Devon Welsh-Dream Songs: Album Review

Devon Welsh’s voice has a special hymnal quality to it.  His raw lyricism adds to the naked quality that his vocal mixing tends emphasize, but there’s a feeling that his pleas could billow through a church and mimic a more heightened sense of reverb.

Somehow, the logical choice was to find cold electronic accompaniment (very much in the style of Suicide) for his project Majical Cloudz that brought that voice so much attention.  Perhaps there’s some comparison between the unleashed screams of “Frankie Teardrop” and Welsh’s largest climactic high-range confessions, but the unique approach made them stand out in a crowd and made his simple ideas speak in a modern way.

In terms of solo material, Welsh has never really stopped and right around when this project disbanded I actually caught him play a DIY venue in Montreal doing all new solo songs that had nothing to do with anything he had put on wax (I don’t remember enough to know if these are them but I don’t think they are).  Who does that? Majical Cloudz couldn’t necessarily have taken over the world, but they’re a solid buzz band that could’ve easily gotten a bunch of 20th anniversary pieces written about them.

There’s the sense that Welsh just wants to dramatically voice his cryptic thoughts till the end of time, without thinking about the audience, and as long as he keeps surrounding himself with tasteful sonic material, he will sound both out of time and urgent–and hopefully aid some young adult depression along the way.

Dream Songs sees Welsh singing over lavish, but not indulgent, folk landscapes.  There’s ancient pianos and longing strings, and stirringly recorded guitar.  There’s a bit more dynamicism in the texture.  Rather than the militant pulsing that electronics tend to yield, here pristine silence develops into more lively places with shakers complemented by cascading, plucked strings.  With Welsh’s stoic vocal presence, the silence is welcome and really lets the music breathe and envelop its listener.

Lyrically, Dream Songs feels less straightforward than previous material.  Sure, there’s the simple beauty of single “I’ll Be Your Ladder,” which you can probably guess the meaning of from the title alone, but the album begins by addressing agency: “things more powerful than you control the action in your life,” then he delves into dreams, and a chorus reading simply “wasted by the daylight/floating in the twilight.”  There’s the macro-level of control–we cannot control the motion of the earth or the sun–but then there’s the micro–the inner dream world that our subconscious makes for  us that we must decipher.  Questions of control extend to “Dreams Have Pushed You Around” where a relationship ends and neither party is at fault, but Welsh begs the question of how.  It’s certainly not a concept album, but these late night ruminations make for a thought-provoking, introspective listen.

Devon Welsh’s name probably won’t ring out in the history books, but I don’t think he wants it to and Dream Songs benefits from this by placing the listener in his world with no notion of celebrity.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

 

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Medhane-Ba Suba, Ak Jamm: EP Review

There’s something raw and earthy about a stringed instrument.  Weather it be plucked or strummed, it tugs on the heart strings and instantly conjures an organic feel.  Medhane’s raps match this sensibility quite well as his soft-spoken rumbling voice looks inward to the struggles and triumphs of an up-and-comer.  My first taste of his latest EP, the track “Days,” saw these vocals over a rising and falling strummed bass melody and gently plucked guitar.  Although his voice can be a bit droney and monotone, the words combine with the sonic landscape to make for an emotive, capturing work.

In the future, It’d be nice to see Medhane flesh out his song forms a bit more.  Particularly on the last track, a swell of energy builds, but quickly dissipates after only a couple minutes.  However, the sound world is well crafted and sure to grow on each coming release.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

Moses Sumney-Blood in Deep Red, 2014: EP Review

Part of what made Moses Sumney’s breakout album Aromanticism so special was his striking vision.  As his tiny desk concert proves, Sumney can evolve his sound and songs to a heady, active place, but for his full-bodied introduction to the world, he wanted to tastefully hold back and make a daringly sparse act of minimalism and introspection.

Although only nine minutes long, Sumney’s latest EP sees him completely flipping his script and developing a thoroughly fleshed out vision once again.  Rather than the spare, folk styling of Sumney past, this EP is restless and brooding, suggesting that ambition is going to be a hallmark of the rest of his career.  The heart of the project, “Rank & File,” a live favorite of his, sees marching hand-claps and backing vocals as Sumney’s high croon looms overhead with lyrics rather pointedly addressing police violence in the United States. The lyric “if we make you nervous/then what is your purpose” in particular tackling the subversive assumptions that officers make when approaching people of color.

The two accompanying tracks are less fleshed out song-forms, the first being a grimy call-and-response, call-to-arms and the second an electronically-tinged groove that caresses into a raucous saxophone solo.  Don’t think we’ll see Sumney go for a 90 minute double album, but the man is capable of so much and his career is still only brewing.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

Looking Ahead: August 31st

Troye Sivan-Bloom

Australian pop star builds a more mature world that builds on the queer sensibilities that have always accompanied his ear for hooks and melody.

Chastity-Death Lust

Chastity bends post-hardcore to equally enraged and tender place.

Rui Ho-Becoming is an Eventful Situation

Chinese DJ bridges traditional music and a striking modern plasticism.

 

Ariana Grande-Sweetener: Album Review

You can learn a lot about Ariana Grande’s talents from her Jimmy Fallon show shenanigans.  From her impersonations which see her flipping Kendrick in the style of Evanescence to her rather impressive Nintendo faux-instrument performance of “No Tears Left to Cry,” Grande has proven that her two biggest strengths are vocal power and versatility.  In the past, this has led to collaborations spanning trap, rap, and EDM, and summer festival season defining hits such as “Break Free.”

Given more of the songwriting reigns than she’s ever had and working with producers–namely Max Martin and Pharrel Williams–who have transcended their initial “moment” to become longstanding pop stalwarts, Grande steps into a mature, optimistic pop lane that both references her influences, mainly Mariah Carey and Brittney Spears, and pushes them to the future with a futuristic flair.

Admittedly, single “the light is coming” raised concerns as opposed to the Max-Martin-chorus-laser-beamed-15-years-into-the-future nature of “No Tears,” the song is awkward, bouncing between a chunky sample, a Nicki Minaj verse, and some overly delicate Ariana vocals, but this issue doesn’t come up elsewhere.  Even though she doesn’t deliver the blazing soprano sound for a majority of the record, her choppier vocals remain relaxed and fun to match her rosy-eyed lyrics.

Pharrell’s front half sees Grande’s rhythmically spoken vocals cushioned with breathy, jolting backing tracks.  Although some could be said about the effect of Grande’s devastating Manchester concert shooting (Grande has said that the cathartic chorus “just keep Breathing and Breathing…” is about working through a panic attack), her lyrical material suggests that she has been able to fight through the hardship to find peace with blissful, fun sentiment.  “Trying to turn to single people into a couple” she says on the hazy “R.E.M,” before following up the sex-induced lyrical ideas of “God is a Woman” with the title track: “You make me say oh, oh (sheesh, sheesh)/Twist it, twist it, twist it, twist it.”

The end of the album is especially sweet with her ode to her new fiance “Pete Davidson” bookended by tracks that address self-care and love.  “Goodnight n Go” literally asks “why’d you have to be so cute,” and the closer sees Grande tell herself that yes, her work is for everyone to enjoy, but she also has to take care of herself–an important sentiment for a pop star who’s been elevated to such a giant earthly position.

Ariana Grande has been a voice to root for in pop for a while.  From the empowering nature of “Dangerous Woman” to the ridiculously fun “Everyday” video, but Sweetener sees her on top of the world making an album only she could for the first time.  Her 2020s are sure to see her skyrocket further into the stratosphere.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Mitski-Be The Cowboy: Album Review

“I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent/I wanna see the whole world”

Mitski Miyawaki knows how to speak to the masses.  Her lyrics are often called confessional, but as she’s mentioned in her latest interviews she’s not a vessel, her words are carefully crafted to skewer the contradictions of youth and life as a whole.  Complemented by her short song structures, Miyawaki’s short lyrical clippings are packed tightly and expertly.  On her third album in four years of 30 minutes in length, this becomes even more true.  Massive sentences like “I fell in love with a war and nobody told me it ended;” “I know I’ve kissed you before but I didn’t do it right;” and “I look for a picture of you…But I can’t seem to find one, where you look how I remember” anchor nearly every track, building a little cell within the overarching work.

Thematically, the songs strike upon various characters in the American psyche.  The lonesome cowboy who finds themselves in the middle american plains.  The Hitchcockian woman who’s a blank canvass for the male audience to project their feelings onto.  Miyawaki builds a world in which the reality–that one cannot live without emotional support–combats against the desire to be entirely self sufficient.  On “Old Friend” she begs to talk about nothing at the old dining spot, a possibility that she made impossible.  “A Pearl” sees a narrator unable to find intimacy for the sake of watching a Pearl glow.  A metaphor for a long lost dream? Or perhaps the last remaining piece of a relationship that’s sure to dissipate. It’s unclear.

Then of course there’s the beating heart of the whole Mitski project on “Lonesome Love,” where we get the lyrical couplet: “Nobody butters me up like you/and nobody fucks me like me.”  Complemented by the refrain “Why am I lonely for a lonesome love,” the song runs circles around itself, a narrator torn between desire and satisfaction.

Sonically, this is reflected in the David Byrne or Patti Smith brand of detachment.  The chorus of single “Nobody” repeats the word to maniacal effect as the disco-lite instrumental speaks right to the hips.  Her live show–complete with choreography–reflects the divide as Miyawaki positions herself center against her band, no guitar in tow, repeating bodily motions and steps that gradually grow simultaneously more huge and inhuman.  For “Geyser,” she reprises the digging from the brilliantly shot video, and elsewhere she literally seizes on the floor as the guitar solos roared.

Mitski Miyawaki was a great songwriter all along, and Be The Cowboy is her first step to full-blown visionary.  I don’t think we’ll see her return to the orchestra she recorded with in college, but her rise is sure to continue in the coming years.

-Donovan Burtan

9/10

Helena Hauff-Qualm: Album Review

Like most of the techno creed, Helena Hauff cut her teeth on the DJ scene, eventually landed a deal, and developed a sound for her first true moment on wax.  A promising EP, and some serious club cred has raised her visibility considerably and Qualm has captured the excitement of her live show in a digestible and addicting way.

Built on her cloudy and grimy techno world, the album is constantly pulsing and stretching the limits of it’s density.  Perhaps in terms of volume, the work doesn’t change a whole lot–at least not in the vein of Jon Hopkins–yet the music is restless and dynamic, never sitting in one zone for too long.

Opener “Barrow Boot Boys” sees handclap phrasing that constantly spills over bar lines, intersecting and diverging from the kick-drum activity.  As these instrumental parts coalesce more and more, a high-frequency scream sound fades in, acting as the melodic driving force.  “Fag Butts in the Fire Bucket” begins a bit more sparse, a distorted cloud of noise gradually diluting into a rhythmic pattern as bass tones and drums enter the space, before “Hyper-Intelligent Genetically Enriched Cyborg” rears it’s violent head with raging tempo matched by panned synth crystals and cascading patterns.

The album includes more over-arching themes in its backside. “Primordial Sludge” and “Qualm” take down the energy to a more ambient-rooted place, with the melodic line of the title-track creeping its way back into the next amped-up song.

The album maybe doesn’t quite transcend the genre.  It’s a electronic record for electronic listeners, particularly German ones, but Hauff builds a world of her own and swims around in it with expert songwriting chops.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10