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Music Review

'22, A Million' and the Dissociation of Bon Iver

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

In observance of Bon Iver’s career catalogue to date, each third can be easily identified through a distinct phase or impression: There was the apocrypha of For Emma, Forever Ago, the prophecy of Bon Iver, Bon Iver, and now the martyrdom that is 22, A Million. While the martyrdom is certainly sensationalistic in some regards, there’s a reason for such nomenclature – following Bon Iver’s 2012 Grammy win for “Best New Artist” and “Best Alternative Album,” Justin Vernon desperately needed (for his own well-being, not for the sake of the masses) to shed the label of “indie god.” In a way, Bon Iver had become exactly what Vernon had feared – a proverbial gateway drug to the world of independent alternative folk rock. So Vernon simply “ended” Bon Iver.

The instantaneous termination of Bon Iver devastated many a self-indulgent millennial hipster, of whom had yearned for an Elliot Smith or Kurt Kobain of their own, and to most, that was Vernon. But being placed on a pedestal of overblown apocrypha and adulation was never a desire of Vernon’s, who sought not to appease the fervent masses that had deified him without his consent. So he disappeared, hiding in plain sight the entire time - five years of runs with the likes of Volcano Choir, The Shouting Matches, (the highly publicized) Kanye West collaborations – but never producing new Bon Iver, outside of a commissioned track for a Zach Braff film (“Heavenly Father”), which Vernon aired his criticism of the process on a handful of occasions.

All the while, self-ascribed Vernon-nites pined for more Bon Iver, but Vernon would assert with great confidence Bon Iver was on hiatus, stating that intense writer’s block and creative stunting had impeded the process of envisioning Bon Iver’s next iteration. Then Eaux Claires came along, rekindling Vernon’s Bon Iver creative kick, presenting two new tracks (“666 ʇ” and “29# Strafford APTS”), and the following year, running through 22, A Million in its entirety.

Thus, indie en masse was aroused by the ensuing prospect of a Bon Iver album release, but at what price? The new tracks and eventual single releases – “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T” – were utterly divisive and dissociative amongst fair-weather Bon Iver listeners, sighting the warbled vocoder effects and reverse percussive sounds alongside emoji-laden song titles as uninspired flourishes. But for the initiated and more familiar of Bon Iver faithful, the meaning of the peculiar track titles and hellish sound sequences were apparent – 22, A Million is the martyrous dissociation of Bon Iver as we know, all the while maintaining every tenant of classic “Bon Iver-dom." There are a myriad of reasons why a devout (with blind faith) Bon Iver disciple would assert that every single song serves as an ahead-of-its-time template that the next wave of industrial folk aficionados will undoubtedly imitate in vain.

22, A Million marks Bon Iver’s most impressionistic work to date, operating almost entirely upon an emotional plane. Songs like “715 – CR∑∑KS” delve into a single location that carries such depth and weight for Vernon that it seems as though there’s an attempt to masque the visceral emotion brought about by Vernon through the intricate (and magnificent) musical composition. Other tracks resemble the attempts at obfuscating emotion through synthetic flourishes, warping a distorted Vernon vocal to almost totally dissociate Eau Claire’s prodigal son, as he only provides the most intense and brief glimpses into Vernon’s past five years with little to no context, tracks like “33 “GOD”” being prime examples – “Staying at the Ace Hotel;” corporate branding, I think not.

Less observant listeners have gone as far as opining the newest iteration of Bon Iver is nothing more than bombast and old hat tricks of the indie trade, but one can only hope that such close-minded dismissal of anything other than For Emma or Bon Iver, Bon Iver will become withered and eventually dismissed within its own right upon a simple careful listen to 22, A Million. Where Vernon’s first two projects dealt primarily with the most outright of narratives in service of emotion and verve, 22, A Million focuses on the atmospheric feeling and synthetic grit to best service the project. While the primary focus of 22, A Million will likely never be revealed, as Vernon has become increasingly reclusive (or at least expressed his desire to do so) throughout the promotional cycle for the record, and tracks like “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” hint at a possible end to Bon Iver – “It might be over soon…” – 22, A Million will serve as the finest dissociation of Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, making it the project’s best work to date, and if things truly will be over soon, Bon Iver’s greatest album ever. 

Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam Combine Artfully on 'I Had A Dream That You Were Mine'

Music ReviewWeston PaganoComment

“I use the same voice I always have,” belts out Hamilton Leithauser in “Sick As A Dog” to an Edward Sharpe-esque choral echo. With over a decade of expertly exerting one of indie’s boldest howls it would be senseless to stop, and following his former band The Walkmen’s “extreme hiatus” starting 2014 and a solo release in the same year, he has thankfully found yet another vessel to carry them on I Had A Dream That You Were Mine.

Leithauser is at his best at his most strained, anguished, and raw, and in his pairing with newly departed Vampire Weekender Rostam Batmanglij, the Brooklyn veteran offers no shortcomings of any of his strongest qualities while Rostam does his best to mix up the backdrops to the production. Further enlisting White Rabbits percussionist Stephen Patterson, the result is deftly balanced dynamics and a surprisingly diverse combination of styles resulting in an album that somehow feels equal parts eclectic and whole.

Much of Rostam’s production, not least the Vampire Weekend-reminiscent string arrangements, gives I Had A Dream That You Were Mine the feeling of truly being composed. Whether the medium is meandering harmonica or baroque accentuation, the multi-instrumentalist blossoms in the newfound freedom of realizing a long-standing aspiration to write for a voice he spent the last 15 years admiring from the outside.

First single and opening track ”A 1000 Times" breaks right out of the gate with Leithauser's full register of glorious, pleading yowls. The potential energy is immediately palpable in the delicate opening few seconds that serve only to set the stage for a vocal main course that doesn't really let up once it starts. “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up)” reaffirms their commitment to carrying on while looking back at doo-wop inspiration before “In A Black Out” pauses for finger-picked balladry. Though much of peak Walkmen-era Leithauser vocals are delightfully thrown against a clash of reverb and electric guitar, we have them gently laid over a bed of acoustic here, while a Rostam-procured "Step”-style choir combines to beautifully fill the space.

Banjo-nestled “Peaceful Morning” veers close to saccharine at first before finding its stride in Leithauser’s gentle coos turned cries once more, while "When The Truth Is..." is a swanky blend of bottle slide guitar, steady piano plinks, and a jarringly splendid marriage of his impassioned pipes with those of a saxophone. The latter’s ecstatic barroom brawl of a chorus is a powerful highlight of both the record and their respective careers, flawlessly punctuated with Patterson’s skittering high hat. Submerged in the locomotion of Patterson’s drums, a country twang even pokes through in “The Morning Stars,” and, past the initial confusion of a new voice being introduced just as the credits roll, “1959”’s Angel Deradoorian (Dirty Projectors) feature gives an angelic foil to Leithauser’s lead.

A damn good duo, Leithauser and Rostam are a veritable phoenix rising from indie ashes that wonderfully proves when two doors close sometimes the window that opens lets in more than enough light to fill the bar. To argue that together they’re greater than the sum of their parts would be misleading - this collaboration would have a long way to go before attempting to dethrone either of its member’s past projects - though they at no point rely on reputation to carry the record, leaving us with an album that deserves far more than a footnote when the curtain falls. The dream many of us hold of a Walkmen reunion (and now even a Vampire Weekend one, to some extent) may fade with each passing night, but at least I Had A Dream That You Were Mine can be spun a 1000 times to more than fill the silence.

Local Natives' Soaring 'Sunlit Youth' Both Surprises and Sprawls

Music ReviewAndrew MeriwetherComment

It’s got to be hard work constantly lamenting lost love, passing youth, and uncertain futures. After years of always wearing your heart on your sleeve, scrunching and twisting up your face to croon one more emotional line, one imagines at a certain point you just want to cut loose and dance. Perhaps that is why on their third musical installment, Sunlit Youth, indie darlings Local Natives, decided to get a little funky.

Leaning heavily on synths and drums patterns resembling that of their contemporaries, such as HAIM, the Los Angeles band explores the pop genre more than on their previous records. "Villainy" is the clearest example of this new pop sensibility, a straight down the middle club beat underwritten by tasteful electronic layering makes for a head-bobbing track. The sound is refreshing, if a little mainstream, and long-time followers of the band will get pleasure from some of their new directions.

While in many ways a departure from their more raw roots, some mainstay characteristics of Local Natives certainly remain. The transcendently uplifting choruses, elegantly composed harmonies, and even some of the syncopated rhythms sneak there way among the catchy dance floor jingles. A Stevie Nicks-esque Nina Persson feature in "Dark Days" and the sidewinding stutter of "Masters" offer an intriguing surprise, while the big standout from the album is certainly the soulful “Coins." By far the most successful experiment by the band, "Coins"'s impeccable rhythm is driven by a groovy bass part, emulating something you might even hear off a Vulfpeck or D’Angelo song, while Taylor Rice’s voice also sounds unbridled and natural in stark contrast to the overly produced cadence on many of the other vocal tracks on Sunlit Youth.

Despite some tantalizing gems (most notably “Past Lives," “Coins," and “Villainy”), the album stumbles and sprawls a bit. At worst it feels derivative at times and can suffer from rather obtuse lyrics - on commercial-ready “Fountain of Youth” and “Masters,” the band seems to be nearly verging on the political, though never quite saying what they mean beyond tossing out a "Mrs. President," leaving the listener singing along to a chorus that is simultaneously gorgeous and meaningless.

With a shimmering title and lines like "Save me from the prime of my life," Sunlit Youth is a record that could've benefitted from an early summer release, but it will undoubtedly delight audiences planning to see Local Natives on their upcoming tour all the same, feeding the desire to not just sing along but dance as well. Though perhaps not their strongest overall, its standouts make it worth listening to, and at the very least, signals exciting things to come from the LA quintet.

Frank Ocean Achieves an Opus in 'Endless' and a Triumph in 'Blonde'

Music ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

Regardless of how deftly Frank Ocean has eluded categorizations of his genre and sexuality, he could not escape his context. We all can be considered “products of our time,” but no artist in music has embodied such representation as artfully as Frank Ocean. From an industry perspective, Ocean has fully employed the practices of modern music business through mixtapes, surprise releases, and streaming exclusives; his professional choices are a Sign o’ the Times, as his hero Prince once sang.

But in an age of immediacy and artificiality, where modernity has rid us of the most organic components of creating art, Ocean chose to release the visual album Endless – a forty-five minute music video of three Frank Oceans constructing a staircase – to remind us of the protracted toils of creating… anything. Moreover, a five day stream of the carpentry featured in Endless preceded the album’s release. Was Ocean objecting to the contemporary culture of immediate music exchange with such a drawn out exhibition on long-winded process of creativity? Could he even protest such a thing when he himself owes nearly all of his fame and fortune to the internet? Was Ocean positing himself as an anti-generational spokesperson? No matter how long four years may have seemed, the album which broke Ocean’s hiatus forced fans to check themselves and question their impatient anticipation, and did so in a stroke of genius.

Endless is a unique multi-media presentation posing daunting, yet romantic, realist dilemmas. Time seems to be the obvious overarching subject of Endless. Its songs also explore love and hubris, but the visual platform of the album forces one to consider the focal points of Ocean’s lyrical matter in relation to the meaning behind his staircase construction. The best and most eloquent example of this is in the song “Wither,” in the line: “Pray [our children] get to see me wither.” The song’s minimalist instrumental brings the vocals to the forefront along with an earnest contemplation of the finite nature of life. The double entendre “see me wither [with her]” offers both a hope for long life and a desperate desire to share it with loved ones. While love forms the song’s thematic preoccupation, it ultimately becomes secondary to the protagonist’s worry of losing those he loves.

The production on Endless is highly experimental and quintessentially contemporary. Ocean incorporates rap vocal deliveries in the mode of Young Thug with highly electronic instrumentals and rapid-fire trap-style percussions. Ocean’s rap verses show a significant improvement from the verses previously released on his Tumblr. He demonstrates a greater command of cadence with bars that are less dense than previous and are more carefully spaced. A majority of the album is electronic, harkening to the style change made by Radiohead between 1997’s OK Computer and 2000’s Kid A. Ocean himself is undoubtedly influenced by the band, having incorporated Radiohead’s “Optimistic” (Kid A) as an interlude on his mixtape nostalgia, ULTRA and covering “Fake Plastic Trees” from Radiohead’s The Bends (1997) during his 2012 live campaign. Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood even contributes string orchestration to the album’s opener. The stylistic transition towards the experimental alternative-electronic is a sign of maturation for Ocean who previously deferred to samples to obtain such an aesthetic.

But while Endless ventures into experimental territory, it retains the accessibility of Ocean’s singer-songwriting appeal. The album opens with a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Let Me Know” (made famous by Aaliyah) accented with the dreaminess of Greenwood’s string orchestration. “Comme Des Garcons” and “Slide on Me” are enticingly catchy with their ascending melody and call-and-response chorus, respectively. Between the album’s most experimental tracks are minimalist R&B songs that highlight Ocean’s potent songwriting ability. Standout consecutive tracks “Rushes” and “Rushes To” evoke Bon Iver-esque composition with sparse guitar backing and alternatingly spaced and overlapping vocals. “Rushes To” offers Ocean signing at his most passionate, straining himself with exhaustive effort as he belts the closing lines of the song.

The lasting impression made by Endless is the balance between Ocean’s minimalist composition and the abstract free verse communicated through an ethereal electronic palate. He forces us to accept the new with the old, which creates a conundrum for fans who may not be able to access the album’s experimentalism. Creatively, Endless is an opus which refocuses our awareness of our humanity through an ode to love, loneliness, and desire. It is in one sense, however, a detriment to the artist.

A day after the release of Endless, Ocean released a proper LP entitled Blonde, a more accessible album which absolves Ocean of the predicament of profitability. The album opens with the luscious “Nikes,” a dizzyingly atmospheric track featuring pitch-altered rap verses which carry over the abstract content of Endless. The song transitions into a more nimble instrumental of acoustic guitar plucking layered with soaring synths. Aesthetic seems to be song’s focus. The “Nikes” music video features Frank surrounded by cars sipping the contents of a Styrofoam cup, suggestive of some codeine-infused drink. It is the perfect visual for a song that perfects the disorienting and droning hip-hop production made popular by A$AP Rocky.

The ensuing song is one that Ocean performed during his 2013 California Live, You’re Not Dead Tour. On “Ivy,” Ocean sings about a love fallen apart, the nostalgia of a blooming friendship, and the disconnect between estranged lovers. The song’s pitch-altered vocals detract from the sincerity of its beautiful lyrics, effectively conveyed through Ocean’s live performances of it. Over the high reverb of dream-pop guitars, “Ivy’s” lyrical substance seems cheapened by the artificiality of the song’s production. Ocean appears to compensate for this creatively at the song’s outro with sounds of instruments thrown around a room in the distance, accentuating the frustration expressed in the lyrics. But the mere seconds in which this frustration manifests doesn’t recompense the botching of what would have been a beautiful and endearing song.

Blonde is consistently minimalist in its instrumental arrangement. Simplistic, yet catchy, piano and Rhodes melodies on “Pink + White” and “Solo,” respectively, yield some of Ocean’s most sing-along moments. Harmonies contributed by Beyoncé featured on “Pink + White” hilariously distract listeners from the song’s message of futility.

Several songs overtly borrow lyrical elements from Ocean’s influences, the most obvious being “Close to You,” which draws both its title and chorus melody from the Carpenters’ single of the same name. “White Ferrari” borrows from The Beatles’ Revolver (1966) hit “Here, There, and Everywhere;” Ocean singing the line “Spending each day of the year” in the melody originated by Paul McCartney. In these two songs, Ocean draws from two of the most iconic and commercialized pop acts in music history. It is no wonder then that Blonde’s appeal reaches a much broader audience than Endless.

But Blonde’s accessibility doesn’t diminish Ocean’s potency as a songwriter. The album’s most heart-rending single “Seigfried” tells of a man struggling to find his fit in the world. Also performed on the California Live Tour, “Seigfried” retains the minimalist arrangement featured in its live performance, again bringing Ocean’s vocals and lyrics to the forefront. Lyrical gems “I’m living in an idea / An idea from another man’s mind” effectively invokes feelings of displacement while the closing lines of “I’d do anything for you / (In the dark)” deliver a potent sense of desperation.

Ocean makes references to several real-life friends of his across the album, giving Blonde a deeply personal and seemingly autobiographical feel. The album closes with recordings of his friends interviewed in low fidelity while a dancing synth melody creates a sense of nostalgia. Questions asked in this recording, such as “How far is a light year?” remind listeners of the simple joy of sharing the company of childhood friends. This substance found in these interview tapes is not found in the exchange of dialogue, but rather, the realization of time passed between good friends, understood in the youthfulness of their voices.

Though the dual-release of Endless and Blonde consequentially forces the two to be compared against each other – a comparison in which Blonde loses creatively but wins with fans – Ocean’s choice to release two separate albums simultaneously is remarkably brave. As we began when he first revealed his queer sexuality, we may continue to know Ocean for his courage. We have all the reason to believe in his creative direction; so far, he has yet to miss a step doing things his way.

of Montreal Continues the Chaotic Search for Identity on 'Innocence Reaches'

Music ReviewWeston PaganoComment

of Montreal's lower case cache of chaos, innocence reaches, opens with a question: “How do you identify? / How do you ID?" Though perhaps a newly-minted staple introduction of the millennial age, sexual discovery has been an omnipresent undercurrent in the kaleidoscopic catalog of androgynous flamboyance only the man who once transformed into a transsexual alter-ego named Georgie Fruit could procure. Whether aimed outward or introspectively (and we get both in spades), these sorts of probing enquiries form the spine of a record that combines Kevin Barnes’ psychedelic sound with newfound electronic experimentation.

Though not on the levels of Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?’s dense tracklist, Barnes grandiloquence is still on full display on innocence reaches as his trademark verbosity continues to force us to come to terms with just how limited the vocabulary of pop music usually is. Even at his most overwrought - Barnes amusingly recounts basking in the sun as "absorb[ing] some solar lashings" on “chaos arpeggiating“ - he still manages to somehow pull it off in a jarringly natural way. Only he could rhyme "gratuitous abysses" and make one 2016's catchiest rock hooks out of it while reminiscing of “The Jean Genie” guitar riffs. "Am I on the edge of a really big breakthrough / Or just another meltdown?" he again begins a song with interrogation. For Barnes the answer is usually both simultaneously, and we’re better for it in the voyeuristic way we as consumers of his emotional turmoil can't help but be.

Though the binary-challenging instant dance bounce of “let’s relate” and off-kilter feminist anthem of “it’s different for girls” may seem increasingly on the nose, it’s likely only because times have begun to catch up with Barnes himself, who has been strutting stages in dresses and glitter - if anything at all - since the ‘90s. “I’m thankful to have an outlet for that, to express that and not get chased out of town or beat up. I think we’re moving in the right direction now,” he’s explained, and for a gender-fluid performer based in Athens, Georgia (a classic Southern town that only just closed local favorite Confederate-themed bar last year) that's a feat not to be under-appreciated. Pressed beneath a cover adorned with neon naked female forms created by longtime art directer and set-opening hype-man David Barnes, his brother adds to the highlighting of the “wonderment for the female anatomy” (and we can't wait to see how many times this review is taken down by Facebook because of it).

Just as 2013’s Lousy With Sylvianbriar signaled a departure in sound as of Montreal shed its auxiliary members while Barnes fled to San Francisco, for this album he decamped to Paris in the waning wake of his divorce, and innocence reflects that shift in geography as well. Enjoying the anonymity only foreign excursions can bring, Barnes lyrically fleshes innocence with the tales of French flings from “les chants de maldoror”’s “We only act nicely when we’re ruining hotel beds / I greeted you in a hundred doorways” to “trashed exes”’s “The problem is a different girl / An Athenian beach­-goth.” Recorded in a small urban apartment, he also often eschews the cacophony and collaboration of the traditional rock band instruments of the previous two LPs for fear of neighboring flats complaining, resulting in a collection of solitarily forged tunes addressing new characters and love interests set to the more manageable modes of drum machines and synthesizers.

This change of scenery also burst the bubble that blocked the contemporary music climate from influencing Barnes, as he began pulling from peers Jack Ü, Chairlift, and Arca after a career largely inspired by Prince, Bowie, Beach Boys, and Beatles. Flirting with skittering trap beats and EDM-inspired synthetic sound, particularly on standout “a sport and a pastime,” Barnes both shows old dogs can learn new tricks, deftly mixing nearly nihilist levels of destructive tendencies with glittering rave. Vocally it seems he's settled on more monotonous murmurs and coos over his chandelier-swinging shrieks of the mid aughts.

One of the few certainties of each of Montreal release is the likelihood that its successor is already at least partially completed by the time your copy has arrived. Coming only one year after Aureate Gloom and their 14th proper LP in 19 years, one could argue the only reason of Montreal’s recent records fail to make a larger splash is simply because people can't seem to consume his confessional epics as quickly as he can produce them. While Barnes no doubt lapses in and out of varying degrees of self-indulgence, give them time and you can't help but still be entranced, even if it can take some time to chew.

"It's not bad / It’s not sad / It’s fun,” closer “chap pilot” bluntly justifies before ending with a repetition of “I guess we can still surprise ourselves when we stop acting way too tough.” It’s an appropriate realization for a shameless poet ever vacillating between unforgivingly brutal depictions of love and desperately vulnerable admissions. 14 albums and 19 years later the only consistent predictability is that Barnes will indeed still continue to surprise.


Read our in-depth interview with of Montreal here.

NAO Tackles R&B From Every Angle on 'For All We Know'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

If you are reading this, Boys Don’t Cry hasn’t dropped yet. In all honesty, there are probably a grand total of 9 people who are legitimately surprised by such an unfortunate reality, but nevertheless, Frank has all but solidified his status as Patron Saint of Procrastinators and Teases. For those of us eagerly awaiting the arrival of Boys Don’t Cry, the initial reaction might be to set angry Google alerts at work, sitting silently in pure indignation, but lest I remind you – Frank doesn’t owe us anything.

So, instead of mildly raging against Frank and his failure to meet a self-imposed deadline, take time to celebrate the opportunity to listen to any of the slew of excellent releases that happen to fall upon the same date. One such release is that of “wonky funk” goddess NAO. Its been a steady build to NAO’s debut record – two years’ worth of top of the line EP releases and single – with the ascent finally peaking with her 18-track deep LP, For All We Know.

The record features a number of tracks from Neo Jessica Joshua (the begetter behind NAO)’s fantastic string of EPs and singles, including the XXYXX laser beam through ganja haze single “Bad Blood,” that sees NAO squelch the assumption that she would be the latest iteration of FKA Twigs. While Joshua’s song-bird warble might resemble her contemporaries Twigs and Kelela, NAO maintains a certain sheen that distinguishes her from the gritty-post-Popcaan-rave that someone such as Kelela might. NAO’s musicality feels more cognizant of her R&B origins, opting for classic funk beats and tomes as opposed to integrating a fader-warped galactic overdrive.

NAO’s music feels more akin to the likes of fellow 2016 R&B stalwart Gallant – a reverential approach to the union of R&B, funk, and pop – while producing a wholly distinctive spin that appeases both the old-heads and Arthur-memeing Millennials. In a way, she has managed to fall into the ideal gray-area of modern R&B/soul, which could be attributed to her stint as a Jarvis Cocker session singer – her clean vocal production and heavy instrumentals help propel the record forward and into the realm of “must listen” for any and all.

An interesting facet of For All We Know is the fact that there’s a seemingly nondescript narrative to the record, in that there’s no definitive over-arching theme, but a sort of ping-ponging back forth between from the bowels of the club love scenarios and self-rumination on songs like the aptly titled “Fool to Love.” If there is any cohesive narrative to the album, it is the spirit, which Joshua is able to diffuse into and throughout the record; its emotionalism and realism wrapped up in a “wonky funk” beat. In fact, the “ping-ponging” featured throughout the record is arguably the strongest aspect of the record – Joshua dives into the London instrumental dark-wave on tracks like “Blue Wine” and pulling back into a vocally driven, more contemporary R&B groove on “Girlfriend.” In a sense, NAO has managed to make ping-ponging, flip flopping, etc., an art.

While the album more than exceeds all expectation linked to Joshua’s NAO initiative, a single track manages to rise above the rest - primarily for the wholly unique production of A.K. Paul melded with Joshua’s vocal chops - “Trophy.” The track features the compressed guitar sounds that have become tenants of both A.K. and his brother Jai, lending heavy funk bass that allows Joshua to go to town with one of her most impassioned vocal journeys on the entire record. It’s the assurance that NAO can appeal to both sides of the R&B listening-coin; she can innovate and pay homage all in the same song. In reality, For All We Know as a whole is Joshua’s confident assurance of such a fact, she can play the R&B genre both ways – with precision and uniqueness that have gone predominantly unseen. Joshua as NAO can take on either end of the spectrum, maintaining her standing amongst the FKA Twigs and Audra Days of the world; she truly is the queen of wonky funk. 

Wild Beasts Unchain and Explore Virility on Bold 'Boy King'

Music ReviewWeston PaganoComment

“If you want someone with real balls it’s the male ballet dancer. That’s where the real grit is," Hayden Thorpe recently told The Guardian. Toying with the roll - or lack thereof - masculinity plays in the oft married duo that is sex and rock ’n’ roll since the very first notes of their discography, Cumbrian natives Wild Beasts have come far from the raucously theatrical flamboyance of Limbo, Panto to the impeccably wrought beauty of Present Tense’s gentler sides. They’ve been swearing by their own “cock and balls” since they emphatically debuted in 2008, but on their fifth LP, Boy King, they outright swear with them, and it's clear that the courtship show is now over as raw, licentious aggression drips in its stead. Boy King consists of 10 sharp pop tracks beneath some massively ‘80s cover art reminiscent of a more polished News of the World, its robotic glow all the more curious when juxtaposed with the animalistic sentiments that writhe within.

Wild Beasts’ unique art rock has usually occupied the English indie scene’s outsider category as Arctic Monkeys-type lad rockers reigned. Thorpe’s exuberant, if not effeminate falsetto sounded an outright protest of them, though in embracing such lecherous id he and his band now wear their own brand of leather jackets and wear them quite well. “In some ways we're now the band we set out against!” Thorpe admits, but while artists grow and change, the true Boy King inherent in men remains limbic despite any change in our creative and cerebral representations of its primitive drive.

"After five records there had to be an element of 'what the fuck?’” Thorpe explains, leading one to wonder if “He The Colossus” line, “Not enough fucking and too much of wondering“ is a jab at their past selves. It was eight years ago when Thorpe first claimed he was tough, and nowhere is there such a stark example of their evolution - or devolution - from painstaking wordplay to outright brashness than the contrast in lyricism from then to now. On Limbo, Panto’s “The Club Of Fathomless Love” he dynamically delivers, “But I'm not a soft touch / And I won't been seen as such / So full with fierce fathomless love / I spit and have spats to be tough / Show I'm not soppy and stuff.” Put that up against “Tough Guy”’s simple assertion of "Now I'm all fucked up / And I can't stand up / So I better suck it up / Like a tough guy would,“ and it’s clear a lot has changed. Perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy, the former’s opening line of, “Oh when I'm older I'll hear this moment and I'll laugh haha,” seems quite prescient.

Adding to the bravado, Dallas, Texan recording and John Congleton (St. Vincent, The Walkmen, Modest Mouse, Spoon) production makes it a sonically enthralling ride as well. Album opener “Big Cat” extends the metaphor of Wild Beasts’ rightful place atop the food chain as Thorpe’s sultry vocals and a steady percussion backing climax in a brief glimpse of some sharp guitar fangs that leave you wanting more. Though perhaps overly repetitive, “Alpha Female” has a delightfully thick slink to it plus some electrifying shreds of St. Vincent-esque guitar tones, while lead single “Get My Bang”’s funk foundation shakes with fuzzed out bass bombs over a simple, linear drum base. Following track and final single “Celestial Creatures” is a space-y track that maintains a steadily uplifting locomotion of synth undulations, boosted by more ever-elegant crooning. Later, Thorpe breathily threatens to surpass and consume the most vital dark meat the god of beauty and desire himself has to offer on “Eat Your Heart Out Adonis” before some sleazy riffs throw their hot weight around.

Baritone foil Tom Fleming, though not as vocally prominent as on past releases, has his not-to-be-under-appreciated moments too, most notably “2BU,” a brooding album standout built upon stutter step percussion and the unsettling confession, “Now I’m the type of man / Who wants to watch the world burn.” Also present is the proof that old habits die hard; for all its reckless abandon, Boy King's closer “Dreamliner” is a lovely relapse into the delicate control of records past, leaving you to wonder just what direction they’re headed in the end.

For all the straightforward sensuality of Wild Beasts’ newfound give-no-fucks mentality, it would seem their name is increasingly appropriate for such libidinous swagger. That being said, long-term fans of the band behind the moniker may come away feeling disappointed had they been looking for more of the same clever intricacies that drew them in at first. All but the hardest critics will get their “bang” regardless.

Through years of lusciously calculated yet carnal emoting Wild Beasts have earned the blurred line of irony now surrounding their unabashed virility (take, for example, the brilliant satire of 2009’s “All The King’s Men”). Newly emboldened, there’s an unflinching self-awareness of what it means to be the priapic pinnacle that is man in a rock ’n’ roll band, and they’re not afraid to seek out an equally satyric “Alpha Female” to prowl the stage with. And why not? It’s all just “self-loathing” anyway, and if life truly is merely a desperate race to mate before the crush of death then misery loves close, intimate company. "No getting it right / No getting it wrong / Just getting it on," indeed.

A Front-Loaded Collection of Hip-Hop and Pop Beats, Clams Casino's '32 Levels' is a Mixed-Bag

Music ReviewAndrew MeriwetherComment

Putting out a solo record as a hip-hop beat maker is tricky business. Typically your role as a producer is one of background—serving as a springboard for a rapper or singer. But on your own record, however, you have to strike a balance incorporating intriguing features, while not overshadowing one’s own production chops. In the last few years we’ve seen a number of hip-hop beat makers and producers make a name for themselves outside of the famous artists they work with—Flying Lotus, Knxwledge, SBTRKT, and KAYTRANADA to just name a few—and electronica/beat music seems to only be gaining more credibility as an independent and dynamic genre.

Clams Casino, actual name Michael Volpe, is just one of many hot producers venturing into putting out his own solo record. Having developed a fervent following through his work with artists like Lil B, A$AP Rocky, and The Weekend, along with several well received instrumental mix tapes and EP, Clams’ debut LP 32 Levels was a highly anticipated release hip-hop and beat heads alike. The album features 12 tracks (plus 12 instrumentals of the tracks) featuring some familiar players (A$AP Rocky, Lil B) as well as some unique choices, most notably Sam Herring of Future Islands.

32 Levels has two very distinct A and B sides. Side A is distinctly the rap portion, stacked with A$AP, Vince Stables, and several tracks with Lil B. Clams is very clearly in the zone on this section of the album. His beats are tight and masterfully produced, and possess a polish not heard on his previous work like the Rainforest EP. Long time listeners will appreciate the dark, heavy, and aquatic tones and his delicious composition of vocal samples that have come to define Clams unique sound. He utilizes the flows of Rocky on “Be Somebody," and it obvious that he has a deep rapport with Lil B that allows them to build off one another’s musical styles. Vince Staples is particularly strong on his track “All Nite,” which is a fiery banger with almost industrial, syncopated breakdown.

On Side B, Clams’ enters new territory with more pop features like Kelela and Sam Dew, ending with Herring. Unfortunately, this gives a front-loaded feeling to 32 Levels. Clams Is very clearly out of his element on this section of the record, and the adeptness he exhibits with his features on side A is absent on the second half. Frankly, it just doesn’t seem like Clams knew what to do with these singers. There are certainly moments of promise on the B side: Sam Herring gritty baritone jives well macabre musicality of Clams, Kelela’s voice soars on the chorus of “A Breath Away,” but tracks like “Back to You” and “Into the Fire” smack of Top 40 pop and Clams’ stamp seems washed away. Herring and Kelela make the second half worth listening to, but one could certainly skip some of these tracks without missing much.

Despite fizzling a bit, 32 Levels is indicative of an exciting future for Clams Casino. Clams has refined and focused his sound, and there is not doubt that as a hip-hop producer he demands respect. The question that remains is whether Clams will be able to build off the successful experimentation on this record to find his pop sensibility, or if he will be better served staying in his own wheelhouse.

The Avalanches' 'Wildflower' is a Psychedelic Masterpiece for the DJ Age

Music ReviewAndy TabelingComment

Denied a new studio album for nearly the entirety of the new millennium, it’s now been close to 16 years since the Avalanches left us last, with only a few incredible mixes, scattered DJ sets, and inklings of rumors about a follow-up to tease the sizable fanbase of the Australian group. As collaborators started leaking, the group finally dropped “Frankie Sinatra” at the beginning of the summer, with the full LP, Wildflower, arriving in a month. Despite surely being weighed down by the expectations, rumors, hype-train, whatever you choose to call it, the direction The Avalanches chose isn’t quite analogous to the now-classic Since I Left You, but the record we’ve been give is utterly unique, gorgeous, fun and completely worthy of it’s legendary predecessor. Now, The Avalanches have released one of the best records of both 2000 and 2016.

Crate diggers beware - there’s even a track that features zero (!) samples on this album (Spoiler: it’s “Colours” and it’s great). Wildflower de-emphasizes the sample-crazy element of the first record in favor of a tonal consistency anchored by a summer psychedelic vibe fitting for its release date. Perhaps the album that comes to mind most is The Beatles’ Abbey Road, a work that also maintains a remarkable consistency of tone despite its diverse songwriting chops and scatterbrained tendencies, but anchored by warm, gentle psychedelia. So strong is the comparison between the two records, that Abbey Road’s opening track “Come Together” is sung by a children’s choir in “The Noisy Eater."

However, psychedelic music is hardly the only genre that appears over Wildflower’s runtime. Alongside The Avalanches’ traditional dance music roots (across all eras), calypso, late-80’s rap, folk, funk, disco and even classical music make appearances. Fans shouldn’t be too afraid the group has lost its roots, though, and the true opener is a good indication of this: “Because of Me” opens with a gorgeous soul sample, but cedes most of its inventiveness after the initial sample over to New York hip-hop duo Camp Lo, who bring their A-game to the unforgettable beat and make it their own.

Rappers rule Wildflower. Danny Brown drops 3 of the most memorable verses on the album on “Frankie Sinatra” and “The Wozard of Iz," while Biz Markie’s delivery of the wonderful, playful “The Noisy Eater” is vintage hip-hop joy, and it’s one of the album’s best songs, and easily it’s silliest moment. These MCs (along with the previously mentioned rappers, MF Doom, and A.Dd+ also appear) are put on beats that are outside their comfort zones, but the group put them in their best position to succeed, re-contextualizing hip-hop in diverse ways, such as the wonderful “Live a Lifetime Love," which samples Beach Boys-esque psych as the backdrop for a drug (and later drug-bust) anthem.

Other big collaborators that feature prominently on the record include Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donahue, and Toro y Moi’s Chaz Bundick. Bundick only sings one track (the gorgeous “If I Was a Folkstar”, an ode to his now-wife), but it’s an absolute triumph, fusing both artists’ dance sensibilities into a perfect, subtle groove. Donahue dominates the latter half of the record, including “Harmony” and “Kaleidoscopic Lovers," that forms the backbone of the record’s psych influences. Mercury Rev fans will even notice Donahue’s singing saw that appears on that groups’ most famous records. It’s these songs that start to trigger the album’s wonderful final quarter, whose muted conclusion feels like the logical conclusion of a perfect summer day.

It’s worth remembering that The Avalanches are a product of DJ culture, and know so much about how to a structure a record. As more-than capable DJs, The Avalanches do a great job managing the ebb and flow of a performance through diversity of songs and giving listeners a little time to breathe. Wildflower succeeds in spades in both of these fronts. To combat the relatively long run-time, The Avalanches rarely spend time on one idea before moving to the next. At first hint of too much of a good thing, a new shiny object appears to fix your ears upon. As for space and air, the record uses vocal samples and small instrumental pieces to break up the record, and they feel just as essential and enjoyable as the other pieces of the record, giving the record an expansive feel without ever overstaying their welcome. The one time the ideas hang around a bit is towards the beginning of the record, where both “Frankie Sinatra” and “Subways” feel a little too long compared to both songs around them and relative to the number of elements in their tracks. “Sinatra” gets such wonderful vocal performances that this feels very nitpicky, but “Subways” fails to justify including a separate outro included. However, these are minor quips on a wonderfully sequenced record. In particular, the subdued ending works beautifully, as Silver Jews’ David Berman delivers a stunning spoken-word performance over one of the quietest pieces off the record, “Saturday Night Inside Out,” a perfect track for a summer twilight turning to dusk.

So the record we got may not have been the record we expected, but in many ways it’s the sum of something more. While it may frustrate those looking for a frantic atmosphere or a more plunderphonics-influenced sound, Wildflower’s winning ideas, great collaborations and excellent sequencing have made it one of 2016’s most essential records. It’s the perfect record to play on an sweaty afternoon on your porch with your friends before going out in the sweltering heat. You can finally stop thinking about Since I Left You and just enjoy what's here now.

Blood Orange Explores Ancestry, Christianity, and Black Identity on 'Freetown Sound'

Music ReviewAndrew MeriwetherComment

Freetown, Sierra Leone was established by British abolitionists and freed slaves from North America back in 1792. The idea was to provide African Americans the chance at new life after bondage enacted through the tenants of the Christian faith, but like many idyllic propositions, its enactment and history is more complicated. Over the course of its life it was destroyed by local inhabitants and rebuilt, eventually colonized—rather ironically—by the British, withstood invasions from the French, declared independence in 1961, and faced civil war in the 90s. Besides being the home city of Dev Hynes’ father, Freetown is also an ideal metaphor and backdrop to Blood Orange’s third studio album.

Spanning 17 songs, Freetown Sound is Hynes’ exploration of a cornucopia of themes including—but certainly not limited to—Christianity, false promises of faith, Black identity, Feminism, sexuality, and police brutality. While being an overtly political album, Hynes never loses himself in abstraction, remaining intensely personal and feeling. After setting the political tone of the album with a sample from a spoken word piece by Ashlee Haze, Hynes moves into one of the “singles” (if there are any singles) "Augustine."

“My father was a young man / My mother off the boat / My eyes were fresh at 21 / Bruised but still afloat.” Here, Hynes directly references his own parents, who immigrated to London in their early 20s, his mother from Guyana and his father from Sierra Leone. The song then shifts to towards St. Augustine, the prolific theologian who spent a great deal of his life in Western Africa. Augustine is an interesting choice; during his young life he struggled greatly with his own sexuality. Using quotations from Augustine’s writing in the chorus, Hynes recontextualizes the bishop in order to reveal the contemporary black, queer experience. Augustine also famously condemned slavery as sin, and encouraged his followers to abandon the horrific practice. Augustine’s Catholicism thus represents the possibility of Christianity to be a liberating force for Blacks, Hynes knows that other followers of the faith were responsible for the mass enslavement of Africans and killing of young black men like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, demonstrating the paradoxical conundrum of a being a black Christian. 

This complex examination of personal and cultural history and religion characterizes this album as a whole. The sheer volume of tracks and layers of instrumentation and samples can at times make this album dizzying, and perhaps even a bit disorienting; this is not an album you can get a handle on after the first listen. Nonetheless, Hynes successfully draws the listener in, and will have you leaning forward listening intently to the movement of each song.

Sonically, Freetown Sound is a masterpiece. In an interview with V Magazine, Hynes compares the album’s overall feel to the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, in that it plays like “a long mix tape.” While aspects of this album do resemble the aesthetic quality of the mix tape, it could be more accurately characterized as the stream of consciousness of a young man grappling with the realities of being black in the United States. The sudden cuts from a lecture by Ta-Nehisi Coates or the streets of Freetown, mixed with turntable scratches, and the musical interpretation of the ideas contained in those samples, makes one feel as if they are quite literally inside the mind of Hynes.

While still drawing from the 80s soul and R&B to create that hazy, thick, and ethereal sound that has come to characterize Blood Orange, Hynes also expands his musical palate here. There are instances of funk, 808s and hip-hop, and jazz scattered throughout the record, demonstrating Hynes’ virtuosity and understanding of genre. It’s refreshing to hear Hynes utilize new instruments like the saxophone, xylophone, conga, and djembe, and mix his steam-filled-room pop with cleaner instrumentation that provide the tracks a greater vibrancy. Following similar choices from Cupid DeluxeFreetown Sound contains a number of fantastic guest vocalists, including: Empress Of, Ava Raiin, Carley Rae Jepsen, and others. Hadron Collider, for instance, features a gorgeous performance by Nelly Furtado, whose voice absolutely soars alongside Hynes.

Though the sequencing of Freetown Sound can feel messy, this choice seems intentional. Hynes creates a milieu of ideas and feelings that are deconstructed and expanded through sound and verse, letting the listener marinate in its complexity. The result is powerful and moving composition that new and old Blood Orange fans alike will appreciate.