Jamila Woods-HEAVN_Album Review

Jamila Woods burst onto the scene last year with her feature beside Chance the Rapper on “Sunday Candy,” a song created by Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment.  Woods has an undeniably beautiful voice, which served as the perfect addition to the wholesome message of the song.  On her first solo project, Woods offers a personal look into her relationship with her skin color, sometimes highlighting the struggle with police violence with other areas focusing on pride and bright-eyed retrospection.  Most of the songs are followed by a brief recording of Woods talking about her life experience adding a very intimate element to the album.  The work serves as a solid first release with Woods’ voice remaining powerful throughout.  It is somewhat clear that Woods is still developing as an artist, many of her songs sounding the same with no major changes in production or even tempo really taking place.

“Heavn” begins with a short intro track, “Bubbles,” with Woods’ deliberate vocals floating atop light beat production.  Woods truly wears her identity on her sleeve, the first lyrics on the record reading “black girl be in a bubble” before the theme of blackness returns in the second song “VRY BLK.”  Here, a cute melody contrasts the bleak lyrics about police violence: “you take my brother/I fight back.” Woods’ wordplay also makes an appearance on this track, her words occasionally spilling over the end of poetic lines.  For example, after uttering the phrase “my brothers going to heaven” the next line falls incomplete “the police going to” with the first syllable of the next line, “hell,” being emphasized.  “Lonely Lonely” switches gears a bit lyrically turning towards the struggle for self-love and feeling like an outsider; “I’m not ok thanks for asking/I can tell I’ve said too much/I’m out of touch/guess no one ever really wants to know.”  The album continues along similar lines, with the hook of “Blk Girl Soldier” ringing out as a highlight.

The album carries a certain emotional weight with Woods taking time to reminisce on life experiences between certain tracks.  After “VRY BLK,” Woods emerges from song to tell a story about an inside joke type of experience that she had with some other black co-workers.  Although she had never met these woman, they were all able to recite a rhyme from a childhood game, the words deeply engrained in each of their minds.  In another instance Woods speaks about her mother and the way she was named.  Each of these storytelling moments, sound like they were recorded on a cell phone with Woods clearly putting her heart and soul into the words, bringing the listener directly into her life.

Sonically, the album fails to really take risks, thriving heavily on the beauty in Jamila Woods’ voice with little contrast coming from track to track.  The hesitant drum beat on “Lonely Lonely” matches the intentions of the more electronic rhythmic efforts on the first two tracks with each track remaining in the same relative place.  Structurally, the album follows a straightforward path on each song choruses and verses coming at predictable rates with the occasional rap verse coming out of the woodwork.  Even the vocal lines fall victim to a bit of stagnation.  Woods’ voice remains around the same range throughout never straining to present high notes or strained expression.  It should be noted that the lyrics are not really relatable to my life experience (I’m not a black woman), which effects the way I consume the album’s overall sound.  If every word was especially relatable to me, I would be more emotionally attached to the work.  However, I do feel that Woods isn’t breaking much from the neo-soul pack sounding a lot like Erykah Badu and Frank Ocean at his most subtle.

Jamila Woods is a good musician with a great voice.  On her debut solo record, potential is everywhere, her voice and emotion never failing to provide the listener with something to hold onto.  As a whole, the album feels a bit safe perhaps a bit more risk taken in songwriting and vocal delivery would bring a bit more replay value on later releases.

6.5/10 Jamila Woods is in a good place, but I would like to see her push herself a bit to take more risks.

 

 

Advertisements

Heaven for Real-Kill Your Memory_Album Review

Kill Your Memory cover art

Perhaps a product of the now cult-sized Mac DeMarco following, a twangy revolution has started in the indie community, particularly in eastern Canada.  Through their sunburst melodies and nostalgic lyrics, Heaven for Real have deemed themselves the next member of the Halifax community of pleasant indie imperfection.  Despite being a decent group of songwriters that put together varying song structures with solid melodies, Heaven for Real fail to fully break into a sound of their own on their new album Kill Your Memory resulting in a somewhat forgettable 2016 album release.

Heaven for Real are certainly a solid instrumental group.  Their guitar melodies are intricate with light distortion coming into play on occasion between clean noodling. Some of the songs have a lot of moving parts with instrumental interludes breaking up the lazy vocal delivery.  “Oasis Melting (Visitor on Vacation)” becomes a stand-out track with its droning, aquatic guitar tones slowly building into a quick moving tune with the lyrics “when you stare through my I’m beside myself.”  The song manages to obtain a form and sound unlike the other tracks on the record by building from beginning to end, contrasting the constantly gyrating melodies of songs like “Hotel #55,” “Subliminal,” and “Known Steps in Directions Unknown.”

The ability to put together melodies is clear, but the band certainly misses the mark a bit on certain tunes, especially towards the end of the album where many of the songs are only about 2 minutes in length. “Allan” comes across as a dull, unnecessary instrumental with guitar oscillation highlighted by a light vocal sample.  Following “Allan” comes “Hard Done By,” a song including what may be the worst guitar solo recorded in 2016.  Also in the mix are “Smooth Ops” and “Misfire,” which feel like filler, adding little more than extra guitar noodling and talk-singing to the albums brighter opening tracks.

To be quite blunt: the band needs to work on vocals.  Perhaps the slightly out of tune mumbling works well on the happy-go-lucky simple songs, but the soaring melodies on title track “Kill Your Memory” come across as out of practice.  Also, the well-practiced instrumental work loses some of the impact in the laid back vocal approach, which deems the tempo a bit non-specific. It would be nice to hear more confidence from the lead singer.  This would add a bit more bite to the sound aesthetic.

Lyrically, the group shows promise touching upon relatable topics of home and nostalgia and also dipping into obscurity with quirky thematic ideas.  Title track “Kill Your Memory” essentially sticks to one theme throughout, discussing the way certain aspects of life change and others don’t; “You’ve grown and changed apparently/but my own sight won’t/not that I would make waves start living under changing things/kill your memory.”  The following song “No One Knows Her” starts with a certain morbidity, the opening line “no knows her like seconds before the grave/absolute search for parties that come close” indirectly addressing the concept of dying alone with the speaker turning to introspection for the rest of the song; “I am worried for other days.”  Although a certain focus can be found in the lyrics of each song, the band thrives on imagery rather than narrative with metaphors and specific explanation filling in the space: “Saw the dry rice bulge on the etiquette line” kicking off “Smooth Ops.”

Admittedly, I probably have some bias against music of this genre, however, I certainly do not think it would be unfair to say that Heaven for Real is a part of a specific trend.  Music at this sonic capacity is all over the internet right now and the twangy awkward vibes are sure to be out the door when the next era in DIY indie rock comes along.  Nonetheless, the work is not completely boring with well composed songs filling out the beginning of the album and intriguing lyrics coming from beginning to end.

-Donovan Burtan

Band displays potential in songwriting, but lackluster vocals and trendy aesthetic make this album pretty average. 6/10

Holy Fuck-Congrats_Album Review

Holy Fuck present electronic punk music with an aesthetic sometimes as violent and shocking as their name.  Beginning with two driving punk tunes with enough energy to warrant both dancing and screaming, the group’s new album Congrats focuses on quick-hitting dance beats with mixed results.  Despite beginning with endless energy and smoldering, dance-able production, the songwriting by the end of the album remains all too dedicated to similar industrial efforts, slowly losing the bite that makes the group stick out in the first place.

The first couple tracks on this album are not to be overlooked.  “Chimes Broken” begins with a driving groove state supported by heavy drum work and wobbling bass distortion.  Distant vocals enter the mix as more instrumental layering leads into a massive wall of sound with dance-able rhythms and menacing melodies.  On “Tom Tom,” another dark beat breaks out with slightly more pronounced vocals coming into the equation.  The lyrics are still quite hard to decipher but they add a certain primal violence to the soundscape of the distorted guitars and driving synthesized bass making for another intriguing experience.  “Shivering” shifts to a more ethereal sound conception, contrasting the pummeling industrial approach on the first two tunes.  Arpeggiating guitars serve as the foundation for the development of a chilling vocal melody.  The band’s production is well done with a certain warmth coming into the darkly-tinged industrial landscape throughout.

As the album moves forward, the band provides more dance-able rhythms and digressions into cool, spacey melodies, losing a lot of the spirit of the first two tracks.  “Xed Eyes” starts off with another fun-loving bass line, but the build-up is very weak and the vocal melody boring leading to stagnation.  “Neon Dad” is the band’s attempt at a ballad or slow song of some sort with the focus placed on melody.  The song reads as a nice change of pace and it is generally quite beautifully put together.  Unfortunately, the vocals are far too low in the mix for the hook to be memorable.  Holy Fuck are clearly a solid group of instrumentalists, however, the lack of emphasis on vocals seems to be hurting them a bit.  When they do have vocals it usually works well with the development of their songs, so they do have the potential for more vocally-centric songwriting, the instrumental part just always takes\ the front seat.  This lack of focus on vocals makes the instrumentals that follow quite strange as well.  In a way, the instrumental approach never really changes so hearing vocals on certain tracks and not on others makes the songs that lack vocals all-together sound a bit incomplete.

“Neon Dad” marks the end of the first half of the record and after this track a series of duds ensue with predictable song development and energy levels.  On “House of Glass” the band relies on a relatively lackluster melody and bass line at a sluggish tempo.  The tempo increases a bit with “Sabbatics,” but the end result stands a bit too close to the sounds of the first two tracks on the album with another wobbling bass-line filling out the lower frequencies.  This is also one of those tracks that unjustifiably lacks vocals, sounding like a backing track. Perhaps the tracks on the second half of the record would stand-out if played amongst the efforts of less intense bands on the radio, however, the band fails to conjure up enough contrast from track to track on this specific project making for an arduous second half.

Congrats showcases Holy Fuck’s capacity for dance-able groove music, but the band fails to entertain from front to back by committing to instrumentals that are all too similar and ignoring vocal presence.  The light vocal work on tracks like “Neon Dad” and “Tom Tom” show that the band has potential for vocally-centric songwriting, so hopefully the next Holy Fuck project will hold more impact with better vocals and lyrics.

Good band but a bit of a bland effort. 5.5/10

Braids-Companion EP_Review

 

Deep in the Iris by Braids falls under the category of “albums I should have reviewed in 2015.” Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s powerful vocal performance brought an especially tense theme to the dream pop backdrop of her band with catchy hooks bringing more life to the climactic power ballads.  Roughly one year after the release of Deep in the Iris, the group decided to release a work, entitled Companion EP, comprised of songs written and recorded around the same time period.  It is clear that these four songs were written in the same headspace as Deep in the Iris, with Standell-Preston’s voice again soaring over similarly produced electronic stylings of Austin Tufts and Taylor Smith.  Despite these similarities, strong songwriting combines with a slightly different instrumental approach making for a notable addition to the band’s catalogue.

Beginning with a song about the unintentional end of a childhood friendship, the EP addresses topics of heartbreak, loss, and anxiety.  “Companion” paints a picture of a young chubby kid with a “shape…like a little plum” who “hadn’t yet grown tall” signifying innocent youth.  The speaker is separated from the young boy, worries about the effect that her sudden absence has had on him, and hopes to let him know that it had nothing to do with him specifically.  As the song moves forward, the lyrics begin to depict a very specific moment in the relationship, addressing the idea of how much can change in an instance.  The hesitant keyboards grow as Standell-Preston begins to belt out lyrics about the boy’s fear of water; a fear that dissipates after the dust settles from the song’s climax when Standell-Preston says the words “Remember when I pushed you in? You were surprised that you floated.”  Standell-Preston’s ability to evoke deep emotional impact out of her relatively minimal lyrical phrasing is simply astounding with each and every word amassing a greater effect on the listener.  Next, the EP addresses a very specific feeling in a relationship on “Joni,” where Standell-Preston tries to convince herself that she is not worried about her future with a significant other.  The anxiety in the lyricism is juxtaposed by the highly articulated drums, driving bass groove, and infectious hook that bring the song to a roaring state with each rendition of the chorus.

In the second half of the project, Standell-Preston’s lyrics grow slightly more esoteric, favoring vivid imagery over the outward presence of narrative in the first two tracks.  On “Sweet World”, Standell-Preston discusses the change of season at a distance with the line “The grass is bleeding/Give it a bodybag of snow.”  Later, the song takes a pretty bleak turn with suicide coming into the question; “See that pole jutting out of the corner/Sometimes I wanna tie my neck up/Let my limp limbs dangle down.”  Standell-Preston just has a unique way of talking about things.  Even when a song is focused on narration, imagery comes to the table making her words drip with beautiful poetic language.  Also, “Sweet World” may be the most significant example of the sonic difference between Companion and Deep in The Iris.  As a whole, this EP feels a bit more hauntingThe cool nature of the keyboards combine with minor melodic tonality and clean vocal work making for an ethereal soundscape.  On “Sweet World” specifically the dense rhythmic element drones on for seven minutes with sweeping melodic ideas coming from layers of vocal and instrumental melody.

Companion EP feels necessary.  Perhaps the association between these songs and those released from the band in 2015 will never fully be lifted, however, Standell-Preston’s beautiful lyricism combines with fantastic work from the rest of the band making for a solid collection of songs.

-Donovan Burtan

Really Good. Only an EP so a bit short. 7.5/10

Life and Other Transient Storms-Life and Other Transient Storms_Album Review

            Headed by Portuguese trumpet player Susana Santos Silva, Life and Other Transient Storms present a dark sonic landscape on their self-titled album.  Brooding melodies unite the entire group with brief side conversations shedding light on specific sections of the ensemble.  The album is completely driven by improvisation with two huge periods of time leaving plenty of room to explore.  Although the ensemble is of a traditional quintet set-up with Lotte Anker on saxophones, Sten Sandell on piano, Torbjörn Zetterberg on bass and Jon Fält on drums, their relentless energy and chemistry combine for a memorable free jazz release with surprising textures and developments entering the mix throughout.

Beginning with tense playing from each band member, album opener “Life” collages many different sonic capabilities of the band ranging from explosive chaos to more barren dives into textural ambiance.  One-on-one improvisation within the ensemble allows for quiet breaths of intimacy to break up the huge walls of sound.  Drummer Jon Fält has a particular knack for complementing the improvisations of the more melody driven instruments in the space, first bouncing ideas off of Torbjörn Zetterberg’s bass noodling before finding a connection with Sten Sandell’s piano work.  The second piece begins with Silva alone, her rhythm section eventually joining her before the entrance of Anker’s sax.  Silva’s playing is generally very clean with modest extended techniques complementing her angular melodies. As the piece develops, the volume grows, particularly when Lotte Anker finally enters on sax.  Perhaps a product of her selected instrumentation, Anker becomes the main energy force on the album, her massive capacity for sound pulling life out of the players that surround her.  Being the shorter of the two pieces, “Other Transient Storms” operates essentially as one big build up.  Even amongst certain digressions from the overall explosive soundscape, the focus of the piece pushes forward, contrasting the more fluctuating mood of the first piece.

The album is wholly cloaked in a dark sound aesthetic.  Each melody thrives on minor tonality with a certain anxious pressure coming from the approach of each ensemble member.  For saxophone player Lotte Anker, blaring repetition of vibrato-ridden low notes adds to the overall tense mood.  On piano, Sten Sandell places his phrases on the edge of a cliff with a certain burning urgency jabbing at each played key.  Perhaps all of the un-ease accomplished by the players is what warrants the length of each piece as the listener is kept on the edge of their seat, anxiously awaiting resolution.

As far as experimental extended techniques go, this album is more subtle than many of the free jazz releases in today’s market, which presents a bit of give and take as the record is made more impressive by its ability to maintain intrigue off of traditional musical techniques alone, but it also somewhat fails to offer anything groundbreaking sonically.  It would certainly be fair to say that a record sounding like this could have feasibly been created a couple years ago on clean feed records and acoustic free jazz of this nature will ensue for years to come.  Perhaps the band could have benefited from some unique production tactics or electronic additions to their sound.  On the other hand, sometimes the addition of an electronic element or an extremely vast collection of experimental sounds cheapens the effect of the music as a whole.  At the end of the day it is up to the musicians themselves to take risks and push themselves in new directions, it just cannot go without saying that staying comfortable with the way things are done today can lead to musical stagnation tomorrow.

Life and Other Transient Storms is a solid free jazz release.  The ensemble comes together with a great deal of chemistry and their impressive feats of musical prowess entertain and shock throughout.  As far as pushing boundaries go, the group does not seem to be pushing themselves into a completely unknown territory, however their talents make up for the lack of shocking modernity.

Very solid work all around with room for sonic improvement: 8/10

-Donovan Burtan

**Review to be published on http://music.ckut.ca/ this week**