to spout melodramatic goth poetry (“kill the truth / speak the name…childhood is over,” etc) and quite another to do it grandiosely accompanied by a chorus that has the tendency to weight every utterance with like god-like solemnity.
Still, more often than not I was simply impressed by Gira and company’s commitment to their vision as well as their savagely beautiful orchestrations. I may have waited far too long to experience Swans, but at least their latest record has me wanting to go back and catch up on all that I have missed.
After spending 2 years out on the road touring behind 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, Gira and the current incarnation of Swans crafted an album that Michael Gira says is the result of 30 years of work. From the earliest days of slow motion illness inducing pounding through folk through Gira’s post-Swans Angels Of Light, Swans have always been constantly evolving their sound. The Seer is no small task to tackle clocking in at nearly two hours.
Opener “Lunacy” sets the tone from the beginning with percussionist Thor Harris’ chimes making the intro before the first of a number of guest spots is filled by Alan and Mimi of Low joining the Gira in a chant. After a similarly dirgey “Mother of the World”, “The Wolf” is a brief guitar and vocal intro by Gira before the albums title track and centerpiece. The 32 minutes of “The Seer” arc from dissonant noise to frantic percussion building itself into an intense tidal wave of noise. Karen O provides guest vocals to the beautiful “Song For A Warrior”, the standout opener to the 2nd side. The intense (and only 8 minute long) “Avatar” is almost lost before the pair of 19+ minute closers before the album finally closes itself in a squeal of violin into a flurry of drums.
The Seer succeeds in pulling together all eras of Swans (there’s even an appearance by Jarboe) into what plays out exactly as intentions stated. While some may be turned off by the 2 hour listening time this is exactly what Gira wants: if you’re going to do something, do it to the extreme.
See Swans this Saturday, 9/22 at the Fine Line Music Cafe
Wild Nothing: Nocturne Review (Double Take)
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 Two reactions, Two impressions, Two Takes on Nocturne by Wild Nothing.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
When Gemini came out by Wild Nothing, the artwork as well as the music provided immediately threw me back to the 80s and placed it in today’s context which made it sound very ethereal and atmospheric. If anything, Nocturne, the follow up, closely resembles music I remember from such groups like Morrissey meets The Cure, where it takes the synth pop alternative sound to places that are out of this world, and this is echoed tenfold on the maturity displayed on the end of summer jam, “Through The Grass,” the almost moody umbrage of “Only Heather”, and even utilizing the dance like drum overtures on “This Chain Won’t Break.”. Wild Nothing’s “Nocturne” in the end is especially great music for the end of summer/beginning of fall season.
I was knocked out by the head in the clouds, lo-fi dream pop the Wild Nothing crafted on his really solid debut LP Gemini. He is back with his second Captured Tracks released LP Nocturne, which takes the same dreamy approach and adds a layer of sleek production to the process. While this process (going to the studio, polishing the edges) can often lead me to feel less conntected to an artist, the process actually works really well with Jack Tatum’s well manicured sound. The sound is still the rich melodies wrapped in bubbly reverb of his past work, but there are slight changes (like live drumming) in addition to the more advanced production methods that add a more full sound to Tatum’s songs. While his live set on his first tour stop here (at the Turf Club left a lot to be
Nas: Life is Good (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 Life Is Good by Nas.
Jon Jon Scott(Sound Verite)
In 1994 Queensbridge, NYC legend Nasir Jones, aka Nas, arrived with his fascinating, efficient and well-executed debut Illmatic, a true hip-hop classic. Although he has always been a strong lyricist, Nas has struggled to make another thorough, authentic, hip-hop record. It’s always his R&B joints that drive Nas purists crazy, because they always want him to return to the visionary style of his debut. His last record, 2008’s Untitled was originally called N*gga, which sparked some controversy, and the record was difficult, misunderstood and didn’t produce many memorable moments. In 2010, Nas collaborated with Damian Marley for Distant Relatives and traded verses full of righteousness over heavy reggae based production. On his 10th record Nas looks back to that kid of his debut for inspiration and continues another chapter with Life Is Good. After his breakup with songstress Kelis, Nas gets personal about their relationship, his daughter’s coming of age, hip-hop’s roots, Black Nationalism, lifestyle choices, excuses for failure, black urban youths and their unique struggles and celebrations.
Opening with the stunning salvo “No Introduction” where Nas reflects “Remember talking’ to Biggie inside his Lex truck, says stay fly when your by me, keep your pajamas Armani, hood forever, I just act like I’m civilized, really what’s in my mind is organizing a billion black motherfuckers to take over JP and Morgan, Goldman and Sacks, and teach the world facts to give Saudi their oil back”, over a thunderous Justice League production. He brings along Illmatic producer Large Professor on the nostalgic “Loco Motive” , over sparse stripped down drums with Large Professor on the ad-libs as Nas declares this is “For my trapped in the ’90s niggas.” Every Nas record has a tribute to his birthplace in the Queensbridge projects, and here it is “Queens Story”. The brilliant emotional center is the jewel “Daughters”; Life Is Good‘s most personal, defining moment as he reflects on his daughter’s upbringing and her growing pains. Another excellent flashback is “Back When” as Nas calls out folks who blame others for their situation: “You blame your own shortcomings on section, race, the mafia, homosexuals and all the Jews, It’s hogwash point of views, stereotypical, anti-Semitic like the foul words Gibson spewed, and it’s pathetic”. The reggae influenced banger “The Don” keeps it grimy describing his city “New York is like an Island, a big Rikers Island, The cops be out wildin, all I hear is sirens, It’s all about surviving same old two step, tryna stay alive when, they be out robbin, I been out rhyming, since born knowledge like prophet Muhammad, say the ink from a scholar, worth more than the blood of a martyr”. The throwback “Nasty” is a retro winner. Contemporary guest Rick Ross appears on “Accidental Murders” and actually sounds cool; then Nas finishes the song with strong conviction.
There are a couple of tracks the record could have done without: “Reach Out” with Mary J. Blige feels forced, a easy throwaway. Also underwhelming, although lyrically ambitious, is the easy going “You Wouldn’t Understand”. On the other hand the reflective ghetto narrative “World’s An Addiction” with soul man Anthony Hamilton works. The first impression of Swizz Beatz on anything is not a good sign yet here he delivers the potential radio jump with the spirited “Summer On Smash”. It is a cultural flashpoint as Nas shouts out the ladies of “black, Asian, Boriqua, Italian, mixed chicks, Middle Eastern, Eritrean, Ethiopian”. On the romantic side there’s the jazzy horns of “Stay” and the sultry, playful “Cherry Wine” co-anchored by the vocals of Amy Winehouse. The quartet of bonus tracks prove how motivated Nas was with the retro leanings of “The Black Bond”, “Roses”, “Where’s The Love” and “Trust”.
While Life Is Good clearly doesn’t have the hunger or direct vision of Nas’ debut Illmatic, it may be Nas most complete record since 2002’s God’s Son. With standout tracks like “No Introduction”, “Daughters”, “The Don”, ”Loco-Motive”, “Back When” and ”Nasty” he prevails in capturing the spirit of that kid from Illmatic. Also nice are “Accident Murderers”, “World’s An Addiction”, “Stay” and “Black Bond”. Often pulled in various directions, Nas has handed the sonics to two of his veteran producers No.ID (Common, Kanye West, Nas) and Salaam Remi (The Fugees, Nas, Amy Winehouse) who provide the musical backdrop to help keep Nas relevant in the current landscape while staying true to his origins. Life Is Good, Nas has reclaimed himself.
Ali Elabbady (Background Noise Crew, Egypto Knuckles)
It has been quite a ride for Nas, so much of one, that one would be surprised to find out that Life Is Good, his 10th album as an artist and the third one for Def Jam. But regardless of those facts, many have found a shit-ton to lament about Nas’s faults rather than his strengths as one of the most prolific and profound writers in music today. Any doubt or uncertainty with all the leaks from the album have put to rest those critics, as they will find very little to complain about in Life Is Good, largely because this album is anything but, with the situations facing Nas. He’s nearing his 40s, he just went through a divorce, and his daughter is now 17. But he uses those experiences and manages to deliver another great album in his discography. For everyone who might hate “Summer on Smash”, that’s made up for in such tunes as “Daughters” where he examines himself as a father for the world to see, and brings to light the trials and tribulations he faces as a father, and “Bye Baby” is nothing more than a goodbye more or less to his wife Kelis. A bulk of the credit goes to No I.D. and Salaam Remi, who produce 11 of the 17 album tracks, and know what to give Nas beats wise to keep Life Is Good being error free for the majority of the album. With the album already in the top 10 of Billboard, and critics being wooed by a consistent and great effort by Nas, Life Is Good manages to live up to that title.
Nas as late-period Sinatra, reclined in a leather booth in the VIP, ruminating over cigars and bottles of champagne that cost more than your rent. The open track, “No Introduction” is Vegas-era Nas, overblown, with the Don reminiscing about Queensbridge hard times with Celine Dion’s band.
On “Loco-Motive,” the still brilliant Large Professor flips a bassline similar to Jay’s “The Takeover” into a complex subterranean banger. Nas: “They ask how he disappear and reappear on top/They say Nas must have naked pictures of God.”
Elsewhere, on “Daughters” a guy that’s been a total asshole to women for years suddenly wonders why his daughter’s tweeting sexy pictures of herself. “Accident Muderers” is widescreen noir with a showstopping cameo by Rick Ross, who manages to upstage the legend on at his own party. Nas gets his swagger back on “The Don” and “Nasty” flip minimalist, golden-era beats and find Mr. Jones sounding as vital as he’s been since “Made You Look.”
Aside from the ill-fitting attempt as a club hit, the Swizz Beats-produced “Summer on Smash,” it’s a whole lot of Nas in introspective, lion-in-winter mode. It’s a good deal more satisfying than his last, self-titled album’s clumsy mix of pop aspirations and muddled political song – the man’s back to rapping about his one great theme: himself.
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.