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Music Review

Margaret Glaspy Gets Straight to the Point on 'Emotions and Math'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

Whatever your opinion of Bonnaroo 2016’s headlining lineup may be, you would be hard-pressed to find another festival that managed to book a stronger mid-level and breaking artists tier (the last breath of Superfly before Live Nation twisted its heel into Superfly’s throat), at least when considering other festivals of similar ilk. Without getting caught up in the divisive Live Nation booking practices, seeing bands like Whitney, Sunflower Bean, Luke Bell, Sun Club, Hinds, Bully, and Vulfpeck command (and steal) their respective Bonnaroo stages made for many a watershed moment in each band’s career.

While the aforementioned bands were formidable (and even exceptional) in their sets, there was one such set that had a particularly monumental moment, and that was Margaret Glaspy’s Saturday showing on the Who Stage.

For whatever (unfair) reason people want to place Margaret Glaspy’s music into the “folk-rocker” chick channel - as if such an unintelligible blanket statement equates for due diligence – because she’s seemingly unassuming when not on stage or whatever other closed minded pigeon-holed logic might arise. But that’s simply not the case, as exhibited on her debut LP, Emotions and Math, Glaspy’s cerebral songwriting and meditative-yet-managed stage presence place her in a channel that’s wonderfully indeterminate and unfettered, apart from the increasingly tired roots-revival tropism ascribed to any young woman that happens to play guitar.

Emotions and Math is an excellent debut for any artist, but through the lens of Glaspy, it exemplifies her intercourse between personal discourse and a wellspring of feeling and intuition; there are no wax poetic musings to be found on Emotions and Math. The eponymous album opener recalls associative assurance from a former lover of some sort. In a sense, it explores the periodic moments of borderline co-dependency within a relationship. It features feminist idealism while highlighting incongruous feelings of relational dependence.

One of the early points of contention featured in the record is misunderstanding, a common talking point in most indie-music, sure, but Glaspy manages to provide an aggressive and dismissive demeanor on tracks like “Situation” stating “Call me a rebel / Call me a renegade / Whatever fits the mould you’ve made,” while her guitar work bares tonal depth in creating an air confused tension. Admittedly, it's tough to immediately compare Glaspy’s “sound” and spirit to any other established artist – which is something to aspire toward as an artist, in my opinion – though songs like “Somebody to Anybody” and “Memory Street” recall occasional cadences of Cat Power and bellowing labelmates Alabama Shakes' guitar tones. She’s in good company, but it isn’t a total reverential imitation of influences, a practice that seems to be more and more common amongst the “indie” star(let) crowd.

There are tracks like “Pins and Needles” that manage to meld both Glaspy’s blues and rock opining sensibilities with the existential and relational crises of indie-music – “I don’t want to be on pins and needles around you of all people” – simultaneously developing a unique sense of Glaspy-ness. Then you have songs like “Anthony” that feel like a hardened Regina Spektor track (I realize this could be argued as a contradiction in the previous paragraph, but allow me to explain further) – it narrates an absent reciprocation from the aforementioned “Anthony” as Glaspy prays for the admiration and love of Anthony, only to come up short. It’s a theme all too common amongst many a finicky couple – continuing to stay together when feelings and compassion have so obviously run their respective courses. It's almost like Glaspy’s version of Kanye’s Amber Rose call-out on The Life of Pablo – “She said I took the best years of her life.”

Emotions and Math closes with a decidedly brooding tonality that acts as a slight divergence from the light(ish) feel of the rest of the record. “Love Like This” is arguably the strongest track on the record, examining a former romance that was unceremoniously tossed to the wayside, leaving Glaspy left to her own devices, while her guitar work is at its strongest, with a dark tango feel that flirts with positivity, but almost always maintaining a perpetual sense of “Saudade.” Emotions and Math’s closer is the record’s bluesiest track on the record – which seems fitting for a song titled “Black and Blue” – that highlights a slight sense of narrative neuroticism brought about lifelong misconceptions (aka “black is blue”), thus cementing a full-circle moment in Glaspy’s early career – the thought that a seemingly quiet artist could bring about such unabashed and insightful commentary on typical narrative tomes. With a strong full-length debut like Glaspy’s, it will be likely that her presence will quickly shift from the close-mindedness of those expecting a soft-cooing songstress into the proper ascription worthy of Glaspy’s ability.

 

Mitski Comes Into Her Own On 'Puberty 2'

Music ReviewJulian AxelrodComment

Maturity is a tricky concept. We talk about it as if it’s some elusive nirvana attainable only through a vague combination of time and experience, but in reality the path to maturity is a long, twisted clusterfuck that you don’t even realize you’ve been following until you look at where you were the year before and realize how much you’ve changed… or how much you haven’t. As New York singer-songwriter Mitski Miwayaki puts it in her song "Crack Baby," it’s “a long, hard 20-year summer vacation.”

In this sense, Mitski’s fourth album Puberty 2 is her most “mature” to date – not an Ariana-in-leather-bunny-ears declaration of adulthood, but rather a weary demonstration of the hard-earned emotional clarity that comes from years of trying and failing to Figure It Out. She has channeled the raw emotional overload of her modern classic Bury Me At Makeout Creek into a more lush, expansive sound without losing an ounce of its gut-punch intensity.

Puberty 2 covers a broad emotional spectrum, but it is primarily defined by a longing for recognition and acceptance, even as it understands how fleeting these may be. “Dan the Dancer” and “Your Best American Girl” tell two very different stories of outsiders yearning to be understood, while “Fireworks” finds Mitski struggling to reconcile grief within her daily routine: “I will go jogging routinely, calmly and rhythmically run / And when I find that a knife’s sticking out of my side / I’ll pull it out without questioning why.” Intense blasts of emotion arrive unexpectedly – deep infatuation on “A Loving Feeling,” detached disappointment on “A Burning Hill,” and high anxiety on the contained punk rager “My Body’s Made Of Crushed Little Stars,” which sprints through Mitski’s inner monologue as she fantasizes about blowing a job interview and plotting her own disappearance. But these songs are over before you can begin to make sense of them, creating an experience as unpredictable as our own emotional cycle.

While Mitski’s expertly crafted lyrics masterfully reflect our own fickle feelings, her compositions are more confident than ever. The SUNY Purchase-trained composer and her co-producer Patrick Hyland find the perfect middle ground between the elaborate arrangements of her first two albums and the urgent garage frenzy of Bury Me At Makeout Creek. The panic-attack guitars on “My Body’s Made…” bleed into the dreamy synth globs of “Thursday Girl,” while the industrial clatter of “Happy” simultaneously recalls St. Vincent and political punks Downtown Boys.

Yet it’s impossible to listen to Puberty 2 and hear it as anything but a product of Mitski’s singular vision. Her turns of phrase provide a connective tissue for its disparate themes, and her affecting voice adapts to every new sound. She has come into her own as a writer, producer and performer, with a presence so commanding it sells every line like a short story. The genius of Puberty 2 lies in Mitski’s ability to turn this emotional whirlwind into a personal, cohesive statement. After all, there’s nothing more mature than knowing yourself.

Peter Bjorn and John Reach Peak Pop Polish on 'Breakin' Point'

Music ReviewWeston PaganoComment

The wait for this one was so long we're not young folks anymore. Everyone’s favorite Swedish indie pop trio, Peter Bjorn and John, had been taunting fans with #PBJ7 social posts for much of the five years since Gimme Some gave us 300% of a normal thumbs-up in 2011, before finally releasing their 7th LP, Breakin’ Point, today. Delayed by growing families and a label shift as the band left Sony imprint Startime for their own Stockholm startup, INGRID, the wait has turned out, of course, to be worth it.

Breakin’ Point launches straight into things; you can already picture audiences clapping along as disco-tinged lament of working for The Man, ”Dominos,” sets off the "chain reaction" that launches into 12 tightly-packed tracks, all clocking in at 3:something or less (even “A Long Goodbye" doesn't reach four minutes) as if the triple-headed hammer on the cover itself cranked them out.

“It says, ‘We’re back! We’re smashing it!’” bassist Björn Yttling explains of the album art, which consists of, per tradition, three parts - one for each member. It's the affable Swedes’ most cartoonish and playful offering yet, which says a lot for the trio that gave us the undeniable whistler “Young Folks" among others, but their pop sensitivities, as radio-ready as they increasingly are for better or worse, lose little in the ways of heart. It needs to be “like ABBA,” Yttling says, and it’s clear they take the inspiration of their compatriots seriously; PB&J recorded Breakin’ Point in studios formerly used by ABBA, and have even jokingly claimed to be the classic group’s illegitimate sons.

PB&J first explored using outside producers on Gimme Some, but they’ve enlisted an entire star-studded roster of them this time around, including Paul Epworth (Paul McCartney, U2, Florence And The Machine), Patrick Berger (Robyn, Icona Pop), Greg Kurstin (Adele, Sia), Emile Haynie (Kanye West, FKA Twigs), Pontus Winnberg (Miike Snow) and Thom Monahan (Wild Nothing, Devendra Banhart). The band explored several evolutions following their well-deserved Writer’s Block breakthrough from Seaside Rock’s instrumentals, Living Thing’s minimalist electro-funk, and Gimme Some’s amped up guitar-driven power dynamics, and the newfound influence of big pop producers doesn’t go unfelt here as Breakin’ Point instead reaches for peak accessibility and polish.

Long-term fans will attest it was PB&J’s endearing quirks that kept them around after some fantastic sync licensing first propelled their 2006 ubiquitous flagship tune to the world stage, however - the beautifully poignant epic of “Up Against The Wall,” the captivatingly juxtaposed aggression of “Lay It Down," the viciously enthralling hook of ”Amsterdam” (which has been this author’s ringtone for as long as he can remember) - and Breakin’ Point lacks any adventurous, next-level standout in that way, resulting in their most consistently medium tempo, homogenous effort in years.

That being said, PB&J do however succeed at what they (safely) do attempt; the frantic skitter and plink of “What You Talking About?” proves they still know exactly what they’re saying, and they're slick while they do it. Their iconic, cheerful whistling notably returns in the title track and “Nostalgic Intellect,” (which “may seem like bigger news than it is, hey its only whistling,” the press release notes), with the former bolstering Peter Morén’s soaring vocals as they present a vulnerably honest attempt at finding courage for newfound fatherhood: “I saw it in Jesus / Saw it in Superman / Got it from whiskey / Like any loser can.”

Do Si Do” drops a Beatles reference on its way to the dancefloor, while “Between The Lines” aptly concludes “It's hard to sing if your hearts not there.” The punchy cowbell in album highlight and closer “Pretty Dumb Pretty Lame” is far from either of those things as PB&J address the triviality and tension found in their own profession: “Well you complain in the press / You’ve been under a stress / Well every nine-to-fiver is stressed out for less / If you enjoy what you do / Don’t let it ruin you.” These glimpses of true self-awareness are a precious commodity in today’s pop, and it’s exactly that and their genuinely disarming disposition that has always set them apart from their pop rock peers, even at their most formulaic.

“There are very few songs in our collection that are positive. I can’t think of one,” Yttling admits, which may surprise casual listeners. “It's always been about the blues. Life is shit, but tonight is nice – that’s what pop is, especially the songs that we love. You wanna have some darkness to be able to see the light. That’s how we do it up here in Sweden! It’s like a black and white movie if you look out: snow and a black mass of darkness.” It’s may not always reach the depth of past works, but Breaking’ Point does its part to make that darkness abate, even if for only 41 minutes.


Read our full-length interview with Peter Bjorn and John here.

Robert Ellis Gets Surreal on Self-Titled Third LP, 'Robert Ellis'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

June 3, 2016 is one of the year’s most saturated release dates so far; a conflicting conundrum for those who look to listen to any of the exceptional (and not so - sorry Train) releases: Paul Simon, The Strokes, Whitney, Michael Kiwanuka, Tegan and Sara, The Kills, William Tyler all on the same day. One such artist whose newest release deserves the attention and praise his excellent album would garner on any less release-heavy date is none other than Brooklyn-by-Nashville-by-Austin songwriter Robert Ellis.

Much like his revolving door of homesteads, Ellis is not confined by a singular genre – though it could be argued all roads lead back to country music in one way or another – as he mixes strains of jazz, pop, and western music into dulcet guitar sounds layered over his wavering country timbre that resembles a surrealist Willie Nelson. Despite the country tonalities in his music, Ellis’ third full-length record, Robert Ellis, explores musical avenues that past efforts Photographs (2011) and The Light From the Chemical Plant (2014) chose not to venture upon.

His newest, eponymous effort opens with “Perfect Strangers,” a song exploring the inter-relational dynamics (or lack there of) of busy New York City sidewalks and subways, inevitably influence by Ellis’ fairly recent move to Gotham. The song features playful pop piano (a far cry from the saloon style player pianos of The Light From the Chemical Plant), which coincides wonderfully with Ellis’ cheeky lyrical observations – “On a crowded city sidewalk buying hotdogs / Standing awkwardly together” and “Because everything looks better in low lighting” – with the occasional country slide guitar creeping into the song.   

Not to undermine the emotional depth of Ellis’ previous two full length releases, but there’s an intelligible sense of remorse and yearning on Robert Ellis that feels considerably more connective than on The Lights from the Chemical Plant (let’s take a moment to appreciate just how excellent that album title is). “How I Love You” and “California” explore two opposite ends of the relational spectrum – “How I Love You” acting as the vibrant ode to a lover, and “California” chronicling an underappreciated lover tempted to trek to the west coast. The composition on “California” is an interesting combination of Ellis’ excellent jazz guitar work melded with sentimental lounge keyboards with intermittent hyper-produced tones and 808s – a new territory for Ellis that ultimately makes “California” one of his largest and most evocative tracks to date.

There’s a dichotomy between “California” and it succeeding track, “Amanda Jane,” a story of commitment built over a country-tango, and all of a sudden, we’re in “classic” Robert Ellis territory. The narrative of multiple men trying to “fix” the mysterious Amanda Jane combined with the nylon string meandering and lush slide guitar licks make “Amanda Jane” an early favorite on Robert Ellis. The next few tracks on the album return to Ellis’ Nashville-by-Austin roots with the classic country honky-tonk beat of the apathetic anthem “Drivin,’” into the western ballad that is “The High Road” – a falsetto laden lament of indifference and morality (and my personal favorite), featuring heavy orchestral composition that packs a fun wallop of self-loathing - before jumping into “Elephant,” an allegorical parallel to isolationism that revolves around the popular (and tired) Pachyderm turn of phrase. Despite the initially cliché lyrical basis, Ellis manages to present the idea in a tone that is wholly more intelligent than most. Then there’s the fact that Ellis’ finger picking is second to none on all three tracks – Ellis is often left out of most modern guitarist debates, which is more than a crying shame – which is Ellis’ strongest security blanket while exploring different lyrical approaches and unfamiliar tonalities.

In Ellis’ quest to find different sounds on Robert Ellis, “You’re Not the One” serves as his rock orchestra, with abounding strings integrated with the country-fantasm keys and guitar. In certain portions, the emotional emphasis gets a little muddled – is Ellis letting go of a current lover or opining on a former lover whose memory persists – either way, the robust composition makes “You’re Not the One” Ellis’ most inspired effort on his eponymous record. All that to be said, “You’re Not the One’s” intrepid approach is almost subverted by the totally departure from anything expected from Ellis’ catalog, as “Screw” sees Ellis go sans-vocals in order to create a Sufjan-meets-Reznor soundscape of pensive and conflicting guitar tones that warp and entangle an emotionally vibrant record.

Following the equally confusing and exciting “Screw,” Ellis returns to the same playful nature that he began to establish in the early third of the album on “Couples Skate” – a silly setting for an endearing narrative of love and relational engagement – it’s a little cheesy, but clever enough to be the perfect “first date” montage song for any rom-com or three camera sitcom you can think of.

Robert Ellis closes with “It’s Not Ok,” the album’s longest and most speculative and demure track, as Ellis reiterates and extends the ideals presented in “The High Road” and “You’re Not the One” but are entirely more visceral when you realize Ellis is putting none other than himself on blast – “It's not ok that I hide in the words of a song.” It’s the final stoic anthem of a mysterious and alluring personality in music, as Robert Ellis manages to take an artist many had pegged as a “new school of old school country” a la Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, or Nikki Lane and fully turn such a notion upon its head. While Ellis doesn’t necessarily establish a fully realized narrative or sonic heading on Robert Ellis, he does manage to extend his staying power as a musically mercurial artist with a definitive approach and sensibility. Where many would likely prefer for Ellis to try and solidify his standing as a stalwart of “new” country, you can’t help but admire the strong work Ellis puts forward on Robert Ellis to maintain his own surreal path, away from whatever is considered “en vogue.” 

Whitney Shuns Buzz Band Banality on 'Light Upon the Lake'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

No band in the history of everything has managed to avoid “death” in the sense that all bands – from The Beatles to your favorite local proto-punk-neo-folk-soul group – break up for one reason or another, with varying degrees of adversity and dramaticism. Obviously, The Beatles disbanded in 1970, but weren’t “definitively” broken up until Mark David Chapman read Catcher in the Rye in December of 1980, and as far your favorite local proto-punk-neo-folk-soul group is concerned, their drummer Keith was promoted to the late shift manager at Starbucks, so he won’t be able to practice most evenings, and proto-punk-neo-folk-soul drummers are at a premium in Des Moines. But silly comparisons aside, band breakups are rarely ever a joyous occurrence – tensions run high, bridges are burned, and once-hopeful fans are left with a finite discography.

So, when a particularly “buzzy” band such as Smith Westerns calls it a quits, the resulting career uncertainty for the former members can become increasingly unsettling to the devout follower. Fortunately, the legacy that follows Smith Westerns’ end looks to be far more promising than whatever outlook the original group may have had. Former front-man Cullen Omori made his way over to Sub Pop and released his solid solo debut with New Misery in March, and now, former Smith Westerns drummer Julien Ehrlich (who also had a stint in Unknown Mortal Orchestra) and guitarist Max Kackacek have banded together to form Whitney, and release a wonderfully jangly 70s-revival debut record, Light Upon the Lake.

Light Upon the Lake begins with a stellar album opener in “No Woman,” a seemingly mawkish entrance that meanders aimlessly as Ehrlich’s soft-cooing vocals opine about waking up in Los Angeles and experiencing an indefinite and tiresome change. Kackacek’s deceptively smooth '70s Martin-esque riffs eventually lead the track in a decidedly more confident direction, with a cacophony of horns closing out the introductory track. The succeeding tracks on Light Upon the Lake see an uptick in tone and vibrancy as “The Falls” feels like a mix of Vulfpeck percussive piano playful nudging Ehrlich’s lyrical musings on losing control, leading into “Golden Days,” the wax poetic (and indie rock right of passage) chronicling of some relationship passed (can’t help but think there might be some Smith Westerns undertones) – “It’s a shame we can’t get it together now.”

Where many might try and incorporate aspects of past projects into their current one, Whitney does a fantastic of presenting a definite tone and substantive grip of who Whitney is, namely in the band’s consistent use of horns, bouncing piano, and clean Martin riffs deftly maneuvered by Kackacek – especially on the album’s eponymous standout, “Light Upon the Lake.” The overall feel of Light Upon the Lake could be likened to The Band meets UMO with flecks of Vulfpeck and Blake Mills – in short, its wholly unique. The album features a number of punk sensibilities when it comes to lyrical verisimilitude and general brevity – the three song stretch of “No Matter Where I Go,” “On My Own,” and “Red Moon” runs a whopping 5:38 – with “On My Own” into “Red Moon” being the most impressive track pairing of the bunch, primarily for the excellent showcasing of horns mixed with Kackacek’s ever-tasteful licks. All in all, the two strongest aspects of Light Upon the Lake are Kackacek’s guitar expertise and the incorporation of harmonious brass work – making the record distinctly modern but also managing to hearken back to a softer time in rock music.

Light On the Lake closes out as sweetly and satisfyingly as it opened, with the uber-funk fuzz of “Polly” marking it as best track on the album, a soft cooing-ballad that has features undertones of disenchanted realism under the guise of happy rhythms and horns. The album closes with “Follow” - the sonic sibling of “Polly” – setting Light On the Lake’s with as positive an outlook as any debut featuring lyrics like “I know I’ll hear the call any time…” that lend credence to the visionary nature of Light On the Lake as a whole. “Follow” allows the record to help establish Whitney as more than just another buzz band, but rather a supremely melancholic (but not miserable) introduction steeped with perspective that maintains an ultimately warm purview of the band’s future. Expect to see Light Upon the Lake on many a "year end" list, including Transverso's, as the record exemplifies the ideal dulcet tones of an indie band debut.  

Car Seat Headrest Finds Magic in Monotony on 'Teens of Denial'

Music ReviewJulian AxelrodComment

Youth has always been a prized commodity in popular music. Whether they’re celebrating it before they lose it or looking back fondly after it’s gone, songwriters hold youth in such high regard that they lose sight of a simple, universal truth: Being young is the worst.

No one understands this better than Will Toledo, the 23-year-old mastermind behind Car Seat Headrest. Toledo has had an exciting trajectory over the past few years, as his bedroom-pop solo project evolved into a full band and signed with indie mainstay Matador Records. After last year’s acclaimed retrospective Teens of Style established CSH as a major force in the indie rock scene, Teens of Denial could have served as a victory lap; now that Toledo has made it to the big leagues, there’s nowhere to go but up.

But Teens of Denial is not a triumphant album. Success has not changed CSH’s songs, some of which have been in the works since 2013; if anything, this record sounds even more defeated than its predecessors. This is a virtue, as it allows Toledo to display his nearly unparalleled knack for humorously articulating the tiny chaos of being lost and bored in your early 20s. “It’s more than what you bargained for / But it’s a little less than what you paid for,” Toledo sings on “Destroyed By Hippie Powers,” a line that serves as the M.O. for the entire album. Confusion and guilt and anger permeate the lyrics, but Toledo imbues them with a wry levity and an offhand smirk that mask their bleak sentiment. Verses play out like shouted arguments between a parent and teen through a recently slammed bedroom door, as on opener “Fill in the Blank” when Toledo yells, “You have no right to be depressed / Haven’t seen enough of this world yet / But it hurts, it hurts, it hurts”.

But more often, that anger is directed inwards, as Toledo details the countless failed schemes and personal flaws that keep him from rising above the banality of his small town. Take “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)”, an exhausted (and exhaustingly titled) ode to our inability to curb our own self-destructive tendencies that features the indelible line “Last Friday I took acid and mushrooms / I did not transcend / I felt like a walking piece of shit in a stupid-looking jacket.” In the world of Car Seat Headrest, even psychedelics are just a different way to feel miserable.

As stunted and ineffective as the narrator comes across, Teens of Denial is CSH’s most sonically mature effort to date. The lo-fi trappings of Toledo’s Bandcamp days have been updated with a professional studio sheen that highlights the lyrics without sacrificing their urgency or impact. The hooks are stronger and more streamlined, with anthemic riffs and harmonies that glow like the sun through your window after you’ve slept til noon. The record hums with a spirit of experimentation, as if Toledo is thrilled to try out the opportunities afforded by a professional studio setting. His oddly affecting falsetto and a beautiful synth arrangement elevate the stellar “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” while the 11-minute epic “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” crescendos into an existential power ballad as Toledo rattles off a laundry list of lessons he never knew he was supposed to learn before adulthood. The song culminates in a cathartic chorus of “I GIVE UP” screamed over and over again, like an invocation chanted to keep his responsibilities at bay.

His efforts are unsuccessful; by the next song, our hero is back to complaining about how he’ll never get a job. But coming at the end of such an accomplished work, it’s a little hard to believe him. In Teens of Denial, Toledo has created a supremely confident album about crippling self-doubt. The job market may be dire, but at least Toledo has a fallback gig as the reluctant voice of a generation.

Chance the Rapper Reflects on the City That Made Him in 'Coloring Book'

Music ReviewEric FracComment

“And we back, and we back, and we back, and we back!” Chicago’s very own Chance the Rapper has finally released his much-anticipated third mixtape, Coloring Book, formerly known as Chance 3, and it’s got everyone excited for the summer that’s just around the corner. Yes, Chance is back, and so much better than before. In an interview with Complex, Chance summed up the hype leading up to Coloring Book: “This stuff is way better than Surf. I’ll say that on record. Donnie [Trumpet] is awesome, and the project was awesome, but this is all of us focusing our efforts into some hip-hop and some very dance-y shit, and it feels good. So I’m excited about that.”

When I first heard Chance on his 10 Day mixtape I walked with a newfound pep in my step in between classes; frankly it was one of my first exposures to hip hop songs that weren’t all about money, drugs, and women, and it was a very fresh breath of new life into my then stagnant hip hop playlist. This was music you could vibe to, music that made you genuinely smile because it made you want to dance. It seemed impossible to find someone who genuinely didn’t like Chance the Rapper, and he quickly rose to the top of Chicago’s hip hop scene without having anything to do with the drill music that has all but completely dominated the local scene.

Coming in at 14 songs deep, Coloring Book is no different, so grab a friend, take a deep breath, and just let the joy and beauty that is ‘Coloring Book’ dance into your ears as it makes you feel that sometimes rare emotion: pure happiness.

“All We Got (ft. Kanye West, Chicago Children’s Choir)”

Staying true to the beautiful sound of the trumpet, the song starts off with the familiar, “And we back, and we back, and we back, and we back, and we back,” and I can’t help but crack a smile already. Chance is back. The song features a powerful message delivered to the listeners by yours truly, Yeezus himself: “Music is all we got, living is all we got, so we might as well give it all we got The song is a fitting introduction to the project, and with a feature from Chance’s favorite hometown hero Kanye West it seems that Chance’s gospel sound on "Ultralight Beam" have carried over into Coloring Book, and it’s got everyone rejoicing.

“No Problem (ft. Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz)”

Let me be one of the first to say that this song will be one of the anthems of your summer. The song has everything it needs to be a radio hit; a catchy hook, a feature from 2 Chainz AND Lil Wayne, and a beat that you can’t help but bop your head to. "No Problem" is a warning to all the record labels trying to sign Chance: he’s not about it, and he wants to make it clear through lines like, “If one more label try to stop me / It’s gon’ be some dreadhead niggas in ya lobby.” You don’t want any problems with Chance, and he’s going to keep on doing what he’s doing whether others like it or not. 2 Chainz and Wayne do their thing on the song, each with their own flow that compliments the beat. Wayne also references his own struggle with his former record label Cash Money not letting him release "Tha Carter V,” with, “If that label try and stop me / There gon’ be some crazy Weezy fans waitin’ in the lobby.”

“Summer Friends (ft. Jeremih, Francis And The Lights)”

Growing up on the southside of Chicago, Chance reminds everyone about just how deadly the violence really is. He raps about how it’s the first day of summer and people are already shooting each other, and there are less and less students in summer school because of it. Sadly, “Summer friends don’t stay around here” is a stark reminder that the this is still a huge issue in the community, and the pain of losing his friends during the summertime still stuck with Chance.

“D.R.A.M Sings Special”

The shortest song on the project is a repeated verse in a soulful type lullaby by the Virginia rapper D.R.A.M who has collaborated with Chance through Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment, and it’s a deep message that reminds us all that we truly are special. Each and everyone one of us has talents and gifts that they were born with, and we need to be reminded that nobody is a nobody. The interlude preaches a message of self-confidence as well as inspiration to create yourself. Positive vibes all around.

“Blessings”

A testament to God, Chance isn’t afraid to show his devotion to his religion. He also touches on the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the birth of his daughter. A feel-good gospel song, and some emotional lyrics from Chance further solidify this track’s place in the project. Jamila Woods adds the cherry on top with her voice that makes you just want to throw your hands up in the air and praise whatever god(s) there may or may not be.

“Same Drugs”

“Same Drugs” is Chance’s farewell song to the drug taking persona he exuded during his days of Acid Rap, highlighting how he’s matured as a person to be a father for his daughter. He reminisces about the old days, but it’s on a positive note with no regrets. He thinks back to his carefree days as a child where everything was still filled with wonder, and even alludes to Peter Pan when Peter told the kids, “All you need is happy thoughts” to fly, as Chance encourages his daughter (who is referenced to as "Dandelion") to think happy thoughts, and in turn she will be a happy child growing up.

“Mixtape (ft. Young Thug, Lil Yachty)”

Wow, where to begin. First of all, Chance the Rapper + Young Thug + Lil Yachty? Never in a million years would I have even dreamed of those two on a Chance song, and yet this turned out to be one of my favorite songs off the project. Thugger and Yachty discuss their concern for the music industry losing it’s legitimacy by somewhat ignoring mixtapes. Yachty recently debuted his first official mixtape, and he’s bound to be one of the fastest rising stars in the scene in 2016. Young Thug on the other hand is becoming a much more common name now that Kanye has even had him featured on The Life Of Pablo, but the real fans knew that Thugger has built his career on his mixtapes, especially with his Slime Season collection. Chance feels like the industry is warping the minds and vision of artists who no longer release music for the passion but instead for commercialized purposes. Young Thug said it best: “How can they call themselves bosses when they got so many bosses?”

Angels (ft. Saba)”

A true dedication to the city that raised and made him, Chance pours his heart out to his fellow Chicagoans with fellow Chicago-native Saba on "Angels." In it, Chance talks about how he grew as an artist and he expresses his love for his hometown, complete with a music video featuring gorgeous shots of the city from an L train. It just makes me so happy and actually made me crack a damn smile, because for once I get to see a Chicago hip-hop music video that doesn’t have a single gun being waved at the camera, and that doesn’t have to do with what people label as “the dark side of Chicago” hip hop. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the Chicago drill scene as well as all the new talent that’s sprouting out from it, but I am fully aware of the hardships and problems that have been going on in Chicago’s southside communities. The systematic segregation of the city as well as the fake war on drugs has ravished the communities, and the violence has always spiked during the summer. Chicago needs something to help start working toward solutions to the countless problems with the city, but Chicago will always have hope. Chance is willing to live and die for this city because he believes in it, and so do I.

“Juke Jam (ft. Justin Bieber)”

A song about Chance’s teenage years and an innocent relationship that he says he was too young to be able to take it to a sexual level. "Juke Jam" is sensual while keeping it innocent. The song’s chorus sung by fellow Savemoney rapper and Chicago-native Towkio is a vocal interpolation on R. Kelly’s "Feelin' On Your Booty," and damn it’s good. Bieber comes on here a couple times to do his thing with the song’s bridges, and the whole song just flows together extremely smooth. You’d be lying if you said this song didn’t make you feel some type of way with your special someone.

“All Night ft. Knox Fortune”

Goddamn it’s hard to not jump up and get groovy to this one. Chance proves he can be one funky dude on this track as he raps about how everyone’s drunk and trying to be friends with him now that he’s got fame and success. Chance tells them to give him his space and he just wants his friends and himself to just enjoy the party. Chance promised Coloring Book to be filled with “dance-y shit,” and it’s safe to say he delivered on that promise. This beat alone makes it worthy of a lengthy run in TV / film placements, and it’s a jam that can be played at parties and clubs alike.

“How Great (ft. My Cousin Nicole)”

Continuing on the religious themes prevalent throughout the mixtape, "How Great" is a continuation of Chance praising God. Chance’s actual cousin named Nicole opens the track up with a sample from Chris Tomlin’s "How Great is Our God"; the song is a great gospel addition to the project. Jay Electronica, a Muslim producer, does wonders to the track, and Chance himself throws in Christian rhetoric as he talks about worship and praise.

“Smoke Break (ft. Future)”

What a time to be alive. Chanco and Future Hendrix on the same track? What?! And it worked! Chance rapped about how he used to smoke out of a bowl because it’s much easier and quicker to do since his life is so hectic, and Future is looking for his queen to share his clean molly and whips with wings with, and there’s even what seems like a subliminal shot at Desiigner: “I got designer galore,” which could easily be Future’s passive aggressive ways of saying Desiigner is getting big off of Future’s sound. Guess we have to wait for Desiigner to drop his second official song to see.

“Finish Line / Drown (ft. T-Pain, Kirk Franklin, Noname, Eryn Allen Kane)”

The longest song on Coloring Book, "Finish Line" features veterans and up and coming artists praising the greatness of God and how far they’ve come thanks to him. The first part of the song "Finish Line" features Chance and T-Pain talk about their devotion to God, and how it's helped them to “see the finish line”. The second part, "Drown," features two up-and-coming female rappers from Chicago by the names of Eryn Allen Kane and Noname as they talk about how God has helped them out through their hardships in life, and they remind you that through God you will never drown. Beautiful analogy of how even though the water is deeper than it’s ever been and how life may seem harder than it has ever before, with the help of God you won’t drown and you will be able to get through anything.

“Blessings (Reprise)”

The conclusion to Coloring Book, Chance basically thanks God for how far he’s gotten and for everything that he’s been able to accomplish. Honestly, another work of art, and a fantastic way for the project to come to a close. Uncredited support from the likes of B.J The Chicago Kid and Ty Dolla $ign, amongst others, the song wraps everything that Chance is about up nicely in a song and reminds us just how gifted Chance really is. With God to thank, Chance is ever grateful for everything that he’s been able to achieve, and the dreams that he has still to set out and accomplish.

 

            Wow, what a ride. Coloring Book was well worth the wait, and it further solidified Chance’s spot amongst Chicago’s legends. With Kanye’s stamp of approval, the messiah of Chicago addresses his come up and how the city made him who he is, and Chance makes sure to pay tribute to that throughout the project. God also plays a major role in Chance’s life and career, and he thanks God for everything that he’s given to Chance and all the times that God has been there for Chance through difficult times in life. This is a project you can smile while listening, and something that will make you want to dance until you drop when you hear “All Night” at the next party you go to. He’s not just another Chicago rapper, he’s an artist, a believer, and an ambassador of positive vibes set out to remind us not to give up, better days are just around the corner.

Radiohead Provoke Immense Sorrow on 'A Moon Shaped Pool'

Music ReviewEzra CarpenterComment
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Chameleons of genre, icons of self-redefinition, dealers of some of the bravest decisions made in music history; the qualifications that reify Radiohead’s legacy are more than laurels upon which the band can rest, they are also the embodiments of character traits that have allowed the band to not only endure time, but claim it, and then redefine it. A Moon Shaped Pool serves to show that these impressive shows of ingenuity, as detrimental as they may potentially be, are still re-deployable in 2016.

On A Moon Shaped Pool Radiohead has demonstrated a mastery of their idiosyncratic approach to alternative music, doing so on the most sonically spare and lyrically provocative platforms of their career while simultaneously drawing upon the subtleties of their best work. The album features the minimalist electronic motifs of Kid A alongside the nimble guitar picking and understated riffs of In Rainbows, without negating its innovation. The album’s lead single “Burn the Witch” offers Radiohead at their most orchestral, while the ensuing single “Daydreaming” reemploys the band’s dichotomy of subtle instrumentals and paining vocals. Though this contrast may evoke comparisons to Kid A’s “How to Disappear Completely,” the song is a pivotal transitioning point into A Moon Shaped Pool’s most unexpected and most challenging material. The new album deals heavily with loss on a soundscape that is even more minimal than Kid A’s ambient tracks. But while the band has curtailed its complex instrumental layering in favor of isolated pianos and finger-picked guitars, the decision has resulted in an emotionally reductive listening experience.

Lyrics such as “Dreamers / They never learn / Beyond the point / Of no return” repackage the warnings of Radiohead’s signature doomsayers’ message with more consequential and permanent subjects such as hurt, regret, love, and longing. Paired with characters like those introduced in “Identikit," “Sweet-faced ones with nothing left inside / That we all can love… Pieces of a rag doll mankind / That you can’t create,” Yorke’s lyrical content offers a scathingly futile, yet beautiful message. His vocals vary between a soaring falsetto and an unembellished delivery; sometimes offering levity to weighty material and other times presenting disheartening scenarios straightforwardly. The latter is the perfect pairing for “Identikit"’s antagonistic guitar-riff – a palm-muted baritone melody teeming with attitude.

The shifts A Moon Shaped Pool takes between moods are noticeable, but not coarse. The piano arpeggios and trills of “Decks Dark” and “Glass Eyes” have a very secluding effect, though their background orchestration attributes a certain grace to the songs which yields an air of peaceful helpless, exemplifying the careful balance found in the pairing of lyrics and instrumentation and the selection of songs as well. The acoustics of “Desert Island Disk” and the dissonant synths of “Ful Stop separate “Decks Dark” and “Glass Eyes,” allowing listeners to shift between the various mental spaces these songs inhabit. It is the transitions made between moods, instrumentation, and lyrical content that allow songs such as “Ful Stop” and “True Love Waits” to coexist and help create one of the most unique Radiohead albums.

A Moon Shaped Pool is an album that may find some fans flat-footed. Those not expecting to deal with themes of loss and the fulfillment of love may find themselves either uncomfortable on occasion or dissatisfied. But if allowed to thrive past any initial sock, A Moon Shaped Pool will knock anyone on their ass and place them in the grips of an existential dilemma. But maybe “existential” is an inappropriate term for this album. It is modernist, as evidenced by details as spare and as fleeting as Thom Yorke’s buzzing background vocals. These droning and abruptly cutting falsettos provide the most succinct and holistic summations of what A Moon Shaped Pool offers: impressionistic whirs of pain and restraint, and a heart-hollowing sense of loss.

Devon Welsh's First Solo Release: Out of the Cloudz and 'Down the Mountain'

Music ReviewWeston PaganoComment

Majical Cloudz may have sadly dissipated, but as promised Devon Welsh has not slowed, and on his first solo release (not an “album,” but merely a “collection”) since, Down the Mountain, he proves that even in tracks deemed excess he is capable of smoothly tapping into your synapses with a softer pierce and purer honesty than most would-be crooners could ever hope to achieve.

Welsh explains,

This is a small collection of songs that were written at different times over the last two years. Some of them were written during the same time as ‘Are You Alone?’ but did not end up on that album for one reason or another. Others were written and recorded for fun last summer.

I want to release all these songs because I like them a lot and since I am working on new music, my attention will inevitably go to that new music and these songs will be forgotten, and forgotten songs are sad.

So this isn’t an album, and it isn’t an album of ‘new music’, but it’s a collection of older songs that I like and that I feel deserve to be released.

Note: The recordings might sound a bit rough, I mixed and mastered it myself and am in the process of learning how to be better at that..

The titular track consoles a friend over the loss of their mother with the belting of “It’s alright" willing its soothing empathy to eclipse the darkness through volume as we’re treated to Welsh’s boldest vocal injection in recent memory. This gives away to a bouncy piano trot paired with lyrics as light as you’ll hear from the Montrealiant; “Every month is a pleasure / Enjoy this love with me.” “I want to sing to a room full of strangers just for fun / Oh what could be stranger,” Welsh admits in “I Won’t Let You Down,” hopefully hinting at solo performances to come, signature white shirt and all, the blankness of which always served as the perfect canvas for his soliloquies.

It’s fitting that his last tweet before the release was, “I hope I'm alive to see close-up images of other habitable planets, or even any planets outside our solar system…” Welsh’s music has always started with the bare-bones necessities - a rock, an atmosphere - and seemingly welded them together a galaxy away before gently beaming them back closer to home than you could have ever anticipated at first glance.

Collection closer “Dreams” ends with, “I will help you dream / I am your friend,” a sentiment not many could get away with in any meaningful way as he does, but with a steadily ebbing earnestness the heavy space inherent between Down the Mountain’s airy melodies and sedative vocals trawls the deepest veins of feeling such minimalism can mine. The hum and quiver of synthesizers are the breath and pulse while Welsh’s murmurs are the consciousness dancing upon them, but in a way altogether more beautiful than the sum of the parts. Words fail to quite describe such flawless liquidity.

“I don’t know why we’re born and we die,” “Starlight” ponders. It may be the mystery for the ages, but one thing is for sure: Welsh’s continued creative output into this world gives it just a little more meaning to hold on to.

Julianna Barwick's 'Will' Wanders Into the Furthest Recesses of Sound

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

Ambient artists, post-rock bands, and noise performers have a rough go of carving out a name for themselves in music. On one hand, being that the music is almost wholly composition based, most listening masses ascribe an immediate “cerebral” rank to any and all releases (which, if you’re an egoist, can be both of great benefit and detriment). The inverse of the scenario is that being any sort non-lyrically driven artist can relegate one to the realm of conceptualism and/or performance art (not that either is necessarily an arena of “relegation,” perhaps just to the less exploratory masses) that would be viewed to many as a piteous endeavor. It is for that exact reason that I believe the noisemakers and ambient ascendants who are forced to push the bounds of sound conception without the assistance of lyrical direction are some of the most vital assets in the continued progression of sound as a whole.

There’s many a noise artist that has received considerable accolade for their efforts in sustaining the pioneering nature of their ambient, post, and cacophonous predecessors – Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai, Xylouris White, SUNN O))), Phantom Orchard, Faust – all of whom deserve their celebratory credit where such credit is due, but one artist who has quietly and quite consistently continued to challenge and progress the ambient arena on both large and small scale is one Ms. Julianna Barwick.

Perhaps one of the more ethereal ambient artists (such a description may be akin to calling a fuzzy rabbit soft, but I digress) having debuted in the past decade or so, Barwick has charted a course in music that is centered firmly upon her voice. I understand that this review was prefaced under the guise of ambient artists and post-rock albums are devoid of lyrics etc, but Barwick’s incantations are virtually indiscernible, like an atmospheric Wurlitzer manipulated and warped in a variety of manners to propel her music. A brief look at the Brooklyn transplant by way of Louisiana’s songbook, and its evident that despite having one or two repeated lines of lyrics in some of her songs, they are merely vessels for her to layer and loop the tracks in the name of ambient sounds.

Its been three years since Barwick released her astounding Nepenthe, an album which served as a secondary debut bringing larger appeal and admiration from the atypical music listening crowd. Barwick’s ability to juxtapose the confinement of being a soloist with the congregation of sounds of one voice is moving and more emotive than most lyrically based efforts. Where the soaring tones of Nepenthe helped elevate the listener to a higher plane, Barwick’s newest release, Will manages to do the same, but by eliciting heavier synth to most tracks, which in turn brings a darker, seemingly introspective gravity to the record. Will is more mature - both in the Gregorian sense of time, as well as sonically – as Barwick manages to effortlessly exude a tonality of crisp and clean, yet unpolished melodies that were at times overwrought on Nepenthe and previous efforts.

Rather than waste the reader (and listener)’s time giving the typical track-by-track review, rundown, etc. it may be of more benefit to the reader/listener to interpret Will as a whole, without dissection or individual critiques. Will is an exercise in rumination, stripped of any expressive production than might obfuscate Barwick’s innermost workings while crafting the album, in turn presenting a body of work that is wholly humble and fragile, at times even worrisome. Spirals of emotion and synthesizer help transport Barwick and the listener onto an almost lunar-like plane, which prohibits any mental impairment when it comes to digesting Will, as there are no clever production tricks or snippy lyrics to distract the listener from the album’s core principles – the sweet cafard that is being alone. Its spacious enough to peer into the furthest recesses of sound, in turn coaxing out the purest form of emotion and meditation for both Barwick and listener alike. Will is a heart-searching odyssey of observation and reflection navigated by Barwick’s deft ambient touch.