Young Thug: BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS (2017) – Album Review

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So this is what happens when you cross gangsta rap with the singer-songwriter genre… As you might expect, certain songs here are bewildering (in a good way), like for instance ‘Me or Us’, which sounds for all the world like a Paul Simon co-write with its innocent acoustic strumming, or ‘For Y’all’, which has a horn chart adding mariachi flavouring for no reason at all except, y’know, good times.

I’ve long been aware that rap is the most adventurous genre of music in the game, so it was no surprise to hear that Young Thug had recorded a ‘singing album’ with country and melodic R&B touches – but it is a fair surprise to hear that it sounds this good. It shouldn’t be – Thug’s rapping has always had a sing-song cadence to it, partly thanks to autotuning but mainly due to a wacky variability in pitch and tone that he’s utilised to become one of the most distinctive voices in music. His larynx commands more sound effects than the latest Star Wars film: grunts, shrieks, yelps of delight, warbles, and ‘skrrt skrrt’s all emanate and mix together with a rhythmic unpredictability to make his vocal performances endlessly fascinating works of beauty. Hence this is a vocal album to trump most singer-songwriter’s recent efforts, even if classic trap beats and rumbling basslines serve as a constant reminder that this is still hip-hop.

Another reminder is the all-round thuggery of the words, full of dumb boasting such as ‘I’m the black Christian Grey, you know what I’m sayin’?/I got fifty shades of baes with me’. Oh dear… To be fair, Thug does manage to sneak in some cute shout-outs to his six children on ‘Daddy’s Birthday’, his fiancée on multiple occasions, and, er, the green stuff (with Snoop Dogg in tow, of course) on ‘Get High’. But then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like ‘Let’s drink a pint of codeine/When she on syrup she a lil easy’, which sounds to me like rape. As an oh-so-middle-class non-G who abhors bullshit macho posturing in all its forms, and most especially when it involves forcing yourself on inebriated or unwilling women, I find moments such as this one very hard to take. And so should you. But it must be said that Thug’s music is still undeniable, and it would be hypocritical to try and pretend that I’m immune to its many charms.

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Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound (2017) – Album Review

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Back in 2013, Beyoncé’s masterpiece ‘XO’ cannily perceived how our awareness of death might only serve to intensify the heightened emotions of love, and hence be a good thing: ‘We don’t have forever/Baby daylight’s wasting/You better kiss me… Before they turn the lights out/Before our time has run out/Baby love me lights out!’ Now here we are in 2017 and alt-country hero Jason Isbell has written us an imaginative song in much the same vein: ‘If We Were Vampires’ ponders what would happen if he and his wife were never to shuffle off this mortal coil, and concludes that ‘I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand… Maybe time running out is a gift/I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift.’

It’s one of many quietly ingenious, heart-warming moments on this tender album. The album ends, for instance, with these ace words of advice to his daughter: ‘Just find what makes you happy girl/And do it ’til you’re gone.’ A family man and proud, The Nashville Sound continues Isbell’s journey towards contentment, one that started with his last solo album Something More Than Free. However, it also remembers the dark times that went before that, as witnessed in 2013’s Southeastern where his past as an alcoholic was both directly and obliquely explored. So Isbell understands why a working-class stiff might turn to drink as an escape from his life in ‘Cumberland Gap’, and how a miner might indulge in long-distance sex because his short-distance existence is so unbearable in ‘Tupelo’; although it must be said that his sympathy doesn’t extend to the US President whose election campaign promised to restore these character’s industries – Trump’s agenda frightens him, particularly when considering a future for his daughter, a future that he nevertheless still believes in: ‘I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation/I think the man upstairs musta took a vacation/I still have faith, but I don’t know why/Maybe it’s the fire in my daughter’s eye.’

This album is extraordinary then in terms of its searching, optimistic lyrics. And if the music is slightly less extraordinary, well, it doesn’t detract from what remains an essential purchase. The lumbering albatross of this album is the 7-minute ‘Anxiety’, which is awkwardly slung round the middle of its neck and is an unfortunate distraction from much of the good work elsewhere. Isbell’s vocals are another distraction, proving to lack some of the gritty character and charisma of many of his characters – I’ve long considered his voice to be a tad too pretty, too smooth.

Nevertheless it’s great to have the 400 Unit back supporting him, their large sound beefing up well over half the tracks with potent crunchy guitar and drums. But the nicest musical touches of all come from Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires, who appears on fiddle and backup vocals throughout, and who doesn’t just add subtle variety but also makes clearer the familial atmosphere that imbues these recordings with a warm fuzz.

Country music is great at disproving the lie that domesticity in art is naff, boring or somehow ‘bourgeois’. In The Nashville Sound, as elsewhere in Isbell’s career, the simple matter of settling down and raising a family sounds like the greatest adventure of them all.

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Chuck Berry: Chuck (2017) – Album Review

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Hands down the single most important figure in the history of rock music (Dylan and Hendrix aren’t too far behind, but they are still behind), Chuck Berry will forever be the first port of call when future generations try to get to grips with the groundbreaking phenomenon that is (Hail! Hail!) rock & roll. He invented the form: without him there’d be no Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Kinks, Springsteen etc. etc. you get the point. His revolutionary fusion of a backbeat-you-can’t-lose-it with explosive riffs and soloing on guitar (plus bluesy bass and boogie-woogie piano never too far down in the mix) codified the basic language of rock & roll and inspired millions of teenagers; simultaneously his exceptional lyrics invented the basic language of teenage rebellion: ‘School Day’ articulates better than any song I’ve heard how popular music is essentially a locus for working- and middle-class kids to vent their anger at the petty frustrations of life. And get laid. The man who penned ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ (incredibly his only no. 1 single) was ever the sly fox who knew full well that all of the dancehalls and automobiles peppering his narratives were essentially heady metaphors for s-e-x (see ‘I Wanna Be Your Driver’ for only the most obvious example).

In short, the man was a genius, and an utterly unpretentious one. Oh, and ‘Promised Land’ may just be the greatest song lyric ever written.

Now I’ve gotten my love for the recently deceased off my chest, let’s turn to the matter at hand: Chuck, the great man’s first posthumous album, and his first one in 38 years. It was recorded in a series of sessions that began in 2001 and continued right up until his death, at 90 years old, earlier this year. It’s a ‘greatest hits’ of his last 15 years on earth, then, and suitably raggedy as a result. But not nearly as shabby as you might expect.

Naturally, there are no songs here to match epoch-defining classics like ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Rock & Roll Music’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’… But there are plenty of good ones. Starting with hot opening duo ‘Wonderful Woman’ and ‘Big Boys’, in which his famous catalogue of riffs, including that ‘Johnny B. Goode’ one, are recycled again and yet sound remarkably fresh, even when coming from the red Gibson and aged vocals of an octogenarian. ‘Lady B. Goode’ and ‘Jamaica Moon’ are sequels to known classics that satisfyingly reward long-term fans of his amazing career. And he’s still a sly fox, cunningly updating his double entendres for the 21st century on the live, sleazy, and very funny ‘3/4 Time (Enchiladas)’: ‘I’ve been hoping to find a woman like you, honey, whose software matches this hard drive of mine.’

Rock is a collaborative sport, as Berry full well knows, and he benefits not just from the support of The Blueberry Hill Band, who sizzle here where his 50s crew erupted (perhaps in deference to his age), but also from the well-judged cameo appearances of Tom Morello, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Gary Clark, Jr. (on guitars the lot of ’em), all of whom rightly sound blessed to be allowed to record with the founder of their careers. Best of all, though, are the several collaborations with his children, Charles Berry Jr. on guitar and Ingrid Berry on harmonica, which help to make for example the gorgeous tribute to their ever-comforting presence, ‘Darlin’’, sound so real and so true: ‘Your father’s growing older/Each year strands of grey are showing bolder/Come here and lay your head upon my shoulder/My dear, the time is passing fast away.’

As you might gather from that quote, this album feels more autobiographical in tone than anything Berry’s recorded previously. Most of all, it’s dedicated to his long-suffering wife Themetta ‘Toddy’ Berry, who for nearly 70 years put up with his well-known cheating ways, plus a whole lot more I’m sure, and who very much deserves such tender tributes as ‘Wonderful Woman’ and the spoken-word ‘Dutchman’. Which isn’t to say that Chuck’s forgotten his roots in fiction, for there are several narratives that live up to his poetic reputation: ‘Big Boys’ is a cute tale about partying with girls and boys out of your league, and ‘Lady B. Goode’ is a typically well written story-in-song. Yet the female perspective of the latter is proof again that he has matured some, and recognises that he owes a great debt to his greatest lady friend.

Chuck is a worthwhile addition and a fitting ending to his catalogue then, providing both a rare opportunity to learn more about the character of Chuck himself, and/or to revel in the sharpness of his fictional observations, as you see fit. Any old way you choose it.

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Jlin: Black Origami (2017) – Album Review

I would first like to offer my deepest condolences to all of the poor families affected by the terrorist incident last night in Manchester. I’ve been unable to think of anything else all day: appalled, sickened, depressed. I wasn’t sure whether to publish this review today, out of respect, but these attacks are a deliberate attempt to disrupt the flow of civilised society, not to mention our enjoyment of music from death metal to Ariana Grande, and so I feel that the best way to retaliate is to carry on appreciating the wonders of music as usual (whilst never, ever forgetting the lives tragically lost, of course). Which is why a) I’m still going to be seeing Radiohead in Manchester on the 4th July, fuck you radicalists, and b) I’m still going to recommend the very good album below on this day of mourning. We should stick to our pleasures, in the face of extremism, now more than ever before.

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Jerrilynn Patton, a.k.a. Jlin, is an electronic musician from Gary, Indiana. She’s renowned for her work in footwork, an electronic subgenre that combines rapid dance beats (tracks hurtle by at approx. 160bpm) with avant-garde flourishes. I’m by no means an expert on electronic music (got the above information from Wikipedia, folks), but I was nevertheless instantly attracted to this distinctive artist’s world: multiple polyrhythmic percussive elements tussle with each other atop chopped-up Indian voices, ululations which are made to sound just as percussive through their lack of melodic cadence, whilst dark basslines and industrial sound effects quietly undermine the general uplift of the clamour. This is a ‘black’ record in two senses of the word: firstly, in its stark rejection of the colouring of melody, leaving a pop-abjuring vacuum as dark as space that’s somewhat alarmingly filled with the angry, martial beats of drums; secondly, in its celebration of an underclass of explicitly non-white sampled voices, which come together across the course of the album to threaten the despised ‘1%’ (the name of one song, which helps to make the political context more explicit). The overall effect is of M.I.A. without the hooks, every track crossing cultural borders like that artist’s famous ‘Paper Planes’. Jlin was apparently inspired by her ongoing collaborations with Indian ‘dancer/movement artist’ Avril Stormy Unger, and it shows, but the musical texture has a speed and aggression that very much finds its feet in the footwork of Jlin’s earlier career, whilst there are also collaborations with American avant-gardists William Basinski and Holly Herndon. What should be a mess instead comes across as a focussed 45-minute blast of electronic rebellion, culminating in a ‘Challenge (To Be Continued)’, which comes both as a promise and a veiled threat after all that’s gone before. The lack of melodic structure makes the soundscapes more of an endurance test than, say, Burial (a personal favourite). But, even for an electronic dilettante, the effort’s certainly worth it.

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Paramore: After Laughter (2017) – Album Review

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Well this is a nice surprise. I’ve never paid this band much attention, due to my general irritation with labelmates Fall Out Boy and the silly middle-class self-pity and even sillier death fixation of emo music. A quick check back to 2013’s Paramore confirmed my biases were correct. That album’s adoption of 80s synths and other pop concessions made it an unexpected hit with critics at the time, and their first no. 1 album in the US and UK to boot. But far as I saw it, the bombastic and humourless overproduction smothered any suggestion of pop sensibility, and it felt designed expressly to appeal to unstable teenagers. Not for me.

So imagine my shock at the pure pop brilliance, now immersed fully in new wave, evidenced on the first 5 tracks of After Laughter, with hook after hook hitting home, trick after trick working unforeseen magic. First listen gave me a piquant musical adrenaline rush to rival Grimes’ Art Angels – that’s quite a compliment in my books – whilst several listens in my excitement has only slightly diminished. I still adore many of its surprises: the marimba and bongos that open out and bleed into the crunchy synth-rock hooks on ‘Hard Times’, the ‘Low-key! No pressure!’ chants on the addictive ‘Rose-Colored Boy’, the supremely melodic basslines and Afropop-derived guitar licks on ‘Forgiveness’ (a superb example of the never-better interplay between the band members), the soaring choruses on ‘Told You So’ and ‘Fake Happy’ (and indeed all the other songs). Haters gonna hate, and a quick check on their Facebook page confirmed my suspicion that some ‘fans’ (though not all) would be screaming the moronic, depressingly mindless phrase ‘sellout’. Me, I’m high on their rejection of emo trappings in favour of good old-fashioned pop effusiveness, and I sincerely hope they can take this all the way up the charts again (Harry Styles be damned).

Sadly, it doesn’t sustain, and the last 4 tracks are as weak consistently as the first 5 are strong. Baffling production choices occur, such as on ‘No Friend’, which buries the vocals deep down making them indecipherable – for artistic reasons that are equally indecipherable. And ‘Tell Me How’, a piano sort-of ballad that closes the album, unfortunately only serves to expose the weakness of lead singer Hayley Williams’ voice, which can carry a tune just fine, but only if it requires belting out, and just isn’t subtle enough to sustain a whole album of dynamic changes. I found myself yearning for Rihanna, who carried with ease the album-closing ballad on ANTI, a similar pop tour-de-force, and with a depth of personality that Hayley Williams can only dream of.

It’s best to ignore the lyrics as well, as I have in this review, because they don’t seem to have shrugged off the emo shackles so well as the music. You might think ‘all I want is a hole in the ground’ and ‘I can’t think of getting old/It only makes me want to die’ are windows into depression, but I think they’re shutters obfuscating the deeper beauty of the album. The pop ebullience of the first few tracks (plus the terrific ‘Pool’ and ‘Grudges’) is the real reason to purchase After Laughter: wide open and searching for fun, not to mention dancefloor giddiness, the band discover a depth of musicality in the childishness of these highpoints that they never managed to find in teenagerdom.

Paramore of this please.

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Withered Hand & A Singer of Songs: Among Horses I (2017) – Album Review

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It’s every blogger’s dream to be able to recommend an artist far-flung from the mainstream, whom their faithful readers will probably never have heard of, yet whose quality merits immediate attention.

With Among Horses I, here are two of them.

One I was already aware of, many thanks to Robert Christgau’s raves: Withered Hand, a.k.a. Dan Willson, Scottish folkie responsible for two of the quickest-witted albums of the past decade – Good News and New Gods, go seek out and buy them NOW. The other fella was new to me: A Singer of Songs, a.k.a. Lieven Scheerlinck, Belgian folkie and smooth-voiced chum of Dan’s.

Travelling together to Catelonia, they recorded this pastoral-themed EP in a mate’s farmhouse out there (the mate’s also the drummer). A long way from the city and their native lands, you can really hear it in these pretty-as-you-like songs, which are all about distance. The metaphorical distance, for example, of alcoholism wedging itself between a couple in ‘After the Rain’, of wishes vanishing into the ether in ‘Wishes Gone’, of an old self being bid farewell at the end of ‘Among Horses’. The metaphysical distance of a narrator proclaiming his spirit to be alive in the religious retreat of ‘Santa Cova’, following a vicious battle at Pamplona in which he became a ‘broken down body with a lion’s heart’. And of course the literal distance in the quietly strummed music, which retreats softly into the background until you choose to concentrate on it. Which you should.

All six songs are memorable in tune, with half of them attributed to each artist. A Singer of Songs’ tracks are more Beatlesque to my ears, with the ‘la la la’ backing vocals and warm n’ folky guitar lines of ‘Wishes Gone’ recalling Rubber Soul, and the repeated mantra of ‘It’s ok to stray/Don’t be afraid to lose your way’ drawing out ‘Stray’ to nearly six minutes in length in a manner very much akin to the nursery rhyme comforts of ‘Hey Jude’. Withered Hand’s contributions meanwhile are briefer and simpler in acoustic construction, with the emphasis instead placed on the complexity of lyrics. Which is fine by me, because they are oblique and so very beautiful. Try: ‘Our river used to wind its way/Down from the valley into the plain/You’ll be looking at a new man/After the rain.’

Brief though this EP may be, its rustic charm and positivity so overcome the prevailing tenor of political negativity ravaging the western world these days that I can see myself returning to its alluring glow quite often. ‘Farewell old sad me’, as one line goes here. For less than £5 you can sing the same.

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Angaleena Presley: Wrangled (2017) – Album Review

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Angaleena Presley wants to be ‘Elvis but with lipstick and boobs’, and not just because of the shared surname. Her great desire’s to be a ‘straight-shootin’, highfalutin’ rider on the hit brigade’ much like the King in his prime. But so far commercial success hasn’t been forthcoming, and unlike, say, Kurt Cobain, this outlier status on the charts doesn’t please her. In fact she feels like she’s been Wrangled.

‘I don’t know that anyone wakes up and sets out to be an underdog – you just kind of are,’ she explained to Rolling Stone in an interview. Here in Britain we love a good underdog, which might explain why I’m so moved by this album – I know that Angaleena deserves the mainstream acceptance she craves, and so I’m deeply affected by ‘Groundswell’ for instance, which has her performing in Georgia one rainy night and praying that the t-shirts and records will sell. It’s a keen reminder of just how hard it is to make a living from music these days, at least when you’re not attaining U2 or Ed Sheeran levels of sales. Which must be frustrating when you’re far more gifted than either of them.

And she is! That voice is supple; it bends around the ballads without ever descending into mawkishness, and it unloads bucketloads of humour and quiet sass onto the up-tempo moments. As track after track hits home, the consistency displayed on her (highly recommended) debut American Middle Class is duplicated, showing it not to be a fluke. Her grasp of melody and country music’s extremely satisfying, radically simple mixture of ‘three chords and the truth’ – which goes straight under the inflated heads of the snobs over at Pitchfork, who barely ever review country albums – places her at or near the top of a strong pack of female artists working in Nashville today (Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Sunny Sweeney, Lori McKenna, Margo Price… the list of sharp, mega-talented gals goes on, all of them putting the chart-busting bros to shame).

She’s also strong on lyrics, another reason to cherish this album. Presley and her team of co-writers come up with surprise after surprise. On the title track she acknowledges that the ‘Bible says a woman oughta know her place’, before turning that implied sexism on its head by revealing that ‘mine’s out here in the middle of all of this wide open space’. Reminds me of the breaking free onto the US plains of Thelma & Louise, and it has the same feminist connotations. Meanwhile on the chorus of the comic highlight ‘Bless My Heart’ she tells a particularly irksome Southern belle ‘you’re a beauty mark on the human race’, before following it up with ‘and if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face.’ And in the most shocking twist of all, the promise that ‘Only Blood’ can set you free, which at first means the bloodline of family, suddenly takes on a darker meaning as a wife greets the homecoming of her piece of shit of a husband with a pistol. You never know when Presley will pull the rug out from underneath someone, stamping on their head and your expectations.

As you can probably tell from these examples, Angaleena might be shackled and wrangled by various obnoxious characters, particularly men, and she might be disappointed by her relative lack of success, but she’s not defeated. Never. The arc of the album goes from a pained admission that ‘Dreams Don’t Come True’ to an encouragement later on from Guy Clark to ‘Cheer Up Little Darling’ (in the last writing credit of his life), to a final insistence that you can never keep a ‘Good Girl Down’, no matter what bullshit they might face together as a gender. And as the album moves towards its happy ending of sorts, it picks up momentum: the final two tracks rock the hardest of the bunch, and indeed harder than any other sequence of music I’ve heard so far this year. Yeehaw!

Believe me, she’s a good girl down to the bone. Yelawolf might bemoan all the posers on the country chart and say ‘thank God for Sturgill Simpson’, but really that should be ‘thank God for Angaleena Presley’.

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Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. (2017) – Album Review

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Rap is the most exciting musical genre on the planet right now, and Kendrick Lamar is easily one of its most exciting young talents. Yet the hype stirred up on Twitter and beyond by this album’s release has been beyond ridiculous – he’s been compared to Gandhi in some quarters, to Jesus in others (the Easter Sunday ‘resurrection’ album that fans predicted and, er, mysteriously never materialised).

As anyone who’s ever listened closely to K.Dot’s lyrics will know, he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy: ‘Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this shit’ goes one line on this album; ‘I’ll prolly die at these house parties fuckin’ with bitches’ goes another. These are enough to give any Fox News anchor a brain haemorrhage, but they’re true to the language of the street, and they’re true to the cultural world of hip-hop from which Kendrick emerges – for better and worse. More importantly, these blunt depictions of street life contrast with the regular doses of decency and thoughtfulness offered up by the Good Kid in the M.A.A.D City: ‘pride’s gonna be the death of you and me’ he worries at one point, in a self-reminder to always be humble; at another he sweetly tells a girl that he respects ‘the cat’ and asks politely to put his head in it. ‘It’s okay,’ she replies.

The values learnt on the streets of Compton, those of violence and braggadocio, come square up against the values of the church, with its promise that the meek will inherit the earth, again and again on DAMN. ‘PRIDE’ and ‘HUMBLE’ appear next to each other in the tracklist (interestingly ‘PRIDE’ is more about humility and ‘HUMBLE’ is a boast track), as do ‘LUST’ and ‘LOVE’, as do ‘FEAR’ and ‘GOD’, to hammer home the internal conflicts at play. No simple moraliser, Kendrick is always willing, eager even, to admit his own faults and hypocrisies, much like a certain Kanye. Yet it all culminates in ‘DUCKWORTH’, a real-life street narrative involving an incident many years ago where record label CEO Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Triffith nearly killed Kendrick’s father. That Kendrick and Anthony can now work with each other in the studio demonstrates the redemptive power of music in a hopeless world of cynical violence, absolving any former beefs with a joining together of creative powers. It offers a way out of the endless cycle of pointless street killings. It offers hope.

All of which is fascinating and compelling, a psychological and spiritual puzzle of the highest order, which makes the 5 star raves to have greeted this album not only predictable but also understandable. Still… let’s calm down, take a deep breath, and assess DAMN.’s success with equanimity, shall we?

We all know that Kendrick can spit bars like an AK-47, pen rhymes like a bard, spin tracks like a wizard – he’s one of the most talented musicians around, for sure. So I expect more from him than what’s on offer here, a slapdash mess of intermittent brilliance that comes closer to the chaos of untitled unmastered. than the coherence of a masterpiece like GKMC or TPAB. Those highlights had a clear sonic identity that emerged from their overall concepts. So the downbeat atmospherics that seeped through GKMC perfectly conveyed that album’s melancholic portrayal of a boy exhausted with the thug life in Compton; and the extraordinary jazz-funk party of TPAB contributed immensely to that career-high’s celebration of black culture. With DAMN. the only concept that seems to exist is that of trying to please everyone at once, blatantly following Drake into trap’s subgenre marketplace on most tracks, in a concession to his more commercial fanbase, whilst simultaneously juggling elements of less danceable electronica, and throwing in some live instrumentation from old faves like dynamite bassist Thundercat on ‘FEEL’, and strings arranged by Kamasi Washington on ‘LUST’, to appeal to the more traditionally minded (i.e. ‘real’ music snobs).

Kendrick has reached that rarefied station of upper-echelon artistic acclaim (see also Beatles, Dylan, Springsteen, Radiohead) where everything he does is immediately cited as proof of his genius, hence why many publications have already been claiming the musical eclecticism on DAMN. to be an example of the man’s restless desire to push into new territory. But to my ears, and I listen to albums a lot, it sounds more like the result of a lack of clear focus, and a petrifying fear of alienating various factions of his fanbase. He readily admits to his ‘fear of losin’ creativity’ on ‘FEAR’, and it shows. Especially in his tendency to switch up beats purely for the ‘WOW!’ factor, some time before they’ve had a chance to fully establish a groove. The technical mastery on display is sometimes not genius, it’s just showing off – opting for form over content, in the same way that bad guitarists do in the dick-waving look-at-me solos of the heavy metal scene.

That said, there’s always a moment on every track that makes me sit up and go damn, and usually there’s more than one. Whether it’s the Al Green falsetto sleezing up ‘LUST’, the thrill of the delivery justifying the self-satisfaction of the sentiment on ‘DNA’, the lurching between thwomping electronic beats and a minimalist(!) U2 on ‘XXX’, going all psychedelic soul on our asses on ‘PRIDE’, or riding a mutated Bruno Mars sample with Rihanna on ‘LOYALTY’, I’m so often engaged and enthused as a listener that it carries away all care of the overall chaos. And it’s my pleasure to announce that one track is a genuinely poppy R&B ballad that is wholly and unironically about love, which should annoy all the right people – namely those who believe that Kendrick’s greatness lies within his supposed links to the ‘avant-garde’ (i.e. white hipsters).

His greatness lies elsewhere, namely in a fervent desire to hold on, at all costs, to some sort of concept, romantic or religious or otherwise, of ‘LOVE’. Even in the face of unspeakable violence, the endless cesspool of racial injustice, deplorable political figureheads… and his own monstrous ego. A deservedly monstrous ego, emanating as it does from the towering proportions of his quite undeniable, virtually irrepressible brilliance.

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Conor Oberst: Salutations (2017) – Album Review

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I’m such a fan of Conor Oberst’s alternately acid/alkali lyrics (scourging his enemies or scouring his own thoughts) that I enjoyed last year’s solo acoustic set Ruminations when I reviewed it, whereas many critics understandably didn’t. Too dirge-like, sure, but melodic enough to carry a sympathetic listener away regardless. Salutations, in contrast, is warm and welcoming to all, a full band brought in to beef up the sound and add a community atmosphere to the 10 songs originally featured on Ruminations, with 7 new ones tossed in for good measure. The backing band consists of young folk-rock maestros The Felice Brothers and 74 year-old drummer Jim Keltner, who more than holds his own in these sessions at twice Oberst’s age, and they all sound attuned to the auteur’s every warble. I agree with AllMusic and Robert Christgau that what impresses most this time around is the musicality and confident attitudinising, as opposed to the painful depths of the lyrics that were the highlight on Ruminations. When targeting Ronald Reagan on ‘A Little Uncanny’, with full band now in tow, it serves the ex-President a stinging slap to the face. Yet not all the songs benefit from the remodelling, and perhaps a few could have done with cutting from the overdosed 67 minute running time – did we really need ‘Tachycardia’ and ‘You All Loved Him Once’ yet again in this setting? Still, hard to complain all that much when you have stonking new songs such as ‘Napalm’ and ‘Anytime Soon’, which sound more Dylan than Dylan has in many a year. I’ll still play Ruminations at midnight when feeling blue. But most of the day is not comprised of midnight’s dark, luckily, and so for that reason we have all been given Salutations.

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The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (2017) – Album Review

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A well-named band: they provide all of the instant-gratification of pornography, it’s just that the testosterone rush comes from pop hooks and quick tempos rather than exploitation. Hurrah for them, especially when the band is as gender-balanced as it is – in contrast to pornography’s submissive women, backup and sometime lead vocalists Neko Case and Kathryn Calder come on strong and keep getting stronger. Focus on the ‘New’, i.e. progressive.

That said, the star of the show is and always has been A.C. Newman, lead singer and now sole songwriter following the departure of Dan Bejar (never a patch on him anyway). Bejar would often throw curveballs at the Pornographers’ records – see his ‘Spidyr’ on Brill Bruisers, which murmured dully along until suddenly letting loose on a freakish harmonica solo. These oddball Bejarisms were fun but didn’t always sit well with Newman’s more classically structured pop songs, so it comes as no surprise that Whiteout Conditions is the band’s most consistent album yet.

11 songs in 40 minutes, it’s as short and snappy as any great pop record should be. Compactness is the name of the game, and that applies as much to Newman’s 3-4 minute songwriting as to new drummer Joe Seider’s unfussy tempo-keeping and fills. In fact, Seider’s stability is a major asset here, demonstrating its importance through his absence on the album’s worst track, ‘We’ve Been Here Before’, which sounds aimless but you don’t know why, until the drums kick back in again on ‘Juke’ and you realise that’s why.

Up high in the mix with the percussion are the keyboards and a whole host of synthesizers, continuing the band’s fascination with Kraturock and 80s pop demonstrated on their last album, Brill Bruisers. Further moving away from the straight-up rock of their early releases (at least relatively straight-up – their influences were always eclectic), you have to concentrate hard to discern the guitars, which are drowned beneath waves of other electronic instruments. In the codas to each song, as the synths invariably dominate, you could say that they sound more like New Order than New Pornographers. But the band maintains a clear identity throughout, especially on ‘Second Sleep’, where the chopped and sampled vocals of the gal singers go beyond New Order’s chilly textures to find the humour lurking underneath.

Some highlights: barnstormer ‘High Ticket Attractions’, which plays the male and female vocalists off each other to generate mucho excitement (a trick deployed many times on this album, but never more effectively); ‘Colosseums’, which somehow incorporates a marimba seamlessly into the electro-pop groove; ‘Clockwise’, which perhaps has the snakiest synth riff of the lot, biting mischievously at the drums. Generally, though, the individual tunes don’t stand out as well as the overall consistency of playful sound, which is the main reason that you’ll want to return to the album.

The words are the main flaw here. Newman sometimes creates a likeable impression as a lyricist, one who is honest enough to admit ‘I only play for money, honey’ and manages to talk about his battles with depression in revealing terms (on the title track). But if the overall concept is how to write, perform and tour in a successful band, whilst pushing all personal demons aside, then it only occasionally piques any interest in the lifestyle. Ultimately, a touring band is closed off from the rest of the world, and it shows here.

As mentioned before though, the main reason you’ll want to spin Whiteout Conditions is the fast-paced, optimistic noise it offers up to soothe your soul. It manages to avoid Krautrock pastiche through sheer enthusiasm and vigour, which is as admirable an achievement as any I’ve witnessed in pop music all year.

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