Perfume Genius: No Shape

Generally, a record benefits from having structure and order that help to build upon each and every track into a more complete experience.   For No Shape, the thematic elements that encourage individuality go hand-in-hand with the formless song structures that always begin disjointed but find their place in bombastic chorus and melody.  Mike Hadreas has once again reinvented himself for the better and brings an abundance of fresh ideas to explore in a brief 43-minute segment.

If 2014’s release Too Bright is considered Hadreas’ pop record, No Shape is certainly an expansion of those elements set amongst varying rhythms and diverse instrumentation, setting itself apart from anything the effeminate maestro has released so far.

The first notes of the record play descending piano intervals and place the bar at a low point before exploding into a shimmery; bass-engulfed chorus preceded by Hadreas’ delicate vocals.  After repeating this twice, the transition into the next track is abrupt and greeted by spongey guitar strings that begin in a dark and gritty context but eventually develop into a track that effectively serves as a “part two” to the opener “Otherside” with its similar use of hefty synth basslines.

Part of the love I hold for this album is within its excellent track placement and the way the record ultimately resolves itself into a steady rest, as the BPM noticeably decreases consecutively in the last three tracks and feature a lurking marimba instrumental that propels the empty spaces on “Run Me Through” and finishes strong in Hadreas’ arguably most passionate piece “Alan” which accentuates his normally light; airy tone into a throat-sung and flat inflection that appropriately suits the line of “how weird” at the end of each chorus.

The centerpiece of this album is undoubtedly the track “Wreath” and serves as my favorite song on here.  Everything about it rings so perfectly in the context of the other tracks, it’s no surprise that it fit right in the middle of the album.  From the fade-in intro consisting of bright bells and echoing piano movements, Hadreas paints a hopeful picture that hardly even needs words to express the apparent feelings of this piece.  At the peak of the track, the almost-yodeling vocals harken back to Ezra Koenig style melodies that stick in your head and induce singing along (or at least attempted singing).

If there are any drawbacks here, it’s that some spots feel like additions could have been made to create an even better album than the one delivered.  “Every Night” is a light and moving track that holds a sound resolve but also seems like only a little more than an unmarked interlude that was included for an extra time bonus.  The pacing of “Just Like Love” also feels slightly normal compared to the other chaotic moments on this record and therefore suffers some mundane qualities in the verses but are almost ignorable.

As a whole, “No Shape” forms into a truly solid album that showcases an even furthered look into Perfume Genius’ range and songwriting ability.  Through its narrative-esque structure and dynamic instrumentation choice, there is a lot here to experience for both new fans and long-time listeners of the fabulous chamber-pop icon.  My honest opinion of this album is a 9/10

Gorillaz: Humanz (Deluxe)

Back after a lengthy delay, Gorillaz’ latest album has led to being one of the most anticipated records of the year but ultimately proves to be a somewhat hyped collection of songs that struggle to support one another both thematically and sonically.

In hindsight, I suppose my reservations about this album are not surprising to myself considering the thoughts I had about the early singles.  Specifically, the track “Hallelujah Money”, a song that still remains one of the most obtuse and directionless tracks from the group and the somewhat recent showcase of the song “Saturnz Barz”, an incredible VR music video but a track that (for me at least) began to dwindle in catchiness over time due to overly saturated autotune that lost any appeal after the fourth or fifth listen.

To clarify, this is not any sort of admittance that I wanted or specifically anticipated this album to be bad.  As a longtime Gorillaz fan, it pains me more than anything to say that I feel like this record is anything short of incredible.  Even Plastic Beach, an album with many critiques felt like a stronger effort than the entirety of this latest release.

The biggest flaw to be said of Humanz is within its overtly long tracklisting.  Sitting at a whopping 26 songs for the deluxe version, (which released alongside the standard 20 track edition) this record suffers from the notorious ‘more is better’ fallacy that so many comeback albums tend to practice to no avail.

Speaking generously, there are probably 5 songs provided here that I would not skip outside of a review setting.  The hardest part of reviewing this album was definitely within my ability to focus on the copious amounts of lackluster and overly expository tracks that could not lead to anything noteworthy.

Tracks such as “Momentz” attempt to bring a new direction to classic acts such as De La Soul by throwing in rare uses of vocal filtration (autotune) to the typical jazz rap trio.  This effect does not fair too well and creates an awkward sound that feels too left field as if the writing process this go-around was centered around being as random as humanly possible.

The lyrics on this song as also rubbish and downright confusing.  A sample being:

Got a girl who’s up for the matin’
I sense the need in her grammar
Her nose has never been skatin’ (Uh-huh)
But she’s sippin’ star constellation (Shit)
For real, her squirt game was so like 2Pac out of court run towards camera (Uh-huh)
Her response to that was just, “Check please”

In most cases, it would seem like the most ridiculous complaint in the world to claim that Gorillaz’ sound is too dynamic, a feature that is often niche to every piece that band has created.  Unfortunately, Damon Albarn’s efforts to continue his dynamic group begin to reveal a tired formula that is beginning to show signs of being milked too far.

Even the tracks that I somewhat enjoy on this album feel like they will only amount to short-term listens.  “Ascension” shows a fast paced introduction that roused my attention upon the first several listens but can feel slightly repetitive after hearing “drop that ass ‘fore it crash” after a number of times.  Even the Danny Brown song “Submission” starts off with an unfitting vocal lead that hardly prepares the audience for the rap verse during the latter half of the track.

“Andromeda” is another song that is enjoyable but feels like a silly excuse to tack on another extra ‘culturally relevant’ feature of D.R.A.M. that will slip past your ears if you are not focusing attention at the exact moment of his short chorus.

When looking at what went wrong with this album, the clearest reason is in the approach that was taken with each track.  It’s as if the writing followed the guidelines of ‘the song must either consist of a simple; repetitive chorus or a meandering series of verses with a passable chorus line’.  What happened to blissful hook buildup of “Empire Antz” or the introspective yet playful lyricism of “19-2000”?  Almost every track here feels like there is more to be said or a sound to expand upon.

I wish I could like this album a little bit more but my overall feelings post-listening leave me underwhelmed, confused and even more fearful of comeback records in general.  My honest opinion of this album is a 4/10.

Interview: clipping.

Ahead of their free festival performance at Metro Music Fest in Oklahoma City, clipping. sat down for an interview to talk about Daveed Diggs’ rap origin, the groups’ sonic progression through the years and the expansion of their audience post-Hamilton.

SW: Where are you guys performing tonight?

Jonathan: We’re in St. Petersberg, Florida tonight with the Flaming Lips.

SW: Will this be your first time coming through Oklahoma City this Saturday?

Jonathan: Yes, I’ve driven through it a few times but this will be our first show.

SW: How did you and the Lips start talking and what led you to go on tour together?  It’s quite an unlikely pairing yet seems like it would blend well in hindsight.

Jonathan: Our booking agent gives us lists of names that we could potentially do shows with and when we were suggested The Flaming Lips we thought they would be a good choice.  They’re a fun group and we love hanging out with them.

SW: Is there anyone in particular that you have to thank for your introduction into the rap game?

Daveed: I guess I would have to thank the director Jake Schreier, someone I actually went to high school with.  He is known for Robot & FrankPaper Towns and has worked on videos for Francis and the Lights.  I was around 14 or 15 when he asked me if I could rap for a beat that he was working on and that was the first time I had ever rapped on anything.

SW: How did you learn to rap so fast?

Daveed: Re-pe-tition?  We were just talking about this the other day. Back when I first started recording songs I was working with a guy named Romel Hopkins [aka] “Wild Man”.  Will was also on board with some of our projects and the fast verse style came from this beat that required a good amount of speed.  I remember the situation being almost “boot camp” style, with the two of them having me do 100 takes before they were satisfied with the sound.  It’s a combination of writing things with consonants that go well together and also just training your muscles for every specific song.

SW: Very neat to hear that is how the talent was honed.  I also asked because I know your presence in the Los Angeles area has given way to a performance or two with Busdriver.  Did he teach you any skills?

Daveed:  We grew up listening to Busdriver for sure.  I had actually only met him maybe a year or so before we toured with him.

William: Daveed and I saw him in either ’99 or ’00, right when he was out of high school.  I remember he was wearing a safari helmet and opened for Lab Tech 1, an underground rapper from Baltimore.

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SW: Being known for your harsh noise during earlier sets in your career, when did your sound shift to blend both areas of hook hip-hop with the same experimental vibe that you’ve carried for so long?

William: I think it’s more that we’ve transitioned the sound to be slightly calmer.

Jonathan: With our last record, we were trying to make everything feel very practical and within a specific world that lead us to different choices than we would have made if any sound was free-game.

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SW:  How has your time in Hamilton impacted your fanbase for clipping.?

Daveed: We get a lot more dads bringing their kids to our shows now.

William: We really love it though.  The way I explain it, Hamilton really exposed us to a bigger group that otherwise wouldn’t have discovered us.

Daveed: Because of that, a certain percentage of the audience at our shows possibly don’t know anything about the community of artists we come from.  When we book shows with other great lesser-known bands it gives us an opportunity to introduce new music to an audience that may have never known about it and the crowd always seems to enjoy the variety.

SW: Are there any nods or references in your lyrics that people interpret the wrong way?

Jonathan: I was just thinking, it’s not a sample but there’s a line in the song “Summertime” that no one has ever talked about that says “they pitchin’ that Helen Mirren” which is a reference to U.S.D.A.’s “White Girl”, whereas the cocaine representing white girl in our case,  is Helen.  We thought it was really funny but no one has ever asked or heard about the line.  That’s the meaning though.

SW: With your extensive knowledge of noise and ambient works, I’d like to know how you define what a good ambient track sounds like.

William: Woah.  There is a lot that goes into the criteria but to start, I like a track that doesn’t feel aimless.  I mean that in the sense that the artist isn’t making aimless efforts, there’s a difference between a stylistic technique and someone that may just be lacking creative direction.  There’s also a lot to be said about the pacing of a track and making sure everything kind of amounts to something.  I like these sort of clear; timbrel concepts I guess.

SW: Where do you see your sound heading next?

William: As much as we would love to say something concrete there are just some things that we would like to hold back on until the time is right.  I will say that we are very interested in continuing to do albums as a cohesive experience rather than adding each track as self-contained edits.

SW: What legacy do you want clipping. to leave?  

William: Oh man, being the first rap group to win a Nobel Prize for sure.

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If you find yourself in the Oklahoma City area for ACM@UCO’s Metro Music Fest, definitely stop by The Criterion, 500 E Sheridan Ave, Oklahoma City, OK 73104 at 9:30 for a free and incredible show from these talented men.

Animal Collective: The Painters EP

Animal Collective (AnCo) have continued to showcase a steady stream of activity since the release of Painting With in early 2016, with continuous touring and even a short selection of singles that followed the last album. Those tracks, unfortunately, fell flat due to being overly obnoxious and even borderline childish, as if they were written specifically for a children’s television program.

Even so, Painting With was not exactly a killer record either and suffered from many redundant techniques and an overall lack of direction on the entire project with tracks such as “Spilling Guts” and “Recycling”, just to name the obviously bad ones.  With the announcement of this EP, I was left intrigued but also wary that the group would release another piece that would not even top their last record.

After several run-throughs of this four track EP, I am happy to say that there is more here than my prior expectations.  Starting with “Kinda Bonkers”, the first impression is that AnCo are back to a more acoustic or organic sound, at least compared to their two previous records that were highly synthetic.  That being said, the music is still coupled with a heavy amount of electronic instrumentation.  The entire track features a very Eastern style that fits the mystic theme that the Earth is rather “bonkers” and frankly, the song is quite catchy and does not overstay its welcome.

The middle tracks have their pros and cons, starting with the second song “Peacemaker” which provides an incredibly moody vibe that has been missing in AnCo’s music for so long.  In addition, this track also utilizes the “echo duet” vocal technique that was run into the ground on Painting With.  Funny enough, this style actually works very well for this piece and offers a sort of hypnotic effect that adds further contrast from the other tracks.  Following this song, “Goalkeeper” serves as the “runt of the litter” so to speak, due to its directionless verses and premature climax in the first three seconds that leaves no space for the song to grow.  The chorus is actually semi-pleasant but falls short due to the faults listed above.  If anything, these tracks might have been better if they were conjoined into one two-part song like something off of Fall Be Kind.

This EP concludes with “Jimmy Mack” a cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ late ’60s soul/ swing tune.  Seeing a song of this nature covered by AnCo is entertaining and admittedly catchy.  The digital flutes and “swing” factor show a side of the band that feels fresh and the energy is comparable to classic tracks like “Brothersport”.  Where it lacks, the song does begin to grow tired after the first or second chorus.  Nothing new is provided in the latter portion of the song and therefore becomes predictable and stale by the end.

The Painters EP showcases that Animal Collective still have a few creative tricks up their sleeves, but just barely rise above the quality of their other lackluster works within the last year.  This short list of songs is worth at least one or two listens, but do not expect any monumental return to form on this release.  My honest opinion of this EP is a 6/10.

The xx: I See You

The iconic trio responsible for one of the most well known “Intro” tracks in contemporary music is back to offer a third succession in their discography after a decently long hiatus within the band.   During this break, Jamie xx has been hard at work refining the group’s sound within his own solo projects.  The 2015 record “In Colour” surprised many fans with its climactic buildups and overall more bombastic electronica sound that is very much a polar opposite to the timid and stripped down nature of The xx.  With this new album, Jamie is able to mesh his hair-raising melodies with the trained voices of Oliver Sim and Romy Croft to form a much more interesting version of The xx, and quite possibly their best recording to date.

The above statement is verified right from the first few seconds of the album, as a loud and boisterous fanfare of horns opens the track “Dangerous”, which helps to verify that this album aims to be different from previous releases.  The upbeat percussion loops that follow also show quite a contrast from older albums, which are typically focused upon more soft and minimalistic drumbeats.  Another fantastic track is “Replica”, which features the iconic guitar plucking used throughout much of the band’s 2009 release but fused with synthetic keyboards with washed out effects that create an almost EDM-esque level of buildup.

While there is a great degree of change on this record, the band saves some of their older styles on “Brave for You”, which brings down the tempo and relies on more of the traditional instrumentation over Jamie’s house inspired production.  Another song that early fans will appreciate is “Say Something Loving”, with its misleading Beatles sounding sample that actually comes from 1976 recording of “Do You Feel it?” by Alessi Brothers.  The vocals on this song are long and drawn out but convey a heartfelt and passionate message that is made less gaudy because of the interesting music around it.

When approaching the cons of this album, the only notable flaws can be found within the lyrics and vocals that exist within this piece.  That being stated, there is nothing awful to be said other than that Sim and Croft do not showcase the same level of growth in their talent to match the efforts of Jamie Smith.  Most of the lyrical themes showcased deal with reunion or coming back together, which could be a more personal tale of the band member’s conflicts with one another.  That idea is fine, but the ambiguity is a little too much to create any resonating emotions, and therefore comes across as no more relatable than any other pop song.  All things considered, the chemistry between the vocal parts here is still at an astonishing level as it always has been with The xx, and the best showcase of this is on “Lips” with Croft blending her falsetto with Sim’s resolving lower register response.

Overall, The xx have left behind a hefty surprise for such an early release in 2017.  With an album that only gets better towards the latter half, tracks such as “On Hold” and “I Dare You” will be the ones that resonate in the heads of fans and newcomers alike.  If The xx have never been amusing to you before, now might be the time to give them another chance.  My honest opinion of this album is an 8/10.