THE BLACK KEYS – DELTA KREAM album review

THE BLACK KEYS – DELTA KREAM

Nonesuch, 2021

Blues, Garage blues, rock

If I had to guess at the dialogue that happened between the members of The Black Keys over the past decade, based entirely on the albums that were released in that time, I think it would go something like this.

2011 – “Hey, these last two albums that we released (Brothers and El Camino) are totally different from all the work we did before, but people are really eating it up! Let’s stay on this path and keep experimenting and see what happens. I wonder if our fans dig psychedelic stuff?”

2014 – “Hmmm… the fans didn’t seem to like that psychedelic stuff too much (Turn Blue). Let’s finish out this tour and take a little break and focus on other things. Maybe when we come back together, we’ll have some good ideas.”

2019 – “Okay, we tried to recreate the magic of El Camino, but that clearly didn’t work (Let’s Rock). I think we need to reassess what this band was and is supposed to be. What if we just did what we used to do back in the beginning and just jam on some old Mississippi blues songs?”

Clearly, this is all speculation and fictional. I don’t know Dan Auerbach or Patrick Carney personally, nor do I have any connections to offer me any insight to the decisions that led to the creation of their newest album, Delta Kream. But, I don’t believe this is an entirely farfetched assumption when you look at the band’s release history. They have effectively come back around to the sounds and inspirations of their earlier material after a couple significant changes in sound and a couple disappointing albums.

Sorry for being “that guy,” but I was into The Black Keys before they were cool. My first introduction to them was their 2006 EP Chulahoma, a collection of songs originally recorded by Junior Kimbrough. It’s a very similar formula to Delta Kream, only now we’re getting more tracks from more artists like John Lee Hooker and R.L. Burnside. I will admit that when the band made its first major stylistic change on the album Brothers, I was a little disappointed that they moved away from their bluesier sound. But the album was so damn good that I didn’t care that much, and the same applies to El Camino. But with every album, I always wondered if they’d ever get back to their blues roots. Delta Kream is exactly that return. It’s the Chulahoma formula, but with some key differences.

Chulahoma was released while the band was still recording in basements and abandoned factories in Akron, Ohio. In the time since, Dan Auerbach has opened his own recording studio in Nashville, recreating vintage recording techniques and recording and producing for legendary blues musicians, bluegrass and country bands, and R&B singers. The recordings on Delta Kream still have some dusty vintage vibes to them, but layers of dirt and grime from their garage rock days are gone. This is evident on the album’s opener, John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling Kingsnake.” There are times in the chorus where Auerbach slurs the lyrics, but you feel like it might have been more effective if things were more lo-fi.

If you want to draw another comparison with their previous releases, the whole vibe of Delta Kream is pretty laid back. The old albums were pretty raucous affairs. Carney would pummel his drums, but that was probably necessary to give them any resemblance of definition and to keep from being swallowed by Auerbach’s fuzzy guitars. Now things feel far more restrained. It’s a similar story with the guitars; there are more solos and extended jams, but there’s just not as much energy behind it as there was back in the early ’00s. And you don’t have to wonder what an old Keys song would sound like with this new sound. They include an updated cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “Do the Romp,” previously recorded as “Do the Rump” on their 2002 debut, The Big Come Up. If you want a clear demonstration of the difference between old blues Black Keys and new blues Black Keys, just listen to those back-to-back.

I know it seems like I’m complaining a lot with these comparisons to their early albums, but it’s hard not to make them when the band is making such an obvious attempt to go back to their original inspirations. But at the end of the day, this is still a pretty good album. They very faithfully capture the vibe of the songs they’re covering and the jam sections are the slinkiest they’ve been since that Chulahoma EP I mentioned above. You can tell the guys are having a good time in the studio banter that’s included in some tracks, and if this album introduces a new generation to Mississippi blues music, I don’t see how that couldn’t be a good thing.

The album does have its issues, though. Some jams can feel a little drawn out and others end abruptly. Their cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Going Down South” has some falsetto work from Auerbach that threatens to get annoying before the instrumental gets good. Other songs on the back half of the album don’t have real sticky hooks and can blend into the background. But the good still significantly outweighs the bad.

Delta Kream marks a welcome return to form for The Black Keys, not only in terms of style and genre, but in quality as well. I don’t know if this album represents a reset in the band’s career, but I hope that Auerbach and Carney have found the inspiration they went looking for. And I also hope that this means we’ll start consistently getting Black Keys albums of this quality or better again.

7/10

DINOSAUR JR. – SWEEP IT INTO SPACE album review

DINOSAUR JR. – SWEEP IT INTO SPACE

Jagjaguwar, 2021

Alternative rock, indie rock

In general, the long career of Dinosaur Jr. is considered to be separated into three distinct eras. There are the early years where the band was a key figure in the beginnings of American alternative rock. Then came the major label years in the ’90s where the band saw the most commercial success on 1994’s Without a Sound. However, by the end of this run, singer and guitarist J Mascis would be the only remaining founding member and he would soon retire the Dinosaur Jr. name. But in 2005, Mascis would reunite with original bandmates Lou Barlow and Murph and Dinosaur Jr. would be reborn. This third era of the band would last longer than either of the two previous eras and, with the release of Sweep It Into Space, produce more material as well. And this 21st century version of Dinosaur Jr. is my Dinosaur Jr.

That’s not to say that I ignore or see no value in the band’s previous releases. The first albums are brilliant and Without a Sound was successful for a reason. But the third era was contemporary with my own growth and developing musical tastes. I was introduced to them through 2009’s Farm, a fantastic album which led me back to Beyond, and kept my ears open for I Bet On Sky and Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. This latest release fits nicely among them, and a big part of that is because the majority of the album is business as usual for the band.

That’s not a problem because Dinosaur Jr. is a band where business as usual is a good thing. Business as usual means fuzzy guitars, catchy hooks, tight rhythms, and ripping guitar solos. These elements are all present from the very beginning of album opener “I Ain’t” which also has lyrics about loneliness and alienation, another trademark of the band. Similar sounds and themes can be found throughout the album on tracks like “And Me” and “Hide Another Round.” There are some flirtations with other instruments and styles like the piano in “Take It Back” and the hard rock riffs of “I Met The Stones.” There’s also some additional production and instrumentation from Kurt Vile throughout the album, most notably the 12-string guitar on “I Ran Away.”

Sweep It Into Space isn’t without its faults, however. The track “Garden,” written by bassist Lou Barlow, who performs lead vocals, just doesn’t feel quite like it fits in with the rest of the album. That’s not a knock on Barlow, because the song isn’t bad on its own. And his other contribution to the album, closing track “You Wonder,” fits in just fine. “Garden” just sticks out. There’s also the track “I Expect It Always” which has riffs that repeat a little too often and flat melodies that do the same. Again, not a terrible song, but not quite to the same standard as everything else.

In terms of quality, pretty much everything that Dinosaur Jr. has released in its “third era” has been at least good, if not a little forgettable in the cases of I Bet On Sky and Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. If had to place Sweep It Into Space among the albums of this era, I’d say it fits right in the middle. It’s not quite the challenging masterpiece that Farm was, and while it has the same spirit as Beyond, it doesn’t quite reach the same level. However, there are moments that are far more memorable than what Sky and Glimpse had to offer. It’s a good album that exemplifies what Dinosaur Jr. are all about at this point in their career. It’s business as usual, but that’s exactly what we want from them.

7/10

A DAY TO REMEMBER – YOU’RE WELCOME album review

A DAY TO REMEMBER – YOU’RE WELCOME

Fueled by Ramen, 2021

Pop rock, pop punk, easycore

Easycore was a weird moment, wasn’t it? Somewhere in pop-punk’s resurgence in the late ’00s to early ’10s, someone dared to ask what would happen if they made pop-punk with breakdowns, and the rest is history… literally. Now, about a decade on, the scene has all but died save for a couple of the bigger bands. Which is honestly a shame as I happen to really enjoy easycore. Four Year Strong’s self-titled album is full of bangers and A Day to Remember’s Homesick was a hallmark album of my early college years. If anyone knows about any bands that are keeping easycore alive, please let me know. Because, from the perspective of a (mostly) outside observer, it seems like the genre is barely hanging on anymore. And I think A Day to Remember recognizes this. You’re Welcome, their latest album, contains a lot of experimentation with various brands of pop rock in what feels like an attempt to figure out how they can stay relevant at this stage in their career. I can understand why they’d want to do this, and it’s a mostly noble effort, but I feel like the results are mixed at best.

The biggest problem, to me, is that there’s not a lot here that really feels like A Day to Remember. This album feels like a band who doesn’t know who they are trying to find what sticks to get airplay. Which is more disappointing when the band in question has an established identity. I’m not opposed to bands experimenting and branching out in to new things, but the attempts on this album ultimately feel weak. I mean, “Bloodsucker” sounds like Imagine Dragons, “F.Y.M.” sounds like WALK THE MOON, and “High Diving” sounds like fun. with heavy guitars. And it doesn’t stop there. Some songs just give off a vibe that feels familiar, but in an unoriginal way. “Resentment” and “Looks Like Hell” almost sound like Christian hard rock, a genre notorious for chasing trends (and I swear the latter sounds like a Switchfoot song). Other songs like “Only Money,” “Everything We Need,” and certain parts of “Degenerates” sound painfully generic. Some songs even have moments that feel like they could have been co-written by Jack Antonoff, which makes sense when you consider the fun. comparison from earlier.

But similarity doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “Viva La Mexico” sounds like it might have been inspired by one of the goofier pop rock bands from the mid-’00s like Fountains of Wayne or Bowling For Soup. But the band brings their easycore edge to the track and it ends up being one of the better tracks on the album, and one of the very few where I can tolerate listening to the whole thing. Similarly, “Re-Entry” feels like a classic blink-182 song with an ADTR flair, and it, coupled with “Permanent” feel like the most like ADTR on the whole album, and we don’t get them until the final quarter. But these are really the only bright spots among all the issues mentioned above and others like “Last Chance To Dance (Bad Friend)” being a borderline nu-metal song, as if to prove that they’re still heavy, and the rest of the songs on the album being largely forgettable.

While You’re Welcome is a disappointing album, it’s not a complete failure. Despite their familiarity, songs like “F.Y.M.” and “Everything We Need” are undeniably catchy, and A Day to Remember does manage to put an imprint on certain tracks that is undeniably theirs. “Degenerates” is, literally, half a good song. And once again, I don’t fault bands for trying new things. When you come from a sub-genre that’s such a flash in the pan like easycore, you don’t really have a choice if you want to survive. The problem is when the attempts feel so mediocre and half-assed, especially when you know that a band is capable of doing better.

4/10

June Quick Takes, Part 3: My Picks

And we’ve made it to the third installment of my June Quick Takes. Here we have the releases that aren’t necessarily the biggest name artists that I wanted to make sure I shared my thoughts on them. This will wrap up my scored coverage of the month of June. This will be followed by another round of quick takes for the month of July to get us all caught up to the current month, and I will hopefully be back to full album reviews in a couple weeks. But for now, check out my picks below from the month of June.

LuckyMe

BAAUER – PLANET’S MAD–Yes, this is the “Harlem Shake” guy, and while that song came out all the way back in 2013, this is only the EDM producer’s second full length album. And I would encourage you to not let “Harlem Shake” sour your opinion towards his music. I’m not really sure how to categorize the music that’s on this album. While he has moved on from the trap EDM of his earlier singles, there is still elements of it present. Specifically, some of the production here is beat-centric with minimal sounds outside of the percussion and bass, to the point of some songs having drops that are basically drums only. And these are mixed in such a way that they hit incredibly hard. There’s also a lot of world influence on some of these beats, giving them rhythms that almost compel the body to move. There’s even a track that dabbles in drum ‘n’ bass and the mandatory synthpop song. They’re not all winners, but it’s a very good album nonetheless. 4.0/5.0

Columbia

HAIM – WOMEN IN MUSIC PT. III–For their third album, the Haim sisters enlist the songwriting and production assistance of former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij. This isn’t all that surprising because he worked on a few songs on their second album. But on Women in Music, he worked on the vast majority of the tracks. And his fingerprints are everywhere, to the point that several tracks sound like they could be Modern Vampires of the City era Vampire Weekend songs. But that’s not a bad thing! If you look back at my favorites from 2013, I hold up that VW album as one of the best of the decade, and the Haims obviously bring enough of their own influence to make this clearly one of their albums. In the end, this is a great pop rock album that is loaded with memorable hooks and enough left-of-center production to help it really stand out. 4.0/5.0

Earth Analog

HUM – INLET–I’ll admit that this is the first time I had heard anything from Hum. This album was surprise released back in June and I noticed a lot of people were really hyped on it. I gave it a try and I honestly liked what I heard. Their brand of alternative rock with thick, metallic guitar riffs was pretty cool. I was inspired to go back and listen to their ’90s albums and come back to view Inlet through a more contextual lens. And… my opinion of it decreased a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty good, but when you compare it to the albums from Hum’s peak, it comes across a little one-note and not quite as dynamic, even when compared to Downward Is Heavenward, the album closest to it stylistically. Again, this is still pretty good, but it could be better. Maybe, if this reunion lasts, a really great Hum album is in the future. 3.0/5.0

Dead Oceans/Night Time Stories

KHRUANGBIN – MORDECHAI–This is the third album from psychedelic funk trio Khruangbin. And as might be expected, the band does a good job of pulling off the sound of vintage soul and funk production with their songs. There are a couple tracks that have some really solid grooves and they even dabble in one or two world genres, like on the Latin influenced “Pelota.” But, the bottom line is that the majority of the album is just boring. Save for a few tracks, most of the songs are pretty slow burning tracks that don’t go much of anywhere over the course of four minutes or more. They just end up fading into the background and, before you know it, you’re one or two songs further down the track list. 2.0/5.0

Hospital

METRIK – EX MACHINA–I’m generally not much of a drum ‘n’ bass guy, but I do like a good EDM banger from time to time. And boy, does this new album from Metrik have some bangers. Metrik is an English producer who has been active for over 10 years. What impresses me about this album is that this is DnB music filtered through more modern EDM genres like dubstep and even synthwave. But there’s also an influence of rock music, like the driving verses on “Parallel” that recall down-stroked guitar rhythms, and the literal electric guitar on “Closer” and “Thunderblade.” The best tracks sound like a modern refresh of the kind of songs you’d find on the soundtrack of a ’90s Need For Speed video game. Unfortunately, the album is a little front-loaded with all the best tracks taking up the first half. That’s not to say the back half isn’t good, it’s just not as exciting as the first. 3.5/5.0

Dead Oceans

PHOEBE BRIDGERS – PUNISHER–In 2017, Phoebe Bridgers released her debut album, Stranger in the Alps. Almost immediately, other people wanted to work with her in some regard. Between then and now, she has collaborated in some way with Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Conor Oberst, Christian Lee Hutson, and The 1975. It’s like all these people recognized her potential and wanted to get on the Bridgers train before anyone else realized it. The thing is, it also appears that Bridgers realized the value of surrounding yourself with supportive and talented people. Nearly all of the people I mentioned contribute to this album in some way, and it’s that much better for it. Everything that made her debut great is improved and all the flaws have been fixed. The songs are personal and emotional and hit you just the right way, and they’re backed up with fantastic instrumentals. This is a real highlight of the year so far. 4.5/5.0

Night School/Thrilling Living

SPECIAL INTEREST – THE PASSION OF–Fair warning, this isn’t going to be for everybody, but if you’re into noisy industrial post-punk that leans more on the punk than the post, then you’re going to love this. I often say that some artists have a punk energy, but this band absolutely has one. They are always loud with lyrics that aren’t sung so much as shouted. Pulsing, unsettling electronic beats drive just about every song on the album, and they’re not afraid to let their drum machines distort or to throw in a little static to accompany their dissonant guitars. And the loudness and anger isn’t just an act. They come from the New Orleans DIY scene, and you sense that this is the product of a genuine, righteous anger. 4.0/5.0

Velvet Blue

STARFLYER 59 – MIAMI EP–Starflyer 59 is the indie rock project of songwriter Jason Martin, has been consistently active for over 25 years, and was one of the original bands on Tooth and Nail records. That translates to 15 albums and 9 EPs. Miami is the latest EP and the first in over 10 years, coming only a year after his last full-length album, Young in My Head. The track list has 3 new songs and 2 reworked tracks from the last album. Sonically, this is pretty much your standard Starflyer fare: guitar driven indie rock with influences from ’80s post-punk and alternative with the tiniest hint of Martin’s shoegaze roots. The only real deviation is a little flirtation with ’60s rock and roll on “Once More” filtered through the Starflyer sound. Martin’s consistency can end up being a bit of a curse rather than a blessing on longer albums, so this EP’s 19 minute run time keeps things from getting stale. If you’re not familiar with Starflyer 59, this is a good way to get introduced to their current style. 3.5/5.0

June Quick Takes, Part 1: Big Names

And we’re back! I’ve finally decided to break my hiatus, and to get back into things I figured I’d do something similar to the Quarantine Quick Takes I did for March. I’ll probably end up doing a set of these for July as well to get fully caught up. But these will follow the same format as the ones before, there will be 3 installments and the first will cover releases from big name artists. These will be longer than my typical monthly review lists and they will actually have a score attached to them as well. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on some major releases from the month of June.

Columbia

BOB DYLAN – ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS–After 3 consecutive albums of cover songs, one of which was a triple album of American standards, Bob Dylan has given us his first album of original material in 8 years. It’s been met with a lot of critical acclaim, but sometimes I wonder if that’s just because he’s Bob Dylan and you’re supposed to like his stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dylan and his songwriting, but I’m not so sure this album deserves all the glowing reviews it’s getting. First off, the album’s title is only really indicative of two tracks in terms of sound. Second, Dylan has become a bit indulgent in his later years. This album is 70 minutes long and no song is less than 4 minutes, and more than half of them are over 6, including the 17-minute epic, “Murder Most Foul.” Of course, there are lyrical highlights because it’s Dylan, but sometimes I feel like I need a Master’s in music history to understand what’s going on. Overall, the album is still good, it’s likely his best work since 2006’s Modern Times, but this isn’t going to appeal to many people who aren’t already fans. 3.5/5.0

will.i.am/Epic

BLACK EYED PEAS – TRANSLATION–2 years after their comeback album, the now Fergie-less Black Eyed Peas have decided to hop on the reggaeton train and release an album with a very heavy Latin influence. It goes about as well as you’d expect an American group trying to capitalize on a foreign genre would go. Though it’s not like they didn’t try their darndest to do it well. The Peas recruit big names in Latin music like J Balvin, Maluma, and Shakira to feature on this album, and there are a couple tracks that pull off some pretty serviceable reggaeton. But the majority of the tracks here just play like generic Latin beats with nothing to make them stand out apart from the Latin artists who built their careers in the genre. The lyrics can be pretty bad too. I don’t know if that’s a product of translating typical Spanish reggaeton lyrics to English or what, but some of them are just laughable. There’s also a pretty corny interpolation of “Super Freak” on one track, and the album’s closer is just an awful attempt at being relevant to current events. I’m not going to say that American artists can’t adapt Latin music, but if we’re going to, we’ll have to do better than this. 1.5/5.0

Easy Eye Sound

CEELO GREEN – CEELO GREEN IS THOMAS CALLAWAY–On his 6th album, CeeLo Green has gone for a bit of a stylistic shift from the super slick, modern pop and R&B with hints of funk and soul to straight-up, old school soul. Honestly, this change is pretty welcome considering Green’s last really good and successful album was 2010’s The Lady Killer, and album whose popularity was undoubtedly bolstered by its smash hit single, “Fuck You.” Since then, Green has released a Christmas album and one other studio album, and you’d be forgiven for not knowing that because I didn’t either. Both were critical disappointments, so Green was in a position for a little reinvention. To do that, he enlisted the help of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and released it on his Easy Eye Sound label. If you want to record an old-school record, Dan’s the man, but his devotion to vintage sound and recording techniques can be a blessing and a curse. There are definitely highlights here, and Green’s voice is great for the old-school sound. But the album is sometimes vintage to a fault, which is becoming a calling card for Easy Eye Sound. Hopefully this is a sign of good things to come as CeeLo works on this new direction. 2.5/5.0

Interrabang

JASON MRAZ – LOOK FOR THE GOOD–If you follow me on Instagram, I already wrote a pretty scathing mini-review of this in the midst of my hiatus. And no, my opinion of it hasn’t improved over time. I know most people haven’t paid too close attention to Jason Mraz for 12 years or so, but this really has to be the lowest he’s gone. This is a reggae album. Not his typical reggae inspired, ukulele bitch blue eyed soul, but actual reggae. Or at least some ultra polished, major label version of reggae. Not only does this music have no soul, but the lyrics are among Mraz’s worst. There are empty, feel-good platitudes (seriously, there’s a song with the lyrics “make love, not war”), awkward mentions of puberty and masturbation, and even a track where every word is repeated one after another. Add to all that the optics of a white guy from Virginia releasing an album in an inseparably black genre at this particular point in our country’s history. And no, having an older black reggae artist feature on a song doesn’t make it okay. We can hope that things can only get better from here, and maybe this is what will inspire Mraz to make more music like his first two albums again. 0.0/5.0

Epic/Nuclear Blast

LAMB OF GOD – self titled–After the longest break between albums in their entire career (5 years), Lamb of God have returned with their 8th album, and the first without founding drummer Chris Adler. And after over 20 years and 7 albums, they’ve finally decided to put out a self-titled album. (Either that, or they finally ran out of ideas for titles.) Anyway, despite the long break and the new drummer, Lamb of God have picked things right back up as if nothing has changed. They deliver their brand of groovy thrash and metalcore without sounding stale or repetitive. Basically, it sounds like Lamb of God. That might be disappointing to some people, but these guys have a style that works really well for them. Sometimes you’re hungry for a specific type of heavy music, and that happens to be Lamb of God, and they’re good at consistently serving it up. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Even the album cover just screams Lamb of God. An added bonus are the features of Jamey Jasta and Chuck Billy who bring some nice variety. This album isn’t anything new, but it’s really good at being what it is. 4.0/5.0

Reprise

NEIL YOUNG – HOMEGROWN–This is the latest release from Neil Young’s Archives series. Homegrown is made up of songs that were recorded between 1974 and 1975, between the albums On the Beach and Zuma. It was intended to be released in 1975, but Tonight’s the Night was put out instead, despite being recorded almost 2 years prior. Homegrown sat unreleased that entire time until now. The sound of this album leans a bit more towards the folk and country influence of Harvest rather than the psychedelic tone of Beach or the leanings toward hard rock found on Zuma. Some of the songs almost sound like they could have been recorded in the same sessions as the Harvest record. And that should give you a sense of which version of Neil Young you’re getting. These are earthy tracks with personal lyrics inspired by Young’s relationship at the time. These are the sessions where the original version of “Love Is a Rose” was recorded. It’s nice to have these songs from one of the best eras of Young’s career see the light of day and fill in some of the gaps. 4.0/5.0

Hopeless

NEW FOUND GLORY – FOREVER + EVER x INFINITY–New Found Glory have officially hit double digits with their studio albums, an impressive feat for any band. But what’s especially impressive for this one is that not only is this the 10th album of a pop-punk band from the early 2000s, but it’s good! Usually bands of this genre and vintage are broken up, doing reunion shows, or making bland pop rock that only the most die hard fans will hear. That’s not to say NFG haven’t flirted with the more mature pop rock that these bands tend to evolve towards. They have on a few previous albums with mixed results. However, this album is bona-fide early 2000s pop-punk, right down to the lyrics. And the lyrics are written in a way that they don’t sound corny, which is important when you have a band of guys pushing 40 singing songs about feelings and girls. They also reap the benefits of modern production. I know super clean production isn’t exactly in vogue in the pop-punk world these days, but there’s nothing quite like those polished hooks when they hit. In short, this is exactly the album that old pop-punk heads have been waiting for. A legacy band making music like they did 20 years ago but a little more mature. 3.5/5.0

Jewel Runners/BMG

RUN THE JEWELS – RTJ4–El-P and Killer Mike, Yankee and the Brave, not the heroes we need, but the heroes we deserve, have returned when their country needed them most. This dynamic duo of hardcore hip-hop have given us another collection of incredibly solid tracks. They even released the album a few days early in the midst of the protests happening across the country. The beats hit hard and the lyrics hit even harder with their social consciousness, political commentary, and humor. Tracks like “walking in the snow” and “JU$T” hit especially hard, with Killer Mike delivering a harrowing verse on the former where he outlines plight of African Americans and almost prophetically quotes Eric Garner and retroactively, George Floyd. The feature list on the album is impressive too, with contributions from DJ Premier, Pharrell Williams, Zach de la Rocha, Mavis Staples, and Josh Homme. All serving their respective tracks well. Run The Jewels are among the best in the hip-hop game right now, and RTJ4 further proves it. 4.5/5.0

Good Albums I Didn’t Review in May 2020

It’s that time again! Another month has come and gone. As always, I can’t get to everything, so there’s quite a bit of good music that I don’t get to review, especially this month since there were 5 Fridays. You’ll probably notice something a little different about this month’s list. In light of recent and ongoing events, I’ve decided to highlight artists of color. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to fill up the list as May was also an excellent month for black artists. So, collected below are releases I think you should check out.

Grimalkin

BACKXWASH – GOD HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS LEAVE HIM OUT OF IT–Backxwash is a Canadian hip-hop artist who’s style contains elements of industrial hip-hop and horrorcore. These styles pair very well with her lyrics that often deal with evil, magic, and the occult. A lot of the darkness in her lyrics come from her personal experiences, not only as a person of color, but also as a black trans woman. If you like your hip-hop dark, heavy, and noisy, check this out.

ByStorm/RCA

DEANTE’ HITCHCOCK – BETTER–This album is actually the first I’ve heard of Deante’ Hitchcock, but apparently this has been a long time coming. Better was preceded by several mixtapes and EPs since 2012. In that time he’s attracted the attention of other big rappers like Wale and J. Cole, even being invited to appear on the latest Revenge of the Dreamers project from J. Cole’s Dreamville. This album very good, showcasing Hitchcock’s skill as a rapper, lyricist, and even a singer, and it has features from JID, 6LACK, and more.

ESGN/ALC/EMPIRE

FREDDIE GIBBS/THE ALCHEMIST – ALFREDO–May was just a fantastic month for hip hop. I’ve heard some of the best rap albums so far this year since maybe February. Alfredo is probably the best yet. I’m more familiar with Freddie Gibbs’ work with Madlib, and while Madlib is one of my favorite producers in general, The Alchemist is probably a better match for Gibbs. Something about these beats just brings out the best in Freddie’s flows and attitude. They play off each other so well, matching tones and moods perfectly. Even the features are good with guest verses from rappers like Rick Ross and Tyler, The Creator. It’s really just a total package album, good front to back.

Iron Works

KA – DESCENDANTS OF CAIN–Ka is a Brooklyn based rapper who has a unique style all his own. His raps come across almost conversational, like a poet reciting in a coffee shop rather than a rapper. His lyrics use Biblical imagery and the metaphor of the cursed lineage of Cain, the first murderer, to tell stories of his life growing up on the city blocks of New York. Ka produces the majority of the tracks on this album and the instrumentals have an almost stark feel to them, but they’re not minimalist. You really have to hear it for yourself to understand it.

Fltbys

KOTA THE FRIEND – EVERYTHING–I don’t really know how to categorize this one because there’s clear trap influence on this album, but instead hard hitting beats, the instrumentals feel bright and airy with jazz guitar samples. This is almost… summer rap. Like a trap version of something like Shwayze. These are songs for driving along the beach in a convertible or riding your bike in the middle of the day when school’s out or you’re on vacation. It’s a nice, feel-good kind of album.

TBHG

MEDHANE – COLD WATER–Something interesting is happening in Brooklyn. Medhane is another rapper from that area that is doing something different in a good way. His raps are abstract and thoughtful, but still somehow direct and forward thinking. He looks forward without forgetting the scars of his past. And the instrumentals on this album use jazz and soul samples in ways I’ve never heard before. Like the Ka album above, you really have to experience this one for yourself.

Jagjaguwar

MOSES SUMNEY – GRÆ–This one isn’t hip hop, and I really don’t know how to categorize it. Sumney is often called a singer-songwriter, but that doesn’t really narrow things down. There are clear soul influences on this album, but this is not a traditional soul album by any stretch. Sumney’s emotional lyrics are only made more powerful by his impassioned vocals, featuring a frequent and distinctive falsetto. The album also features bass playing from Thundercat on a few tracks and production from James Blake on another. It’s a little uneven, but when it’s good, it’s really good.

Columbia

POLO G – THE GOAT–There’s still a lot I don’t understand about trap rap. I’m trying my darndest, but there’s still some stuff about it that just escapes me. That being said, Polo G is one of the few artists that helps me somewhat understand the appeal, and the praise from other reviewers and critics tells me I’m barking up the right tree. His flows have variety, he doesn’t rely on auto-tune, and his lyrics have considerably more substance than some other artists in the scene.

M.A Music/3D

YOUNG M.A – RED FLU–Yet another rapper from Brooklyn! Seriously, what’s going on over there? Young M.A is another talented rapper from the borough who raps from a particularly unique perspective. Not only is she a woman, but she’s a lesbian. She’s clear in interviews that she doesn’t want her orientation to define her, and it doesn’t have to. Her rapping could easily stand on its own, but her experience still comes through in her lyrics. Female empowerment is a big theme in hip hop these days coming from artists like Megan Thee Stallion and Rico Nasty. Young M.A adds yet another female perspective to the expanding landscape of rap music.

THE 1975 – NOTES ON A CONDITIONAL FORM album review

THE 1975 – NOTES ON A CONDITIONAL FORM

Dirty Hit, 2020

Alternative/Pop rock

After delays and much hype from the band themselves, The 1975 have finally delivered their fourth album and follow-up to 2018’s A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships that was first promised to us back in 2019. So now that we have Notes on a Conditional Form available to us, the ultimate question is if it lives up to the hype that’s been built up around it. It was delayed because Matthew Healy and the band wanted to make sure it was perfect, right? Well, let’s find out.

First off, this album is massive, with 22 tracks clocking in at 80 minutes. The 1975 are no strangers to long albums, with every one of their full-lengths running over 50 minutes, but this one pushes the CD format to its limits in the physical editions. That’s right, this is not a double album, it’s packaged, or at least presented as a single album. (I stream everything. Don’t judge me!) As much as I like to pick on pop and rock albums when they stretch past the hour mark, a long album doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad album. If an album makes you feel like the time invested hasn’t been wasted, it can be as long as it needs to be. Unfortunately, Notes… doesn’t make the best use of its time.

That being said, this album does fare better than other long albums. There are several moments on it that are actually quite good. But there’s also just a lot of stuff that just doesn’t need to be here. For example, early on in the album there are two brief, orchestral interludes. You might think that these are setting the stage for tracks like this to be interspersed throughout the entire album, but no, they’re only tracks 3 and 5 and that’s it. Another major misstep is “Nothing Revealed / Everything Denied,” which starts with gospel chorus vocals, has this very strangely pitched and rapped chorus, and a terribly mixed guitar solo. The last completely weak point is “Bagsy Not in Net,” which doesn’t really feel like a fully formed song.

The rest of the weaker tracks on the album aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re not great and there’s the question of whether they fit on the album or not. An obvious pick here is “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” which features Phoebe Bridgers and sounds an awful lot like a Sufjan Steven song or even a combination of the first two Bon Iver records when the brass comes in. The Bon Iver vibes come back in a big way on “Don’t Worry,” a duet with Matty Healy’s father. The story behind the song is beautiful, but it doesn’t outweigh the similarities. And neither of these songs are awful, but they aren’t great and they just feel out of place. Similarly, the electronic tracks “Shiny Collarbone” and “Having No Head” are actually really good, but they just don’t seem to fit.

Okay, I’ve done enough complaining. It’s time to talk about the good stuff, because there’s actually some very bright spots on this album. After the intro track, “People” is an absolute banger of some noisy garage rock. It’s completely unexpected in the best way. “Me & You Together Song” sounds like some late ’90s, Third Eye Blind pop rock, but unlike the other referential tracks on the album, it’s actually an incredibly well written track that is inspired by a sound without copying it. Similarly, “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” is a certifiable ’80s new wave banger. All of these tracks have The 1975’s signature cheeky lyrics, throwing a little dirty subversion into the catchy and bouncy hooks. One more thing I want to highlight is how tracks “Frail State Of Mind” and “I Think There’s Something You Should Know” expertly combine The 1975’s pop rock with styles of EDM like UK garage and house.

Ultimately, Notes… is a pretty conflicting album for me. The 1975 take a lot of risks on this album. That’s evident from the first track, named after the band itself, and consisting of a 5 minute speech on climate change from Greta Thunberg. I mean, damn. The really frustrating part is that a lot of the risks pay off, or at least break even. But the “good, not great” tracks pale in comparison to the really great ones, and then there’s the issue of the completely unnecessary ones. This isn’t a bad album, but I can’t help but feel like there’s a really great one in it somewhere if the band had been a little more focused on quality over quantity.

3.0/5.0

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT – REUNIONS album review

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT – REUNIONS

Southeastern, 2020

Americana/Alternative country

Today we’re looking at the new album from Jason Isbell. And it’s good, because it’s by Jason Isbell. That’s it. That’s the review… Okay, okay, I’ll give you a little more now that I’ve so clearly telegraphed my biases towards this particular artist. Alternative country was a major player in the redemption of country music in my mind. The way the genre balances elements of heartland rock, Americana, and folk to create its own brand of country that’s undeniably authentic showed me that the genre was not doomed to a future of tropes and cliches. One of the best purveyors of alternative country in recent years has been Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit.

Reunions is Isbell’s seventh album, and the fourth with The 400 Unit. The songs do feature quite a few reunions, but not the kind you might expect. In an interview on Austin City Limits Live, Isbell said that, “there are a lot of ghosts on this album.” These are literally the ghosts of people who have passed and figuratively the ghosts of life in the past. These show up in a big way within the first few tracks. “Dreamsicle” tells the story of a troubled childhood marked by arguing parents and constant moves to new places, and all the narrator could do was do his best to enjoy his childhood while he was still too naive to understand how bad things were.

A more literal ghost appears on “Only Children,” a song that recounts a friend who was an exceptional songwriter, but also struggled with addictions that ended up killing him. Death returns later in the album on “St. Peter’s Autograph,” a song that Isbell wrote for his wife, Amanda Shires, after a dear friend of hers died by suicide. In it he expresses how he understands how she loved him and that he’s there to console her while she grieves. The complicated nature of love is covered on songs “Overseas” and “Running with Our Eyes Closed.” The first describing feelings for someone the narrator just cannot be with and the latter describing the way lovers dive in blindly.

The lyrics on this album are just so good. They’re always one of the greatest strengths of a Jason Isbell record. There are more songs that tell stories of desperate men, doing what’s right when it’s the hard thing to do, and being a father. I could go on gushing track by track, but there is more to this album. Great lyrics can only get you so far if the instrumentals don’t serve them well.

Fortunately, The 400 Unit deliver on this front. Reunions stays pretty firmly within the bounds of Americana and alt country even when the songs get a little louder and more rock oriented. But they also know when to pull back for quieter moments. Every track sounds as sad, hopeful, scared, or angry as the stories the lyrics tell. My only real complaint is that not every track is incredibly memorable in a way where it sticks with you, though several are. That, and the fact that the album opener, “What’ve I Done To Help” is a little repetitive and long.

Overall, this is a strong offering from Jason Isbell and company, which is pretty much what we’ve come to expect. He’s proven himself to be an incredible songwriter over and over, and The 400 Unit provide the perfect backing for his stories. It’s not without it’s faults, and I wish more songs had stronger staying power. I don’t know if Reunions will give us another “If We Were Vampires,” but it’s a great album nonetheless.

4.0/5.0

WHITE DENIM – WORLD AS A WAITING ROOM album review

WHITE DENIM – WORLD AS A WAITING ROOM

Radio Milk Records, 2020

Psychedelic rock/Garage rock

The COVID-19 outbreak has pretty much turned our world upside down. One area of the world that has been affected in more ways than some people might expect is the music industry. Look no further for proof of how the machinations of things we take for granted go far beyond what we might imagine. The most obvious impact is the broad cancellation of the majority of tours and festivals. This not only impacts the ticket holders, but the venues and the people who work behind the scenes. Many major artists have delayed the release of their new albums because they won’t be able to support the release with a tour. Others have delayed them because the actual means of production of physical units has been impacted. However some artists are using this as an opportunity to give us new music. Trivium didn’t delay the release of their latest album so people would have something to listen to. Charli XCX announced that she would write, record, and release an album in 5 weeks from isolation. And another artist that made a similar promise was White Denim.

On March 14th, White Denim announced that they would write, record, and release an album by April 17th. For those keeping score, that’s another entire album completed in about 5 weeks. The band met their goal and the album was made available to download from their label’s website on April 17th. For the rest of us, it was added to all major streaming services on May 8th. For those who don’t know, White Denim are a psychedelic garage rock band who often incorporate elements of progressive and math rock by way of dizzying guitar riffs. This unique brand of rock music has created songs that range from amazing to needlessly complicated to unremarkable. So where do the tracks on World As A Waiting Room fall?

First off, it’s worth mentioning that the fact that this album even exists after such a short writing and recording period is impressive. I know internet personalities have recorded stuff in shorter time as a bit of a gimmick (like Rob Scallon and Andrew Huang’s First of October project where they write and record an entire album in a single day). But the fact that this is a group of four people and that they had the additional challenge of doing this during quarantine makes this quite an accomplishment, regardless of the quality of what’s in the album. And the fact that it’s actually decent is even more impressive.

Yes, while it’s not a spectacular standout in White Denim’s discography, World As A Waiting Room is pretty good. Plenty of garage rock grooves and catchy hooks can be found in its nine tracks. A few standout track in particular are “Matter of Matter,” “DVD,” and “Eagle Wings” where some of the frantic energy of the band’s earlier material can be found. White Denim’s signature fuzzy guitars are all over the album as you’d expect with organs and synths adding extra color on several tracks like “I Don’t Understand Rock and Roll” and “Slow Death.” I guess a good way to describe the album is that it’s on-brand with the style that White Denim have established for themselves.

There are a couple glaring weaknesses of the album, however. The track “Work” is pretty light on lyrical content and is also the longest song on the album at over 6 minutes. This means the few lyrics it has are repeated quite a few times. The song does have a pretty solid groove that makes it mostly tolerable, but once you get past the 4-minute mark, it starts to wear on you. Then there’s “Queen of the Quarantine” and yes, they went there. I know it’s pretty much expected that they would write a song about the quarantine when the entire album was written in quarantine, but this one just comes across as little more than corny. There are a couple other instances of repetitive lyrics like in “Go Numb,” but the rest of the tracks are short enough to keep them from getting too annoying.

Overall, the best way to sum up the album is the way I did earlier. It’s very on-brand for White Denim, and it’s ultimately a pretty engaging listen. Their more recent output hasn’t been the most memorable to me, so I’m glad to say this one was to a degree. It does have it’s weak points, but when you consider the short amount of time that this entire album was made in, they’re pretty easily forgiven.

3.5/5.0

THE WRECKS – INFINITELY ORDINARY album review

THE WRECKS – INFINITELY ORDINARY

Big Noise Music Group, 2020

Alternative/Indie pop/Power pop

This album showed up in a list of new releases for the week and I instantly recognized the name, but I couldn’t remember where from. Some quick digging revealed that a track from their first EP was in a playlist or something I came across a couple years ago and I added it to one of my own playlists. The track was “My Favorite Liar” and it was some decent pop punk with a bit of garage rock influence. The chorus was catchy and I liked how the song sounded happy but the lyrics were angry at a specific person. I then found out that Infinitely Ordinary is the band’s first full-length. After being reminded that they had left a positive impression, I went into it with some slight anticipation.

Well… let’s just say The Wrecks have made some stylistic changes since that first EP. There are a couple hints of the pop punk I was familiar with, but the majority of what’s here lines up more with radio ready alternative pop. Now, that’s not an inherently bad thing. Some bands like WALK THE MOON can write some damn good and damn catchy songs and I’m not ashamed to admit I enjoy them. But a lot of Infinitely Ordinary just isn’t doing it for me. There are a couple things I do like, so we’ll start with those.

“Out Of Style” is a fun dance rock track that has barely sung verses and big choruses that I think is telling the story of two former lovers that put some geographical distance between themselves and both of them are coping in some unhealthy ways. At first, I didn’t like the verses, especially the second one where the vocalists describes some LED lights he hung up in his room. But it eventually grew on me and it becomes hilarious in a way when you realize this is just a product of his chosen coping mechanisms. Along with that, the hooks in the song are just great. Another track I like to a lesser extent is “This Life I Have” that switches back and forth between light, AJR-esque passages and raw, garage punk like their older material. The lyrics deal with frontman Nick Anderson’s struggles with severe impostor syndrome and the wild musical differences represent how these bouts of depression and self-hatred can hit so suddenly. The only thing about it that really bugs me is how much like AJR some of the melodies sound, otherwise it’s one of the strongest tracks here.

Beyond that, “Feels So Nice” is okay pop rock with some synthpop in the mix, but it starts off with one of the worst lyrics. “You said I look like a Stones song/I said baby I could fuck like one too.” What do either of those statements even mean? It’s almost saved because immediately after this Anderson compares the girl to a Dylan song, but I can’t decide if that’s brilliant or really stupid. What really bugs me about the lyrics are the inconsistent messages all over this album. Normally I’m a little forgiving in this area, but the sequence of these tracks makes the problem worse. The track “Four” describes how Anderson is heartbroken after his girlfriend leaves and he wants her to come home. The song sells it at the end with Anderson’s voice cracking because he’s just so passionate about it. But he also just spent the last two tracks describing how he’s coping with an ended relationship by partying and how another relationship got so stale that he just wants out. Given that, the sincerity of “Four” is a hard sell, no matter how much his voice cracks.

What makes this even worse is the that the song immediately before this, “Fvck Somebody,” (yes, it’s spelled with a v) is all about how he’s become bored in a relationship and wants his girlfriend to mess up somehow so he has an easy way to get out of the relationship. First of all, dude just needs to grow a pair and talk to his girlfriend and just end things if it’s not working for him. I know it’s a hard thing to do and it’ll hurt and it sucks and it’d be nice if it was easy. But he literally says that he’s “gotta get out without it being my fault.” Dude, just break up if you’re unhappy. Second, following this with “Four” doesn’t make me feel bad with you, it makes me wonder if you really care.

The final piece to this confusing puzzle comes in the album closer, the title track, where he describes spending time with a girl and then says that he “could get used to this infinitely ordinary life.” But just a few tracks earlier he was practically begging his girlfriend to cheat on him because the relationship got so boring. So which is it!? And I know, all four of these tracks could be describing four different relationships, but the messaging is so different and in such close proximity in some of them that it can be frustrating. Especially when other songs are set up as coming from Anderson’s personal experiences, so we’re led to believe that these are all reactions to real events, whether they are or not.

The music itself on this album doesn’t really help either. “Four” pulls heavily from the AJR brand of modern indie pop and hints of it show up on “Fvck Somebody” as well. “We All Get Lonely” sounds like a Muse song without the political commentary. The title track pulls from modern pop tropes, and that’s not always a bad thing but this particular case feels really derivative. It also has a melody that reminds me of another song, but it’s by an artist that isn’t super widely known so I’m probably the only person who cares.

I guess what bothers me the most about this album is that we know The Wrecks can do better. Their first two EPs showed a lot of promise. This band had the potential to get some real mainstream traction and be a bright spot in the current landscape of pop rock music. To see them so quickly chase after trends on their first full-length is just disappointing. That being said, we also know they have talent, and it does poke through on a couple tracks. We can hope that they only get better from here.

1.5/5.0