(Sandy) Alex G: Rocket

Introduction

Following his recent name change that sought to end the often confused female songwriter known by the same pseudonym, (Sandy) Alex G reemerges to offer one of his most polished records to date, a feature that does not necessarily work for the better.

Let’s be clear, Rocket is most definitely a solid work from cover to back, offering a range of different ideas and sounds that piggyback off each other in ways that are both cryptic and clear depending on the track.  Singles like “Proud” and “Bobby” resonate contemporary Americana through its use of trotting meter and singing fiddles.

On the flip side, songs such as “Brick” bring out industrial properties and harsh noise that emulates the tone of more seasoned hardcore veterans such as Death Grips or even Nine Inch Nails.  Even still, the impressive dynamic of this record cannot win me over all the time.

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The Drawbacks…

“Horse” is an example of a piece that comes across as too messy despite its intentional appeal to being a ‘focus track’.  I enjoyed it upon the first few listens but after becoming more familiar with the track it develops a slight annoyance factor that I can’t tune out.

While I favor some of the later tracks over the front half of the album, there is the issue of ordering and arrangement that also keeps me from being overly attached to this record.  Tracks like “Big Fish” would support the narrative much better to be placed as the very last track.  “Witch”, “Horse” and “Brick” could also be mixed into different intervals to avoid the dissonant void in the middle half of the album.

Lyrics

Focusing on lyrics, Alex G is soaring in this category.  With most songs continuing the two or three verse pattern G has kept up over the years, it’s comforting to see the most intriguing fragment of his work is still surpassing previous projects.  “Judge” is my personal favorite in this category, carrying out a gazey-grunge style musically and emanating powerful words such as:

“All the time
I try to recall
What drove you away from here
What was dream and what was real
Where was I

That day meant nothing to me
A hiccup in my memory
This life will leave you hungry
I am completely guilty”

Even cheesier or more straightforward lines carried out on tracks like “Bobby” create effortless imagery that is propelled by the adolescent inflection of this duet.

“I paint pictures of my heart
The colors blue and purple start
To bleed into an endless dark
It’s only you it’s only you”

While these lyrics stick and please the standards that Alex G has set for his writing, it is admittable that the themes of his tunes are beginning to weigh thin.

Verdict

Rocket showcases some of Alex G’s most versatile talent to date, holding a heavy focus on not leaning on one sound for too long.  While some more folk centered tracks rely upon tired techniques and certain tracks orders could benefit from better placement, this record is a welcome addition to G’s discography and long-term fans shouldn’t have an issue getting into the tracks presented here.  That being said, Rocket may not be for listeners expecting a reinvented artist.  My honest opinion of this album is a 7/10.

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.

Kamasi Washington: Truth EP

There is something to be said about a jazz tune that can effortlessly catch a room’s attention as if each measure was written to outperform the last, like a continuous spiral staircase that becomes more illustrious with each step.

Kamasi Washington’s latest EP does just that by taking a simple refrain and delivering it the same way each time but with a new element of soul and character to expands upon the previous repetition.

The first and only track opens with the accompaniment piano in full swing, causing an abrupt mood jolt from the silence or whatever previous music was happening before the listener presses play.  The cymbal-heavy percussion masks each blank space when the other instrumentation leaves gaps, making sure to cover every area with something interesting to focus on.

For the entirety of the song, one constant element is the climactic frequency that is always changing and never becomes predictable even though the melody remains the same throughout.  An example of this is the mid-track bridge that features the bulk of the moving saxophone moments that are paired with a gentle steel marimba for that extra ’60s samba flair.  Right before this moment, the song reaches a point of a perfectly acceptable climax but instead furthers the track by adding more moving parts to the equation.

This style more closely resembles Miles Davis’ modal tropes of that were also used in many of his pieces where a songs’ opening and closer are both similar and grandiose.

Instead of delivering more of the same for the final third portion of this work, Washington understands that the track needs an extra push to create a sound that has been worth repeating the refrain for around fourteen minutes.  A small symphony performs a striking accompaniment consisting of high strings that help the “voice” of the melody transform even further from its once solitary and mellow position.

Finally, an actual voice is added when every instrument is in full utilization.  A lyricless choir provides its own iteration of the refrain that lets the listener experience the majesty that the entire song had built up.  The ending is dramatic but not gaudy, making careful notice to not overstay its welcome or give way to any stale portions that feel overdone.

Overall, Truth finds its way over to being one of my favorite jazz pieces of the year.  While it could have been an extra off of Washington’s last record The Epic, it still feels like a solid effort to provide listeners with and expanded look at the sound that carried the notorious jazz wizard to his current status in the industry.

 

 

Kendrick Lamar: DAMN

Introduction

At this point in contemporary music culture, it’s no radical idea that Kendrick Lamar is considered by most to be the best rapper alive.  Numerous articles, video essays, and even prominent artists have revered the man in almost every way imaginable, almost to the point of cliché.

Regardless of whether or not Lamar has become a cliché, it is futile to try and discount his work for being anything less than outstanding.  His course from Section.80 all the way to To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) has been a rapid ascension of his talent and writing that every artist in the world should aspire to mimic in their rate of progression.

The problem with releasing such a monumental hip-hop album such as TPAB arises when you sit down and think about the sheer amount of effort it must take to best a work that already appears to be near perfect.  Obviously, an artist wants to say that a new record will be better than the last but anyone and everyone know that eventually, creativity begins to wane at some point or another.

In early hindsight, DAMN was an essential album to release at this point in Lamar’s career.  Going back to the claims made at the beginning of the article, Lamar had already established himself as the greatest rapper alive at the peak of his last record’s limelight.  That being said, his last album was also VERY narrative heavy and required a small amount of patience to get through the interlude and spoken word moments before one could enjoy the music.  To casual music listeners, this could be considered off-putting and provides unjust fruit for potential arguments such as, “Drake had a catchier hook” or “That BIG SEAN track went way harder than ‘How Much a Dollar Cost'”.

These are obviously outrageous hyperboles and comparisons but everyone knows ‘that guy’ who would fill this stereotype and the massive numbers of people out there that continue to follow this illogic.  DAMN is Lamar’s answer to the pop calling that the masses have been coaxing him towards.

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Review

Yes, DAMN is Lamar’s pop album without any doubt.  It’s been a strong thought in my mind ever since I heard ‘HUMBLE’ and the appeal that it had among hardcore and casual listeners of his music.  Unlike previous records, Lamar leans light on the inclusion of a narrative between songs and focuses more on blending a story into the music itself.

‘BLOOD’ starts the album with a Western-inspired instrumental, creating a sense of calm unruliness as Lamar narrates a seemingly nonchalant encounter with a disoriented woman.  As he helps the woman, he finds that this situation is actually a trap and he is immediately gunned down without warning.  Many speculate what exactly this woman represents but for the sake of the narrative, being gunned down is Kendrick’s alternate fate had he not have entered the rap game through his connection with Anthony ‘Top Dawg” Tiffith.  The track also poses the premise of the whole album through the single-word song titles that are either the spawn of wicked or weak nature.

This album design fits in with the nature of other conceptual ideas in Kendrick’s past but feels like the most fragmented address he has ever made.  On the surface, it’s intuitive that Lamar uses this method to add variety between his heavy; gritty deep cuts and some of his softer more melodic centered pieces but deep down, I feel like this could be an excuse to insert more pop elements throughout; some of which work flawlessly and some that stick out like a sore thumb.

‘LOYALTY’ and ‘LOVE’ are two culprits for this example.  Both songs include a highly interesting fusion of top 40s pop elements twisted with Lamar’s conscious lyrics for a medley that has not been seen on any of his solo releases yet.  These tracks add a great amount of reach potential for Lamar’s growing audience but fall flat compared to a majority of the better tracks featured here.  Rihanna’s feature track starts out with a neat mashup of Lamar’s niche ‘reverse’ effect but her singing portion doesn’t amount to anything remotely outside of her typical role on songs like this.  Zacari was a fantastic choice for the type of song ‘LOVE’ aspires to be.  My issue with this track lies primarily within the placement and substance of the song.  It feels forced when put between the two exceptional songs ‘LUST’ and ‘XXX’ and lyrically could be Lamar’s most surface level release to date.  I understand that the appeal here is to be a catchy pop tune but something feels very off about this song in retrospect to the rest of the album.

Ignoring the two or three outlying songs on this album, the rest of the release is nothing but pure goodness.  ‘PRIDE’ is a total dreampop/ hip-hop crossover that is full of lyrical gold, “I can’t fake humble just because you’re insecure” being only the tip of the iceberg.

‘LUST’ takes the cake for having one of the sickest beat drops on the album, as well as clever lyrics painting the metaphor for Lamar’s ‘thirst’ ex. “I need some water”.  The song also diverges into a Euro grime section once or twice, even furthering the genre range of this album.  It’s almost as if Lamar wrote each track on this piece to appeal to a variety of bodies, furthering the number of people that can possibly appreciate at least one or two songs provided here.

 

The production on DAMN is up to par with previous releases.  The sample dropping in ‘DNA’ on the second verse pairs nicely with the aggressive flow happening in the vocals, along with a dirty bassline that must be enjoyed on a quality home speaker system to understand its true glory.  One of my few complaints lies within the song ‘XXX’, the U2 featurette where Bono’s grunting vocals can be heard around two minutes into the track.  To me, this feels like one of those moments that was meant to sound really cool but truly comes off as corny and pseudo-edgy.  Having said that, this isn’t a terrible issue but only distracts from an otherwise decent song.

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Verdict

It would be an understatement to say that there is a lot happening on DAMN.  Kendrick takes the theme of weakness or wickedness down many different paths, each with their own ideological message that can be taken or left, but at least respected nonetheless.  He does all of this while creating some of the deepest accessible music that can be found on the top charts and does it all with the same grace his fans have come to know and love.  For me personally, I view this album as Lamar’s answer to stubborn listeners that weren’t sold on the lyricism and musicality behind TPAB or those that still think Drake is still the best rapper.  Lamar has offered a variety of different sounds for fans to pick and choose what they love or hate, which explains why everyone seems to have very differing opinions about which tracks are hot or not.  I believe DAMN is a good album and could arguably be Lamar’s most important album from a business viewpoint but it most certainly is not his best.  I can understand those that think this album is flawless but specific areas listed above keep me from being completely sold.  My honest opinion of this album is a 7.5/10.

 

 

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.

Childish Gambino: “Awaken, My Love!”

The multitalented comedian, actor, rapper, and recently adopted funkadelic star Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) has finally graced anxiously awaiting fans with his new album “Awaken, My Love!”.

With this new record and genre identity, Glover proves once again that he is not afraid of tackling a new and challenging art, as many were even skeptical after his rap breakthrough on his first release titled Camp, which was quickly followed up by the highly acclaimed Because the Internet record.

While Gambino’s ambitions soar above and beyond what anyone could have imagined on this album (mostly due to the complete absence of rap), the tracks seem to fall flat due to a lack of vision that was so prevalent on his previous release.  Aside from Me and Your Mama and Redbone, the record’s two hit singles that released only a few weeks ago, the rest of the songs seem almost misleading to the style that the previews initially lead on.

The song Zombies is probably the perfect example of when this album begins to feel translucent because even the lyrics featured on here are within the subpar range.  Take the opening verse for example:

“All I see is zombies

Walking all around us

You can hear them coming

(They come to take your life)

You can hear them breathing

Breathing down your spine”

Sure, zombies are a popular metaphor used throughout media and in poetry, but the simple and bland rhetoric paired with a vocal delivery that tries just a little too hard to be weird or “artsy” actually comes across as quite adolescent, or at least undeveloped from a career artist that has made so much better, like his verses on Zealots of Stockholm or Telegraph Ave.

This mistake would be excusable too if it were not for the fact that he does the same thing again in California, but on a much grander scale.  The vocal delivery in this song is so bad, it is comparable to singing through a paper towel tube with a half-closed throat.  That being said, this song does attract positive attention regardless of the odd choice of voice filtration, and that is because the track offers a peppy reggae melody within the first five seconds to distract from the horrendous singing.

The main problem that this album faces is that it cannot decide what audience it is performing to.  Gambino gave his fans a taste of what was to come through the single Me and Your Mama, a progressive piece that builds upon itself through layers of harmony until it explodes in Glover’s fiery roar that truly set the bar for everyone’s hype prior to this release.  From that standpoint, many were expecting to hear a more melodic funk album that everyone could get into.

In reality, Gambino created something much more experimental, but not in a good way.  Decisions were made to keep this record sounding weird, unfinished, and chaotic and that is ultimately what it is.  There are far too many songs that fade out instead of having a direct ending, which comes across as slightly lazy when there is not a sufficient enough reason or motive to end a song in this way.

Other tracks in the latter half of the album end abruptly and at inopportune times, which also seems like an intentional decision that backfired upon public reception.  The point is, this album has all of the creativity but absolutely no direction.  It’s as if Glover woke up one morning and decided he needed to release a funk record as fast as possible.  The new sound and genre for his music was a welcome surprise, but unfortunately “Awaken, My Love” is too ambitious for its own good.  My honest opinion of this album is a 5.5/10