Quarantine Quick Takes, Part 1: Big Names

I have been a bad blogger and I haven’t published anything for a few weeks. Even when I was told to work from home, I didn’t take advantage of the time to keep up with new releases. Instead I didn’t listen to anything for an entire week. Now I have a huge backlog and I’m working hard to get through it and to get some more content out. To make up for the lack of posts, I thought I’d put together some quick reviews of stuff that’s come out in March, similar to my monthly reviews but a tiny bit more in-depth and with actual scores. To kick things off, here are my thoughts on some of the releases by big-name artists that dropped this month.

RCA

CHILDISH GAMBINO – 3.15.20–I promise there’s album art there, it just happens to be a white square. Anyway, on March 15th, Donald Glover started streaming his latest Childish Gambino album in a continuous loop on a website, hence the title of the album. It was only up for a short time and then properly released to streaming services on March 22nd. People were wondering if a new album was coming after the singles “This Is America” and “Feels Like Summer” (the latter being on this album, as “42.26”). While most people seem to be into this thing, there are some who have expressed some disappointed, or at least mixed feelings about it. And I’m one of them. I’m sorry, but this just feels directionless and forgettable at times. I do like some of the beats and the occasional industrial feel, but overall this is pretty disappointing. 2.5/5.0

Warner

DUA LIPA – FUTURE NOSTALGIA–Here we have another pleasantly surprising album for this year. I went into this with no previous knowledge of who Dua Lipa is or her music up to this point. All I knew is that her name is freaking everywhere right now. What I didn’t expect was to be hit with nu disco banger after banger. Falling right in line with the title, most of the tracks draw heavy influence from the disco revival of the past decade, and they’re pretty damn good. The instrumentals are the real stars here with at least one instance of all of your favorite disco throwbacks, including talkbox, strings, and a properly French disco vocoder! With only a couple exceptions, the lyrics aren’t anything special. Most are about dancing, sex, or both. But then again, so was a lot of old school disco. You can tell that Dua Lipa had fun with this one. And you know what, so did I. 4.0/5.0

1501 Certified/300

MEGAN THEE STALLION – SUGA–Megan Thee Stallion came up with a surprisingly strong debut mixtape with last year’s Fever. She quickly took her place beside Nicki Minaj and Cardi B as one of the top female rappers and gained some viral traction with her “Hot Girl Summer” last year. This year started with reports that Megan was having trouble with her record label. The result of these troubles is a restraining order and this EP to hold us over until she can release a proper debut album. Like Minaj and Cardi, Megan isn’t shy about her sexuality, and honestly I’m still getting used to that being a subject in hip-hop, but the fact that it makes me uncomfortable means it’s working. Megan’s skills as a rapper are on full display on this EP, but it does suffer a bit when she dips her toes in the realm of pop R&B in a couple later tracks. These attempts come across pretty generic and forgettable. Hopefully her eventual debut album can make up for it. 3.0/5.0

Neon Haze/Capitol

NIALL HORAN – HEARTBREAK WEATHER–With his debut solo album Flicker, this former member of One Direction proved himself to be one of the more capable performers without the support of the group. Which has been a challenge for most of the members. With his second album, Horan continues to prove that he has more to offer than his association with the group. A handful of songs have nice nods to ’80s pop and solid hooks. The album opener and title track is particularly fun, as is the dance pop “Nice To Meet Ya.” Other tracks fit comfortably in the realm of modern pop but they’re mostly tolerable. Nothing particularly special, but nothing outright awful either. Lyrically, it’s pretty safe. A common theme seems to be small talk with a romantic interest. It’s not amazing, but it could be a lot worse. 3.0/5.0

The Null Corporation
The Null Corporation

NINE INCH NAILS – GHOSTS V: TOGETHER/GHOSTS VI: LOCUSTS–On March 26, Trent Reznor and company surprise released two sequels to the dark ambient Ghosts I-IV released back in 2008. Full disclosure, my familiarity with the previous Ghosts is limited to the sample used in “Old Town Road” and any instance of it being used in the real world and I heard it unknowingly. I’m also not a very active fan of ambient music. However I am familiar with Reznor’s soundtrack work with Atticus Ross. Starting with Together, I found it to be ultimately disappointing. The first half of the album has aimless synth and string drones with piano bits that are just kind of there and not really generating any interest. Things pick up a good bit on the second half with more interesting uses of the space and more intriguing synths. Reznor said that Together was meant for when you feel hopeful, but there’s still an atmosphere of tension and uneasiness. I guess it’s about as hopeful as a NIN release can get, though.

Locusts, on the other hand, I found to be far more interesting and successful at creating atmosphere and mood as ambient music. Reznor and Ross make much better use of the space to induce anxiety and create tension. It plays like the unsettling ambient soundtrack to a psychological thriller or atmospheric survival horror game. While it’s longer than Together, it’s packaged better over shorter tracks. However, it’s not really a game changer when it comes to ambient music or NIN in general. And they both are quite long, each one clocking in over 70 minutes. 2.5/5.0 (Together), 3.5/5.0 (Locusts)

Monkeywrench/Republic

PEARL JAM – GIGATON–Full disclosure, I’m not too familiar with Pearl Jam’s work post-Vitalogy except maybe the odd single here and there from the early 2000s. That being said, this album is pretty disappointing. When I think of Pearl Jam, I think of memorable guitar riffs and catchy chorus hooks. A few of their songs had some of the most impressive guitar work coming out of the biggest Seattle bands of the early ’90s. Gigaton just feels like it has no idea what it wants to be. Most of the tracks just feel like generic guitar rock, others go on longer than they need to, and “Dance of the Clairvoyants” sounds like they’re trying to be the Talking Heads. This is another one getting a lot of praise I just don’t understand. It’s average at best and nothing special at all really. 2.0/5.0

XO/Republic

THE WEEKND – AFTER HOURS–The Weeknd has come a long way from his trilogy of mixtapes in 2011. I never really listened or got into R&B music, but I always kept one eye on The Weeknd because I felt like, of all the alternative R&B artists getting big, he had the potential to really impress me. There have been a few bright spots, but overall he hasn’t really accomplished that. When I saw the promotional material for After Hours, I got a little excited about the new vintage aesthetic. Maybe this could be the one. Well, it’s still not quite there. After a weak start, the album picks up a little, but there’s still a bit of bland, generic sounding R&B here that just fails to excite me. Later we get the more new wave and even synthwave inspired tracks like “Blinding Lights,” and that’s where the album really shines. The Weeknd still hasn’t quite blown me away, but this is the closest he’s gotten yet. 3.0/5.0

Sean’s Favorites: 2010

Let’s see, where was I in 2010? I turned 20 years old, I finished my first year of college, and would start my second. I did that thing almost every guy does and stopped getting haircuts and I would continue to grow my hair out for the next couple years. A lot of good movies came out and a couple would become all-time favorites of mine (Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). My interest in music was at an all-time high. I was pretty well-informed on indie and alternative music with a little help from MTVU (or so I thought). I started taking hip-hop music more seriously. And I was pretty humbled when I started reading Pitchfork and for the first week, I didn’t recognize a single artist they reviewed. But I wasn’t deterred, I just went deeper. Below are not only some of my favorite albums from 2010, but some that were important to me and my musical growth.

Nonesuch

THE BLACK KEYS – BROTHERS–This was the album that turned The Black Keys into a sensation. Not to be that guy, but I was into the Keys before they were cool. I was introduced to them in 2006 with the Chulahoma EP, and they quickly became one of my favorites. I had a lot of mixed feelings about Brothers when it first came out. At first I wasn’t thrilled about the band trading their sludgy delta blues sound for a more R&B inspired rock. But at the same time, Brothers was a huge improvement over their previous two records. In true hipster form, I also lamented the attention that the band was getting, fearing this would lead to a more mainstream sound from them. But again, I was also happy that more people knew about one of my favorite bands. It took 8 years of hard work, but The Black Keys finally made it, and it still holds up as one of their best albums.

Ferret

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA – ZOMBIE EP–In 2009, The Devil Wears Prada released their third album, With Roots Above and Branches Below, and it was their best work yet. The production finally caught up with their style, and their songwriting was better than ever. Metalcore was at its peak popularity and Prada was among the best. How could they possibly do better? Then in 2010 they released the Zombie EP and completely blew Roots out of the water with five fucking tracks! The band ramped up the speed and brutality, and the theme was based on vocalist Mike Hranica’s interest in zombie books and movies. Weirdly enough, The Walking Dead would premiere two months after this EP released and everyone else in the world would hop on the bandwagon. The band was just firing on all cylinders with this one. It’s a bright spot in Prada’s discography and one of the few metalcore releases I can still listen to today.

Parlophone

GORILLAZ – PLASTIC BEACH–Prior to 2010, I didn’t pay much attention to Gorillaz. All I really knew about them was “Feel Good Inc.” and it wasn’t my style of music when it was popular. I don’t remember what caused me to give the band another look but when I did, I became almost obsessed with them. This newfound appreciation coincided almost exactly with the release of “Stylo,” the first single from Plastic Beach. Their third album would have them moving further from hip-hop and refining their wonky alt-pop. The result would be some of Gorillaz’ best tracks and best collaborations, with contributions from artists like Mos Def, Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Little Dragon, and Bobby Womack (who had a bit of a resurgence in popularity, thanks to this album). Unfortunately, it would end up being the last great Gorillaz album. But they’re still making music, so there’s always hope.

Bad Boy/Wondaland

JANELLE MONÁE – THE ARCHANDROID–The first time I knew anything about Janelle Monáe was when I saw a poster at Best Buy. I was instantly intrigued by this black woman wearing a tuxedo with a massive pompadour hairstyle. What on earth kind of music could this woman make? I don’t know what I expected, but I liked what I found. Her funk infused, alternative R&B and psychedelic soul were so much fun that it quickly became a favorite of mine. Which is weird considering I didn’t give pop and R&B music much attention at this time in my life. The genres were presented through a lens that helped me bridge the gap from my preferred music at the time, with rock and progressive influences coming through. And because I’m a nerd, the overarching sci-fi narrative of the album helped too.

Big Beat/Atlantic

SKRILLEX – SCARY MONSTERS AND NICE SPRITES–This entry has probably awakened some dark memories for some readers. Memories of hard drops, wobble bass, and questionable fashion choices. But regardless of how immature some of those trends seem now, they were a key milestone on the trajectory of EDM in popular culture. And it all starts right here with this EP. Scary Monsters was the EP and the song that made brostep a phenomenon. Whether you loved him or hated him, you knew about Skrillex. And if you listen to this EP beyond the title track, it proved back then that he wasn’t just a one trick pony. He had some range, and his work since proves that he still does. He hasn’t really matched the quality of this EP since, but the mark it left has given him producer credits throughout the decade and likely well into the future.

Mom+Pop/NEET

SLEIGH BELLS – TREATS–The “Loudness war” is something that has plagued music production for the past 30 years, and it can be the difference between a good album and a bad one. But there’s something to be said for using that digital compression as an aesthetic choice. From the very first seconds of Treats, you are bombarded with guitars, synths, and drums that are bricked out so hard that everything clips. Apart from bass boost memes, this is perhaps the only time that these levels of compression 100% serve the songs. It’s just one piece of Sleigh Bells’ in-your-face approach to noise pop (or their self-described “shred pop”). I had never heard anything like it before this album, and nothing has quite captured this level of noise and energy for me since.

Kemado

THE SWORD – WARP RIDERS–I know that within the spheres of stoner rock and doom metal, this album is not held in very high regard. But, I wouldn’t know that if it wasn’t for this album. I don’t even remember where I first saw the album artwork, but the retro typeface and Roger Dean-esque sci-fi watercolors compelled me to listen to this album. Through it I was introduced to retro styled traditional metal and left hungry for more. Finding other artists like this proved difficult at the time, but I just didn’t know where to look. I finally did learn a few years later, and even though I’ve found “better” examples of what The Sword were trying to do on this album, the riffs on Warp Riders still hold a special place for me a decade later.

XL Recordings

VAMPIRE WEEKEND – CONTRA–This album was my introduction to Vampire Weekend and contains perhaps my favorite song of theirs (“Giving Up The Gun” is the song by which all other Vampire Weekend tracks are judged, and it has one of the best music videos). The bright and clean sound was a perfect break in the winter clouds when the album came out. When compared to the band’s debut, Contra took the formula they set for themselves and refined it. Rough edges were polished and influences were mined even deeper, creating a major improvement stylistically and compositionally. This really was a great work of indie rock that was only topped by their third album that took this stylistic trajectory to its logical, almost absurd conclusion.

Good Albums I Didn’t Review in November 2019

It’s already been about a month since my last post like this, and yet again there was a lot of good music that I didn’t get to write a full review for. I was hoping to get one more out before this, but life got in the way like it does. So once again, here are some albums that I think might be worth your time. Like I said last time, as these are all “good,” their score would be 3.5 or higher if I gave them a full review. On to the musics.

Nuclear Blast

BLIND GUARDIAN TWILIGHT ORCHESTRA – LEGACY OF THE DARK LANDS–They’ve been hinting at it for years and now Blind Guardian have finally delivered on the promise of an orchestral album. Never ones to half-ass anything, this album is massive, sounds massive, has interludes with dialogue, and a second disc with instrumental versions of everything. It can be a slog and it’s hard to keep up with the story, but the companion novel (The Dark Lands by Markus Heitz) is available in English now, so I’ll probably be revisiting this one.

Dark Descent

BLOOD INCANTATION – HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE HUMAN RACE–Death metal is a pretty saturated genre right now, and a lot of it is competent but a bit bland as far as death metal goes. Blood Incantation are not bland. They actively push their sound and songs in interesting directions. I do personally wish the last track was broken up into two or more tracks, but this is a great example of what the genre is capable of.

aural music

BOTANIST – ECOSYSTEM–Like I said in my Liturgy review, black metal doesn’t really appeal to me unless there’s something that differentiates it from the “traditions” of the genre. Botanist plays black metal on hammered dulcimers. It doesn’t get much more non-traditional than that. More seriously, as the name implies, Botanist sounds organic and they have the talent to make this more than just a novelty.

Mass Appeal

DJ SHADOW – OUR PATHETIC AGE–This album is split into two halves with instrumentals on the first half and all-star guest rappers on the second. The first half is fine, but the second half is what you really want to hear. It has strong guest verses by people like Nas, Pharoahe Monch, Run The Jewels, and a mini Wu-Tang reunion. Shadow drops some sweet beats and brings out the best in his guests.

Young Turks Recordings

FKA TWIGS – MAGDALENE–I’m not convinced that this album deserves all the hype that it’s getting, but it’s still very good. Twigs is one of the artists on the leading edge of pop music, pushing it further into the future and exciting new places. It’s her first full length in 5 years, the production is great, and she sounds great.

Island

R.LUM.R – SURFACING–I normally don’t go for a lot of modern R&B music, but for some reason I’m just drawn to this guy. I don’t know if it’s his melodies, his falsetto, his unabashed love of indie and prog rock, or the fact that the songs aren’t exclusively about fucking. Either way, if I like an R&B record, there’s something special about it that makes it stand out. And this one does stand out to me.

Omnivore

HARRY NILSSON – LOSST AND FOUNND–Nilsson was working on a new album around the time that he died in 1994. Now, almost 40 years after his last studio album, we finally have a release from those sessions. The result is a time capsule of what singer-songwriter music was like in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It’s definitely a product of its time, but it shows that Nilsson still had his writing chops towards the end of his life.

I Built The Sky

I BUILT THE SKY – THE ZENITH RISE–One of the biggest challenges with instrumental guitar music is to keep it from sounding like self-indulgent wankery. It happens a lot with the shreddy metal stuff especially. Rohan Stevenson avoids this with his strong melodies. His songs are technically impressive, but they still have melodic soul that keeps you from tuning out.

20 Buck Spin

OBSEQUIAE – THE PALMS OF SORROWED KINGS–A little heavy on the metal this month, aren’t we? Anyway, Obsequiae plays black-ish medieval folk tinged metal and utilizes actual medieval instruments like harps, hammered dulcimers, hurdy gurdies, psalteries, and more. There are even instrumental tracks played exclusively on these instruments. It sounds like it could come across as a little pretentious, and in some ways it does. But overall, the band provides an interesting listening experience.

Warp/LuckyMe

TNGHT – II–Last, but certainly not least, Hudson Mohawke and Lunice finally give us a proper follow-up to the amazing trap EDM EP that was their 2012 debut as TNGHT. This one isn’t strictly trap music, but the relentless energy of the first release is still here. It’s loud, it’s a little strange sometimes, but it gets you moving, which is all I really ask from TNGHT.

MICHAEL KIWANUKA – KIWANUKA album review

MICHAEL KIWANUKA – KIWANUKA

Polydor, 2019

Soul/R&B

Michael Kiwanuka got on my radar back in 2012 with his debut, Home Again. I don’t quite remember where or how, but I heard the track “Tell Me A Tale” and I was just enamored with the meticulous recreation of that retro soul sound. I will admit that when I bought the album I was surprised to find that the majority of the tracks were much quieter, more acoustic-driven songs, but that didn’t effect how much I ended up loving it.

2016 brought us his very warmly received follow-up, Love & Hate. With this album Kiwanuka brought in producers Danger Mouse and Inflo and saw him embracing that retro soul sound even more (including the tendency of those artists to write 7+ minute songs). While the album was almost universally well reviewed, I personally felt that some of the personality of the first album was lost and I didn’t enjoy it as much.

This all brings us to his third (technically self-titled) album, KIWANUKA. Danger Mouse and Inflo both return as producers on this album. While my reaction to their last collaboration with Kiwanuka was less than stellar, Inflo did produce one of my favorite albums of this year so far (Little Simz’ GREY Area), so I went into this a little more hopeful. Right out the gate, things are looking better.

This album has Kiwanuka leaning hard into the retro style once again, but some of that personality that was lost on Love & Hate has been regained, signaled by a burst of noisy fuzz guitar within the first minute of the first track. This same guitar tone returns a few times on the album, and is just one of the ways that retro soul is interpreted through a modern lens on this album. In fact, the first five tracks of this album flow incredibly well. “Rolling” and “I’ve Been Dazed” flow so well, that I often think they’re the same track when I’m not paying attention.

Other standout tracks are “Hero” with its intro track and the 7 minute “Hard To Say Goodbye” (which is also the only 7+ minute track on this album, another improvement). Lyrically Kiwanuka is pulling from his retro soul influences again with lyrics of personal struggle that point political at times. He uses audio clips from the Civil Rights era of American history to further emphasize that while his lyrics would be at home on records from the ’70s, they are (unfortunately) still relevant today.

My one major complaint is that the album really starts to lose steam when you get to the final four tracks. None of these are particularly bad, but “Solid Ground” and “Light” in particular feel like they drag on a bit too long. There are also the interlude tracks. Some of them are great, like the intro tracks for “Piano Joint” and “Hero,” but “Another Human Being” and “Interlude (Loving The People)” do more to interrupt the flow of the track list than enhance it.

Overall I think KIWANUKA is a much better execution of what was attempted on Love & Hate, and honestly a pretty exciting release. He has taken greater steps to make this sound his own and has done a clever job of interpreting the modern world through a retro lens while interpreting that retro music through a modern lens. It’s a tricky balancing act that Kiwanuka is becoming more and more skillful in performing.

4.0/5.0