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album review

Heartache and Candor Shine on Julien Baker's 'Turn Out the Lights'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment
Julien Baker Turn Out The Lights Art.jpg
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In 2015, seemingly out of nowhere, a nineteen year-old Memphis post-punker by the name of Julien Baker released Sprained Ankle, a collection of songs written with startling awareness and humility that, for the most part, remains absent in much of her peers. Naturally, the blogosphere erupted with adoration - here was a promising young artist that had depth, sustainability, and seemingly little interest in the post-Internet social media sphere - and thus began the meteoric rise of Julien Baker’s (totally deserved) legacy.

It’s almost amusing to consider that throughout the two years that followed Sprained Ankle’s release, someone as private as Baker would quickly become one of the most sought after entities in independent music. If Baker’s songwriting were any indication, forthright lyrics and minimalist guitar would leading to indie-stardom would have been the last thing on her mind. Nevertheless, Baker is a member of the late-millennial generation, so combined with Baker’s irrefutable musical excellence, she garner deep and devout support from any and all who see her (as they should).

But with Baker, there’s an added dimension of fervent devotion - both amongst contemporaries and gatekeepers alike (Matador, NPR, and everyone in-between) - within the indie world. There’s an artist worth talking about, and for once, it seems like there’s enough of a wellspring of talent to continue talking about her, so when we stop talking and move on to whatever artist du-jour may pop up in the interim, Baker’s follow-up will no doubt be exceptional.

And almost to the T, when Baker announced the release date for her sophomore effort, Turn Out the Lights, almost exactly two years following the release of Sprained Ankle, that same adoration returned, and with good reason. While folks within the blogosphere may be quick to move on to something with a little more sheen to it, consistency is what truly builds a legacy, and TOTL  manages to serve as a prime exemplar.

When Baker and her new label, Matador, released TOTL’s lead single, “Appointments,” Baker’s rasped whisper came through singing heart-wrenching thoughts of not living up to another’s standards, failing to understand change over time, and ultimately watching such factors lead into the end of a relationship. All of this on top of Baker’s tastefully minimalist guitar tones, this time accentuated by percussive piano, further extending the sentiments of what is a devastating first taste.

The rest of TOTL follows suit - expanded sound (piano, string arrangements, and woodwind on an instrumental “Over,” which seamlessly leads into “Appointments”), and decidedly more confident (“Turn Out The Lights”), but ultimately plain-speaking lyricism. Baker’s candor has always been her most disarming artistic attribute - just look to the immense pain and visceral imagery of “Shadowboxer” for reference - but on TOTL, she manages to lean into her guitar abilities a little more willingly. The dynamic crescendos of “Shadowboxer” or the subtle overlays of “Sour Breath” further extend Baker’s supreme progression as a lyricist on top of her continued prowess.

While Baker’s musicality may serve as a pleasant surprise on TOTL, her distinct capacity with language continues to be by far and away the most beguiling aspect of any Julien Baker project. Baker’s lyrical depth has hardly been doubted, refuted, or rebuked - and to do so would only serve a contrarian cause - but if there was ever an ounce of musing uncertainty, this album throws any and all cynicism by the wayside.

TOTL is an absolute masterclass in songwriting. Look no further than “Televangelist” for what is one of the strongest exercises in allegorical elocution in recent memory. Wasting no time, Baker opens with “My heart is going to eat itself,” diving headfirst into a hymn of heart broken masochistic martyrdom. Shortly thereafter, Baker utters what may be the greatest line of the year - ”I’m an amputee with a phantom touch / Leaning on an invisible crutch / Pinned to the mattress like an insect to styrofoam / Coming up from my bedroom alone,” - over nothing more than echoing piano. Baker goes straight for the heart, in an attempt to imbue her own anguish.

Turn Out the Lights is truly one of the best albums of 2017. There is no galavanting of gregariousness, no over-saturation of privileged existence, instead, there is only what Baker offers up for those who are willing to receive of her. This album is her via dolorosa, and we are privileged that she would be willing to share it with the world. Julien Baker is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and Turn Out the Lights is simply exquisite.

The National Explores the Beautiful and Wild Inside On ‘Sleep Well Beast'

Music ReviewAarik DanielsenComment
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Some bands can’t help but sound like a place.

Whether it is in guitars that sound like the Sunset Strip five minutes before trouble, harmonies that feel like a damp Pacific Northwest, or grooves that drip like the faucets in a dirty Delta bar, these acts always take you somewhere, avoiding the tourist traps and surrounding you with setting.

Another type of band is just as evocative, yet the places it occupies and pre-occupies exist within a body, not outside it.

These artists, typified by a band like Radiohead, sound like the scrambled thoughts of an anxious mind, the rhythms of a quickened pulse, the weight of life as it sits squarely within the chest. These interior settings are immediately recognizable to listeners who regularly visit them, often with reservations.

The National belongs to that second company of artists. The Brooklyn band’s songs sound like a mind turned inside-out, a soul yearning for relief — sometimes in screams, sometimes in sighs. Sleep Well Beast, The National’s seventh record, continues in that vein, yet accesses refreshingly acute angles on what might be its most beautiful work yet.

Album opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” joins a gentle pulse and plaintive piano. Its atmospheric rock feels like a modern take on Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain” until frontman Matt Berninger’s baritone enters the mix to remind you who you’re dealing with. “Day I Die,” another backlit standout, follows. Drummer Bryan Devendorf thunders along while the band around him brings the electric lightning to the storm. Berninger still is coping with existential matters, but clearly he has taken a few steps forward.

He delivers a compelling bridge lyric: “Let’s just get high enough to see our problems / Let’s just get high enough to see our fathers’ houses.” Set this against the sentiments of one of The National’s signature songs, “Afraid of Everyone,” from 2010’s High Violet; There he sank into the mantra “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out.” By comparison, it sounds like Berninger is doing more than just getting by or high with a little help from his friends.

From there, The National deepens and widens its sound. Rather than reside in a rut or attempt to jolt itself into mid-career reinvention, the band shifts by degrees, surprising faithful listeners by finding very different ways to stave off the same problem. The band inches further and further from orthodoxy on tunes like “Walk it Back” and “I’ll Still Destroy You.” The former uses electronic sounds in a stimulating way, creating a sort of pulsating sonic light. The latter is more percussive, leaning into the new-music interests of guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, achieving a sort of modal, exotic peal.

The band makes use of a more standard deviation on single “The System Only Sleeps in Darkness,” wearing the clothes of a more straight-ahead rock band. Glitchy riffing gives way to a proper guitar solo, a sort of novelty on the band’s records. The track does start with a few bars of madrigal cooing, so it’s not like The National suddenly have sacrificed to the gods of stadium rock.

Late in the tracklist, the band lands a 1-2 punch that is as quietly devastating as anything it has ever recorded. “Guilty Party” is the sound of trying to connect. Over booming drum sounds, the band’s jagged instrumentals even resemble the static of trying to dial up and dial in.

The song gives way to “Carin at the Liquor Store,” one of a few songs to grow from waltzing piano. Here the sound of the instrument contains both shadow and light. Both songs have the power to cut deep; stacked together, the sweet ache is unavoidable.

None of this — Berninger’s sad-eyed ecstasies, the Dessner Brothers’ cinematic visions — works without Bryan Devendorf’s drumming. One of the most reliable, underrated players of his generation, Devendorf truly provides the band’s heartbeat, whether in a melancholy waltz meter or a desperate crash of rock and roll.

The only thing keeping “Sleep Well Beast” from contending for the class of the band’s catalog is middling rocker “Turtleneck.” The National has proved it can growl and thrash when it gets the itch — “Mr. November” is the band at its loudest and best. The ill-conceived “Turtleneck,” however, comes up short on both style and substance.

It seems ridiculous to cast The National as some sort of rock oracle, but in 2017 it seems the rest of us are just now catching up to the sort of low-grade paranoia and restlessness the band’s songs have incarnated. Here it taps into even more shades of tension. The National wrestles with the personal, with needing landmarks, even crumbling ones, to find your way in the world. Weather patterns, fuzzy memories — these things anchor Berninger’s lyrics and help him make sense of things.

They wriggle around in the grip of the political, questioning how to act for the common good when you’re barely keeping your own house in order. The songs here seem to ask “How do you prepare for the end of the world when you just keep coming to the end of your rope?”

The band’s inward gaze still is a welcome one, even now. In the work of lesser bands, it might sound self-involved, too precious for this moment. Not so with The National. On Sleep Well Beast, the band continues to map out, then walk carefully into the beautiful wilds of the human heart. If we can’t wrestle with and know ourselves, how will we ever honestly deal with someone else?

Berninger and his bandmates offer up lullabies to soothe the savage within, soaking the heart in wine and softening it to exist in a world bigger than itself.

Wavves Create the Soundtrack for a Weird Summer with 'You're Welcome'

Music ReviewAarik DanielsenComment
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Go ahead — make a list of the weirdest, wildest things you’d like to do over the next few months. Southern California outfit Wavves has created a sure-fire soundtrack for a strange summer with its latest, You’re Welcome.

Nathan Williams and Co. often get pigeonholed with a trio of terms starting with the letter “s.” In front of the word “rock,” people place “surf,” “skate,” and/or “stoner.” There are trace elements of all those pastimes — and the sort of music that tends to accompany them — in the Wavves sound. But failing to elaborate does the band a disservice.

Williams has a serious sense of songcraft that can be traced all the way back to rock’s founding fathers. But he and his bandmates also have honed a bloodhound’s instinct, sniffing out fresh ways to deconstruct, scuff up, and altogether shred all that melodic loveliness.

On its sixth album — not counting No Life for Me, its 2015 co-op with Cloud Nothings — Wavves reunites with stalwart producer Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Counting Crows). Herring worked with the band on 2010’s King of the Beach and 2015’s V, and seems willing to put a microphone up close to the band’s personality and capture all the feedback.

With its oscillating guitar riff and rolling drums, opener “Daisy” sets the tone for everything to come; Wavves sounds like the house band at a twisted luau that’s getting more debauched by the minute. As is often the case, the band somehow finds a way to write a huge chorus without calling much attention to it. All the extracurriculars distract from the hook until you realize you’re singing along by the second or third time through.

You can cling to your pop bangers or cruise to country tailgating anthems, but by the time the band gets to “No Shade,” you’ll swear it’s the song of the summer. In a mere 106 seconds, Wavves delivers a knockout punch of fuzzed-out guitar, sing-song vocals and huge drums. For as short as it is, “No Shade” evokes many images. It sounds like a Pulp Fiction pool party. It will remind children of the ‘90s of wasting their summer break on the couch, trying to sneak some MTV while their parents weren’t looking.

Other early highlights include “Million Enemies,” with its deceptively cool chorus harmonies, and “Come to the Valley.” With its whirligig organ and smiley vocals, the latter sounds like a tripped-out TV theme song. The cut contains a doo-wop breakdown that would make Bruno Mars feel... well, Bruno Mars wouldn’t be fazed, but it’s a fine touch.

Late in the set, “Dreams of Grandeur” is a hazy pop-punk confessional, the sound of someone navigating the tension between twin desires: to be emotionally available and to be left alone. Closer “I Love You” sounds like it’s being beamed in on some distant AM radio signal. The tune finds a sweet spot between Buddy Holly the legend and “Buddy Holly,” the signature Weezer song.

You’re Welcome is a record stocked with earworms, but it also lives along an emotional razor’s edge. Williams prizes melody above all, but seasons his songs with misanthropy. He comes off like the kind of guy who would gladly drive you out for a day at the beach, then slap your sunburn on the way home. He has more than a little Frank Black — or Black Francis, depending on your preference — to his personality. There are more than a few Pixies touchstones here, actually. On tracks like “Animal,” Stephen Pope sounds as if he took a few courses at the Kim Deal School for Snazzy Basslines.

The band’s previous record, V, was made for Warner Bros. This time out, the band is on Williams’ Ghost Ramp label. At times, You’re Welcome sounds like a band having fun with its newfound freedom. At others, it’s the sound of gleefully flipping off the major-label bosses.

Whatever Wavves is doing, You’re Welcome is a blast of fresh air tailor-made for the start of summer, sunset fades and moments of escape in whatever season they come.

Father John Misty Writes Civilization's Obituary with 'Pure Comedy'

Music ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

There will be no casual audience for Father John Misty’s latest studio album Pure Comedy. Any time appropriate for listening to the album will not be spontaneous, brief, or passive. The headiness associated with any Father John Misty release is multiplied here by an unverifiable amount of times over and any recommendation of Pure Comedy for listening should be accompanied by an obligatory warning: this album is not a comforting experience. It would be nice to have the romantic jest and the lush sounds of I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop, 2015) rehashed as a therapeutic remedy to 2016. But that is not what we need and that is not what Father John Misty is interested in. As we toil with the consequences of an election year gone awry and ready ourselves for the consequences of upcoming developments, how can we approach art, life, or anything with leisure?

On Pure Comedy, Father John Misty (née Josh Tillman) tackles everything between political antichrists, the digital human experience, heavy-handed religiosity, and warring ideologies. The album is simultaneously a self-interrogation and an interrogation of the broader public’s role in enabling the current state of the union. But the questions that Tillman dares to ask are amorphously oblique and daunting. “Has commentary been more lucid than anybody else?” the protagonist asks on single “Ballad of the Dying Man.” Tillman’s choice of subject matter is certainly ambitious, but it is appropriate and well-deserved for him to take on. He dares to confront the most difficult questions looming over the nation, forgoing an altruistic or omnipotent approach for one that is genuinely vulnerable, concerned, and ultimately limited by his humanity.

Tillman’s signature backhanded humor is almost exclusively sarcastic on Pure Comedy, in contrast to I Love You, Honeybear’s facetious moments. Pure Comedy focuses a critical lens on modern society’s cultural practice, socio-political choices, and value set. “Bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift / After mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes” goes the opening lines to “Total Entertainment Forever.” Tillman’s criticisms are unsparing and pessimistic, a fitting match to the balladic tone of the album’s instrumentals. Melancholic pianos form the foundations of nearly every song on Pure Comedy, achieving a quality comparable to any Carole King-James Taylor collaboration on “Ballad of the Dying Man” and a Billie Joel theatricality on “Total Entertainment Forever.”

The album becomes a manifesto at its longest and most epic moments. “Leaving LA” and “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” clock in at 14 and 10 minutes respectively. The songs take listeners on a real-time tour of Tillman’s disgruntled headspace as he commutes from his home to the highway and convey the unsatisfactory and fleeting experiences of life in Los Angeles. In these songs, listeners will find themselves introspectively protracted. They are the negative spaces to an album densely packed with lyrics that offer more questions than answers concerning humanity's current condition, but not for a lack of trying to ascertain resolution. 

Through Pure Comedy's satire, Tillman does his best to offer solutions to the world’s problems, but he does not pretend to know the answers to all of them. He has no qualms about identifying societal shortcomings and challenging listeners to question whether or not they have been complicit with the regression of society’s development. He laments the ways in which our aspirations have incurred woeful externalities, telling Zane Lowe “When the internet came out it was like, this is the truest form of democracy that human beings have ever invented, this is gonna be the utopia. And you fast forward and it’s pornography.” Pure Comedy is a sobering experience and a memorandum outlining the faults in our current condition as a society and species. For some, this album will reek of an artist taking himself too seriously, but this is a gravitas that deserves applause. When was the last time you put yourself on the line by voicing your complaints? Did you try to solve them afterwards too?

San Fermin's 'Belong' is Chamber Pop Excellence

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

As far as bands are concerned, San Fermin is arguably one of the most unintentionally musical projects on the active circuit. If you’re unfamiliar with the group (perhaps “collective” is a better term) San Fermin, you may find your subconscious asking “well, why are they famous?” If such is the case, I’ll bury the lede.

San Fermin is the vehicle for auteur composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone (an exceptional composer name, by the way) to get his proverbial chamber pop “rocks” off. While has Ludwig-Leone handled most to all of the composition and songwriting for San Fermin’s three LP releases, the recording process as a whole is by committee.

Vocalists Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate provide melodies and additional lyrical input, while John Brandon, Stephen Chen, Tyler McDiarmid, Rebekah Durham and Michael Hanf provide the grit and structure of San Fermin. Over the course of four years, San Fermin released two exceptional explorations of the baroque and chamber pop realms – San Fermin (2013) and Jackrabbit (2015) – which culminated in the production of the band’s newest full-length effort, Belong.

Between the three albums, Belong feels slightly more akin to the band's eponymous debut. The prevailing sensibilities of earnestness and simultaneous trepidation are as strong in Belong as any instance on San Fermin. Not to place Jackrabbit on the comparative backburner, but Belong serves as a current (in this instance meaning, “musically topical”) return to form.

There are classic tenants of San Fermin-dom such as visceral horn sections composed by Ludwig-Leone and performed by John Brandon (trumpet) and Stephen Chen (saxophone). If I may have a moment of personal expression and highlight one of my favorite instances of exceptional horn-i-ness (sorry) – “Better Form” has one of the strongest baritone sax basslines I can recall (I suppose that phrase isn’t uttered all that often in modern music criticism, but I digress).

Led by Allen Tate’s own baritone timbre, “Better Form” struts around like a modern wistful club anthem, but Ludwig-Leone’s brilliance places horns and strings where the familiar womps of a Deadmau5 or Flume might place some bright shimmery electronica. The song ebbs and flows with club sensibilities – drops, dramatic musical breaks – but maintains that strong baroque methodology San Fermin has nestled itself into. The song itself is one giant crescendo into the album’s second third, and by far and away one of it most dynamic.

Speaking of dynamism, such a descriptor is necessary when referencing any and all songs of which feature both vocalists Allen Tate and Charlene Kaye performing in unison. While both have their exceptional merits – Kaye being more airy and affirmative, Tate serving as the more despondent and doleful narrator – their “duets” offer up the purest sense of San Fermin. Title track “Belong” serves as an excellent example – Tate leads the song in his historically crestfallen croon, but Kaye and violinist Rebekah Durham provide a ray of light that veils Tate’s eventual growth into contentment.

While there may be no obvious stalwart track like “Sonsick” (off of San Fermin) or saccharine sweet single like “Emily” (off Jackrabbit), Belong as a whole stands to wind up being the most complete record in San Fermin’s early discography. Songs like “Dead” feel unique to current purviews amongst the new-age bourgeoisies and their individual (and potentially dwindling) freedoms as Kaye caterwauls in front of a frenzied composition only Ludwig-Leone could conceive.

Belong itself is a bit of a marvel, considering the extensive songlisting of San Fermin’s three record discography. Ludwig-Leone has composed 55 songs in the past four years. Mind you, that was composed, not “wrote.” The complex and concerted efforts of Ludwig-Leone have always benefitted San Fermin throughout the band’s existence, but never more so than on Belong. After half a decade of touring and playing alongside each other, Belong makes it apparent that Ludwig-Leone and his associates have reached their most intimate understanding of each other, culminating in a masterful crescendo.

Future Islands' 'The Far Field' is Both Journey and Destination for a Restless Heart

Music ReviewWeston PaganoComment

When describing Future Islands their recently retired, tongue-in-cheek Twitter bio put it best: “Too noisy for new wave, too pussy for punk.” Their distinctive formula has changed relatively little over the years, and The Far Field continues to weave Gerrit Welmer’s deft synth atmospheres and William Cashion’s bass groove spine into the perfect backdrop for Samuel T. Herring’s ever-exhilarating rants and raves.

An ode to the road, restless nomadism permeates their fifth full-length, the title of which even implies a promised land beyond. You can hear the drone of a jet engine, the pound of footsteps, and the angst of a heart beating all twisted into The Far Field's melodic pulse and swirl. Over 1000 shows deep into relentless touring and coming off of the peak of their popularity, Future Islands are exhausted, but they maintain a spritely rhythm despite this.

If anything The Far Field is guilty only of leaving the rougher edges on the cutting room floor. Perhaps the awareness of now larger audiences or even weary self-preservation softened the throaty metal growls found in past songs like “Fall From Grace” (At a gig I attended post-Singles Herring joked he had just begun to see a vocal coach for the first time and that said coach was concerned), though they are of course still sprinkled throughout the live show. In fact, though you won’t find quite a “Long Flight” or “Tin Man” level climax recorded here, you get the feeling these songs were almost made as teasers for their now famous performances; You can practically feel the vein-bursting screams in “Aladdin,” visualize the sultry hip swaying in delicious slow jam “Candles,” and taste the sweat in “Cave.”

The passion and drive is still there, but the “Spirit”-esque hooks are left behind as well; Future Islands have earned your attention, now here is what they have to say. Perhaps the most vulnerable moment of The Far Field is “Through The Roses,” with Herring juxtaposing internal anxiety with the rose-colored perception of the star on a stage who is, after all, still human, though not easily so. “And you see me through the roses / Through the lights and the smoke and the screen / I’m no one better / I’m no better than you / And I’m scared,“ he reveals. Despite the chest-beating confidence he can exude and the success that it's found, you believe him.

Though “It’s not easy just being human” seems obvious, many do lose sight of the delicate humanity in entertainers, especially one whose stocky frame and soulful evocations can at times seem larger than life. There is a selfish voyeurism afforded the listener - one can marvel at Herring as he mimes ripping his own heart out or tearing a mask off his melting face, but when the lights come on you go home. For Herring and Future Islands home still remains just that, a Far Field somewhere down the line.

Restlessness electrifies this album in a way deeper than to simply say the grass is always greener. “The fear that keeps me going and going and going / Is the same fear that brings me to my knees,” Herring grinds out at The Far Field’ intensest on “Cave.” How do you deal with the paradox that your art is driven by the same pain of love that the touring artist’s lifestyle unforgivingly impedes? By using it as the fuel to carry on.

“North Star” could be read as a prequel to canon staple “Long Flight” as a weather delay keeps Herring from fulfilling a promise to be home soon, and in a record written about a sort of unrequited search for a self-actualized peace any respite is fleeting. “Oh, at last! / You’re here in my arms again / And I don’t know how long / So I won’t waste a bit,” he sings on “The Beauty of the Road.”

Still, to the casual listener, the Letterman meme viewer, much of this might be glided over. It is, after all, a pop structure built on an undeniable throb and grab. Sentiment aside, it’s just damn catchy. And though this is a record review, as is already apparent it is nearly impossible to separate the theatrical dimension of the live embodiment of these tracks from the spinning wax that seems tantalizingly lifeless by comparison.

To fully internalize The Far Field it helps to have witnessed the shocking ease with which Herring seamlessly transitions between the emotional convulsions of his stage prowl to the wide, disarming smile he flashes the second the songs end. “We’re just fucking around,” he often small talks in between, but one glimpse of the way his face contorts as he pounds the side of his head with his fist before collapsing to the ground gives you the feeling he is extremely not fucking around. Despite this, whereas most artists this deep into character are impenetrably impersonal, the down-to-earth accessibility Herring maintains throughout it all is truly a thing of beauty. The balance between tortured artist and man you could comfortably share a drink with is rarely struck with real quality, and it’s this fine line of flexible authenticity that make Future Islands’ music paradoxically familiar yet otherworldly, oscillating between primal and candor and doing both better than most bands can do even one.

This record benefits from this self-aware duality in more ways than one. “And what’s a song without you? / When every song I write is about you,“ Herring pines in single “Ran.” As he first penned a decade ago, “The Heart Grows Old,” and Herring has come to terms with much since then, avoiding hardening too much or burning out in the process. The Far Field is a matured and knowing hunger, one “ran ‘round the wailing world.”

Drake Sets Masterfully Curated Ambience on 'More Life'

Music ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

Early talk of Drake’s More Life project offered the public no refuge from the nuisance of semantics, which confronts us daily with such annoyances as “alternative facts” where matters of legitimate constitutional and socio-economic interpretations didn’t already have us preoccupied. The predicament: if an artist assembles a compilation of new music, does it constitute an album? Drake disagrees, categorizing More Life as a “playlist” as opposed to a mixtape or LP. But More Life bears more of the eschewed categories’ qualities than Drake gives credit. Like an album, More Life consists completely of new material and establishes a tone and ambience in the ways of a mixtape (at least as those of the Reagan-era understood mixtapes). But granting Drake his agency to categorize his work, More Life still falls short of his grandiose promise to “provide a soundtrack to your life.” He provides us instead with a calculatedly mood-setting compilation bookended by shows of his mastery.

More Life suggests itself to be a platform for Drake to further exercise his fascination with dancehall and trap, as well as his longstanding love of Timbaland and Aaliyah. At its worst, it comes off as a collection of Views’ B-sides, but it succeeds in its moments of strong likeness to Drake’s OVO Sound Radio show (Apple Music). The collection is masterfully curated with consistent tone and easy transitions, while DJ monologues between various songs fortify the radio show aesthetic. As always, Drake’s rapping is tight and well-paced, but with such a lengthy release (clocking in at one hour and 22 minutes), he runs the risk of exhausting his limited but profitable subject matter.

On many songs on More Life, including “Get It Together,” “Madiba Riddim,” and “Blem,” Drake conveys his tried and true sentiment that love is hard without expanding upon that sentiment in new ways. The repurposed Stevie Wonder harmonica solo previously featured of “Doing It Wrong” (Take Care, 2011) deals a near fatal blow in regards to giving the album a recycled and unthoughtful feel. But More Life navigates past this with the single “Passionfruit,” a delicate dancehall-inspired R&B song built upon bouncy steel drums and synths. The sequence speaks to overall dynamic of More Life, passé at times but not for periods long enough to make us forget how Drake ascended into a position that would grant him the agency to release a “playlist.”

The most memorable moments of More Life are Drake’s skillful collaborative plays and his returns to his vintage introspection. Closing song “Do Not Disturb” evokes Drake’s mixtape heyday and his Thank Me Later/Take Care “tough-guy-feels-too” persona. The raps on the track are genuinely retrospective, lacing sentimentally provocative tales of fake Chanel gift-giving over a percussion-incessant R&B instrumental. Drake demonstrates a newly expanded music worldview with contributions from South African producer/DJ Black Coffee and British grime artist Giggs. He and Kanye’s interlocking verse on “Glow” yield hip-hop braggadocio gold and Young Thug delivers a flow-perfect verse on “Sacrifices” and radio-ready chorus and ad libs on “Ice Melts.”

Taken as a work intended for establishing ambience, both casual listeners and dedicated fans of Drake will find More Life as more than enough to sustain them until his next release. Though Drake’s classification of More Life as a playlist forces us to consider it separately from the studio albums comprising his catalog, it is hard to deny that Drake has logged another win for himself in releasing a compilation that meets his purpose of providing listeners an experience that pairs well with the many swings of life, from the mundane to the exceedingly hyped. 

Tame Impala's Cameron Avery Drops Psych Rock for Art Pop on 'Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

Remember how Andy Shauf kind of “came out of nowhere” with one of the best albums of 2016 (The Party)? It was beguiling, challenging, and met with rapturous acclaim. Everyone loves a dark horse (for the most part).

That being said, music most certainly is not a competition in which one artist challenges an incumbent band for some intangible trophy; It's been hammered home as being wholly subjective. Then again, it's hard to deny when there’s a debut that’s so moving, mighty, and majestic you can’t help but think it’s a cut above the rest.

Point and case – Cameron Avery and his debut solo LP, Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams.

The record is an absolute and unequivocal triumph (yes, I know – “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”), as Avery all but abandon’s the trappings of his more publicized musical associations.

For the uninitiated, a quick Wikipedia dive will inform you of Avery’s involvements with psych dynamos Tame Impala and POND, as well as some auxiliary work with The Last Shadow Puppets, and fronting his own band, The Growl. Let’s take a moment for the fan boys to settle themselves after writhing with elation at the sumptuous smorgasbord of indie music that is Avery’s resume-to-date. But that’s neither here nor there – we’re focusing on Avery’s newest (and arguably, his finest) project, Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams.

In a word, Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams is sublime. Avery’s departure from psych rock and subsequent re-orienting toward spaghetti-western-meets-cinematic-lounge-music is a thing of beauty; It's a near master class level of seamless transition.

Where the majority of Avery’s musical projects rest soundly within the realm of neo-psychedelia, Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams is about as nebulous in genre as one could hope for. Granted, there’s a distinctive (albeit indeterminate at times) emotion to each song that serves as the thru line to the album as a whole; well, that, and Avery’s dramatic baritone. Everything else on the record seems to take its own liberties of expression, in turn making for a magnificently mercurial sounding work of art.

Take the opening pair of tracks on Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams – “A Time and Place” and “Do You Know Me By Heart” – the former of the two has a romantic lullaby feel, with Avery crooning over a smile and display amongst loaded words and passing slurs. Meanwhile, “Do You Know Me By Heart” sounds like cross between '50s/'60s era pop, a la Nancy Sinatra meets modern day lounge pop of Michael Bublé (but a thousand times better).

After flexing his pop prowess muscles, Avery sends the record in a different direction on “Dance with Me,” the would-be Nick Cave-meets-Leonard Cohen spoken singing single that toes the line between sinister and endearing. Meandering baritone guitar and horn blasts ebb and flow with each bemused line of the track – “I’m just a call away / I’m just a plane by day / if you’ll just dance with me.”

Slowly but surely, Avery begins to identify his definitive sound, somewhere between cosmic pop and the aforementioned spaghetti western. “Wasted On Fidelity” touches on "shows to stop / and pills to pop," offering Avery’s most apparent confidence in his narrative, while “Big Town Girl” commences the cementing of Avery’s pop presence. It’s a romantic swerve of cynicism and solicitude that places Jane (aka “Big Town Girl”) at the forefront of Avery’s mind and tongue.

The motifs and themes of Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams are suggestive in a way, as the majority of songs center on placing unidentified lovers on somewhat beguiled, somewhat sordid pedestals of existence, which in a way create this gritty realism to the album’s overall narrative. In a way, the songs feel familiar and extraordinary all the same, similar to a Raymond Carver story.

That being said, the heavy baritone in Avery’s voice and his guitar do conjure up imagines of Cormac McCarthy minus the blood and guts. For instance, “Disposable” takes the concept of romantic shelf life and the reality of life’s inconceivable (and mostly inevitable) shortcomings influencing relationships.

So while Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams reaches it full form somewhere in the middle of its run, the album still challenges the listener to experience the record on Avery’s terms. “Watch Me Take it Away” is a musical despot’s dream, running from aggressive avant-gardism to 60s power pop to the slightest hint of Impala-esque psych rock, only to be undermined (and ultimately, superseded) by Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams’ sublime final third.

Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams ends on a run of cinema level of “long songs,” allowing Avery to express his fullest scope of feeling and imbue his ultimate musings in their most effective fashions. There’s “An Ever Jarring Moment,” which serves as just that, following “Watch Me Take it Away,” a near tonal opposite. Then, there’s “C’est Toi,” which out of all the songs on the record, seems to have the longest half-life. In terms of versatility, “C’est Toi” is the warmest of the bunch, all the while maintaining the cynical despondency of the album as a whole. Also, its just a damn good love song.

In maintaining the beautifully mercurial nature of Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams, the album ends on the hyperbolic yarn that is “Whoever Said Gambling’s For Suckers.” Its somewhat akin to a Bowie-meets-Cave satirical expansion on the song’s namesake take on the Motorhead lyric. There’s talk of Dale the Dog Trainer and splattering cerebellum on the back wall, a desperado’s tale of bounty hunting noir. Its something wholly unique to the album and Avery’s music itself.

All in all, Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams is an intrepid album to say the least. It runs the gamut of genre and challenges any and all conceptions of what an album’s structure should look like. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Ripe Dreams, Pipe Dreams was a total an unequivocal surprise in its sonic excellence – half because a psych rock album was expected, and secondly, the overall superiority of the record is astonishing. While we may only be a wee three months into 2017, don’t be surprised when you see Avery’s name cropping up here and there come year end list season; I know it will certainly have a place on mine.

Sampha Scores With Beautifully Textured 'Process'

Music ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

Prior to the release of Process, most understood Sampha’s voice to be more of a texture than as a vehicle for delivering provocations of thought. Breakthrough features on “Too Much” from Drake’s 2013 album Nothing Was the Same and more recent work on Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” (A Seat at the Table, 2016) showcase Sampha’s vocal rasp and urgency as emotionally captivating accents. But there are concerns that predispose those who take on the consideration of Sampha as a solo artist: Can his singularly textural voice stand as a centerpiece for original work? Or is he doomed to be the most desirable complimentary artist in alternative R&B?

Process seizes the essence of Sampha’s beautifully affective voice. The album weaves his soulful baritone into intricate layers of electronic blues and acoustic rhythms, embedding Sampha’s vocals into synthetically and naturally ambient sounds in an organic synthesis. The tone of the songs alternate seamlessly between lush and minimal as the album swells from bare and vulnerable songs like “Take Me Inside” to the thundering bass staccatos of “Under.” In whole, the palate of the album is impressionistic, dabbling in forceful whips of synthetic oscillations and the delicate strokes of sustained piano arpeggio.

The scope of the subject matter on Process is wide and highly emotive, ranging from stories of surrealist disillusions of violence to laments of forlorn love. “Blood on Me” tells of hooded figures in pursuit of a bloodied protagonist. Its instrumental is simultaneously threatening and empowering. Its vocal percussion and ominous piano arpeggio corners the listener, compelling him or her towards some sort of life-saving action with a sweat-inducing degree of invigoration. Changing pace nearly halfway through, the album frames its single “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” between sounds of thunderstorms and a tranquil rainforest. The song inspires sentimentality and nostalgia through lyrics that pay homage to childhood and a piano section so classical in its structure that it is reminiscent of a child’s recital.

Sampha’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery does not muffle the potency of his incisive songwriting. The precision and variety in his songs’ lyrical matter compare to the provocativeness of his earnest croons. His brand of experimental R&B qualifies him as a peer to James Blake, although Process’s melodic nature earns itself a catchiness that wins over fans in a way that the masses would never respond to Blake, especially with his recent work. This understanding of the formulaic, yet subtle and unique, nature of Sampha’s production ultimately leads us to consider the album’s title, which flaunts Sampha’s control over his art. He is an artist with an ear for what wins listeners and a direction that circumvents the monotony of R&B’s most vacuous motions.

In response to the question of whether or not he can stand out as a solo artist, Sampha has demonstrated that he does best not in fashioning himself as the centerpiece of experimental R&B music, but in elevating every element of his music to a full-bodied and alluring creative experience. Process gets contemporary R&B music right in a way that many of his competitors have not. In his first bloom, Sampha refines coarse notions of soulful experimentalism and tests the standard for modern black art. 

'4 Your Eyez Only' Sustains J.Cole's Profitable Position in Hip-Hop

Music ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

“Double platinum, no features,” the adage goes. It is the latter’s absence of association, however, as opposed to the commercial success presented in the former, which has kept J. Cole from falling the way of his mixtape heyday peers Wale and Meek Mill.

As divided as most hip-hop fans are about J. Cole’s music, it is difficult not to wish him success. His humble and sincere persona, substantiated by chance encounters with him on local bus routes and his bike commute home, have rendered him the most “likable” person in hip-hop. With J. Cole we have a different hip-hop figure. Where an artist like Kendrick Lamar is likely to glean over the heads of a community which elevates the likes of Lil’ Yachty and Lil’ Uzi Vert into the upper tier, J. Cole is able to engage the masses in a discourse on politics, social issues, and virtue.

J. Cole’s prowess as a producer revealed itself well before he attained his double-platinum status. Hits like “Power Trip” and “No Role Modelz” demonstrated the work of a creative mind with an innate ability to contort the popular instrumental palate and appeal to bread-earning demands of airplay. In this sense, J. Cole has been something of an oxymoron – a hit-maker with a live performance interspersed with sermons speaking against materialism. As endearing as these qualities are in J. Cole, it is a wonder that his lyrical substance has failed to match the quality of his instrumental production or his maturely grounded worldview.

4 Your Eyez Only acknowledges the fact that J. Cole connects best with fans on a personal level. From the album’s beginning and onward, he sings with an earnestness which doesn’t indicate a strain to achieve scintillating R&B vocals, but establishes vulnerability. His raps refer onto his signature range of swaggering self-assurance and endearing portrayals of insecurity. As a whole, the album’s instrumentals are more consistent than 2014’s 2014 Forrest Hills Drive. J. Cole laces boom-bap percussions with glitch-synth accents and motifs to create a body of work that is approachable and easy. The album shows his aesthetic not as improved, but refined. Nowhere on it do we hear J. Cole relate the world to frigid temperatures with his overused trademark ad lib. Instead, we are given a more patient and well-portioned album which looks to sustain listeners from beginning to end.

Returning J. Cole fans will find themselves satisfied with anthemic hits like “Immortal” and “Déjà Vu.” The latter’s production reveals the live performance sensibility that J. Cole has picked up in his past year on the music festival circuit. The song begins and ends with a call-and-response fanplay which has the makings for great performative moments, but does little to stimulate any provocative considerations. Superficialities aside, “Déjà Vu’s” trap percussion and Rich Boi-esque post-chorus make it a mainstay for the late night car ride or commute home.

An undeniable highlight, “Neighbors” contemplates racism through an anecdote inspired by true events. Its woozy, molasses-thick instrumental evokes early A$AP Rocky while raising interesting dilemmas of black success and stereotypes. The album’s intellectual high, “Neighbors” finds itself alone as a moment of progression for J. Cole. The rest of 4 Your Eyez Only fails to match, lyrically or instrumentally, the substance of J. Cole’s close reading of race relations on the song and can at best be considered superficial, tried, and tired.

Were J. Cole to give into the fixations of luxury and excess of his lesser popular peers, he may not be as prominent a figure within the genre as he currently is. His character yields no indication of him doing so, but the risk he currently runs with 4 Your Eyez Only is stagnation. 4 Your Eyez Only provides nothing more and nothing less than what fans have come to love about his music. It shows a successful J. Cole inhabiting the profitable and comfortable place in hip-hop he has carved out for himself and does little to reinforce that position to endure the long-term.