Common Holly-Playing House: ALBUM REVIEW

On her debut, Montreal folk-rocker Brigitte Naggar showcases a songwriting knack over sonic brilliance. The album feels almost episodic as Naggar’s intimate vocal delivery is surrounded by hints of math-rock riffage, string quartet landscaping and blues rock pastiche. Lyrically, Naggar battles with herself in trying to completely let go of a manipulative ex. Early cuts remain simply textured, but as the self-hate becomes harder to fight, the layering becomes all-encompassing. Rare is it that a songwriter is able to craft a debut chock full of solid tunes, but Naggar’s done that and more with impeccable album flow and vivid detailing.

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Moses Sumney-Aromanticism: ALBUM REVIEW

Armed with a voice that could slice through steel and a flourishing sonic foundation, Moses Sumney sounds untouchable on his debut full length. There’s a Björk-like sensibility in the way that Sumney sounds wholly unique and a bit odd, yet completely relatable and emotionally vulnerable. Beneath his ridiculous high croon lies a folk-tinged landscape, occasionally minimalist with rupturing textures heralding climaxes — rules seem to fall by the wayside when brass sections and flute soloists appear. His lyrics are poetic and sparse, coping with the beautiful yet wrenching world of solitude. It’s a work out of a new world, sure to confound for years to come.

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Four Tet-“New Energy”: ALBUM REVIEW

On the apply titled “New Energy,” esteemed prince of subdued UK dance Four Tet finds inspiration in his older material and later explorations.  The singles operate as such with pulsing, driving grooves and complementary melodies, yet the album blooms in a gradual manner, making the moments where the planets align truly pop.  It’s an album for fans true and casual, sure to suit the boiler room stage with a bit more dance-able material.

After an intro, “Two Thousand Seventeen” is the slow burn highlight of the work.  With the pillow of soupy base lines and the sparks of high vocals crafting the atmosphere, Tet’s huge bastion of a centerpiece looms.  Despite priding himself on his minimalist recording process, Tet manages to find a great deal of different textures throughout the album.  Here, the big melodic force evokes strings with its plucked timbres and oddly paced loops.

Foreboding melody marks the next string of tracks as melodies allude to oncoming action, before “Lush” and “Scientists” give it to you.  Light on its feet, “Lush” remains sensible, but it’s biting speed reaches for the rafters as a mixed bag of gentle melodies combine for a heavenly atmosphere.  “Scientists” is Four Tet’s songwriting at its finest.  The pillars of bass line bounce over the acoustic sounding high-hat.  Gradually more drums enter, before the track implodes with smoldering vocal combinations and a rogue trumpet solo.

“You Are Loved” is life affirming with its humanist, simmering synths, before “SW9 9SL” delivers the summary track.  With the mean straightforward beat setting in right away, this track doesn’t mess around.  Even the head room isn’t too lofty, focusing all energy on the rhythmic energy.  Momentum seems to completely shift around the midpoint as Tet builds a “bass drop” type of effect out in open space.  Melodies wander without a true rhythmic foundation, growing and boiling to a climax that immediately cuts back to the distilled groove that opened, except this time it’s adopted one of the signature warmly emotional bass melodies beneath it.  The overall spirit of the work is funneled into this track as the tried and true dance spills into ambience, then brings something back for the fans.

 

“Daughter” is another standout with a gorgeous combination of bright vocal loops and more warm synths, before “Planet” brings it home with a pummeling victory lap.  Perhaps some would classify the work as Four Tet doing Four Tet, however, his career path is evident in the music.  Even on tracks that burn with dance energy he seems to find a bit of “Morning/Evening’s” ambient meditation to underpin his ideas.  It’s a front to back experience that also features some of the guy’s best songwriting.  There’s not many on his level right now.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

The National-Sleep Well Beast: ALBUM REVIEW

The National are one of those bands where you either believe it or you don’t.  Matt Berninger’s vocals are deep and emotional, but easy to lack impact if the instrumentals don’t properly embolden his baritone wallow.  Spanning nearly 60 minutes and made by a bunch of bros now all upwards of 40, “Sleep Well Best” didn’t give me much hope going in.  However, the work manages to deliver throughout as deeply textured, lush material occasionally reaches for the rafters with big drum parts and streams of crying guitar.  Perhaps it’s not the group’s seminal work, but it’s one that should impress fans old and new.

Particularly catchy single “The System Dreams in Total Darkness” gave the veteran group their first Billboard hit, and it operates well as a centerpiece of sorts.  Opening with pillars of piano, the song’s catchy guitar interjections herald in chugging bass lines and inspired vocalizations.  The whole album sort of emulates it’s cover with the smoldering swaths of black highlighted with dashes of clear, brightness and here, the chorus flourishes with backing vocals and strained high-notes.

Thematically, the work doesn’t necessarily follow a single, cohesive narrative, however, a great deal depicts anxieties within a relationship and here Berninger touches upon the idea of isolation, the phrase “the system only dreams in total darkness,” alluding to the idea that his current relationship only thrives when both parties are totally focused on it and perhaps missing out on other things.  Considering other parts of the record Berninger seems to be critical of his partner and himself, but it shows a certain maturity when he expands his lens in the middle of the work to depict potential systematic issues.

The momentum in this song seems to seep into the rest of the album, but with a lot of different variations.  The band is the most direct on “Day I Die” with the streaming guitar lines and the pounding tom pattern.  “Born to Beg” lilts and yearns, but the Steve Reich-inspired synth backdrop adds a constant sense of tension; and “Guilty Party” drives with electronically induced drum kits injects a pulsing drive to the somber mood.

Lyrical highlights include opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” where Berninger seems to be meeting up with a past love interest: “Can you remind me the building you live in/I’m on my way.”  He feels as if there’s still something there and hopes they can put everything behind them and embrace: “Goodbyes always take us half an hour/Can’t we just go home…nobody else will be there.” The line, “Holding our coats/We look like children” helps paint the scene as Berninger wonders about the childishness of it all.

Here and there, Berninger seems to throw a lyrical air ball: “It’s so easy to set off/The molecules and the caplets.” Get it? Instead of Shakespeare it’s drugs (side eye), but “Carin at the Liquor Store” encapsulates the sonic and lyric wins on the project.  That piano line flows like hot tea with a glorious atmospheric guitar line rounding out the ending.  The lyrics are still dark “so blame it on me, I really don’t care, it’s a foregone conclusion,” but with the embolden sonics, it feels like and ending point on a journey of self-disovery.

The album is still long, but each song is inspired and unique, yet committed to the smoldering mood.  Feels good to hear an indie act aging with grace and still occasionally kicking ass.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Zola Jesus-Okovi: ALBUM REVIEW

With the release of single “Siphon,” it was clear that Zola Jesus would be seeking life affirmation upon the release of “Okovi.”  The song is addressed to a friend who had just attempted suicide and Jesus seemingly offers the exact kind of comfort someone in that low of a position needs: “you drain it out we clean it up for free…because we’d rather clean the blood off a living man.”  As roughly the midpoint of album, “Siphon” becomes the crux of the work, with the front half generally about demons and the second the triumph over them. Unfortunately, the former is a lot more successful than the later, making for an album that almost feels half done, but the songwriting wins are big enough to make the work necessary.

The album signifies a sonic sweet-spot.  Jesus’s last effort suffered from a heavy, crowded texture. Here, bass lines are pummeling and huge, and the decorations sleek, making for a much more mature work. “Exhumed” is the most adrenaline drenched as the whirring violins intensify the combative percussion beneath soaring rebel yells.  “Soak” turns to a much different mood without over doing the brightness.  Jesus’s glorious vocal lines are underpinned by a sluggish feeling rhythmic structure with atmosphere found in the subtle white noise in the head room.  “Ash to Bone” is bit more of an acoustic approach as bass and percussion sounds only gently caress a rhythmic drive. It’s understated compared to “Taiga,” but Jesus’s ridiculous voice constantly electrifies the energy.

Lyrically, the work is rather direct.  “Witness” is sort of the sister track to “Siphon” as Jesus again tries to protect her friend from the demons of depression: “to keep that knife from you…to pull you from the wreckage of your mind.”  Another pair of related tracks comes with “Soak” and “Vek.” Both capture a sense of triumph sonically and they seem to harp on the idea of agency against the aspects of life generally thought to be unchangeable: “Born into debt, a line of no request/Pay what I can but the rest, I have no chance/So, I pay nothing instead/I pay nothing instead.” “Vek” is a bit more abstract lyrically, but the line “Who will find you, When all you are, all you are is dust?” again addresses the doom of life as the triumph taps back into “Soak’s” mood.  It seems to give the listener and Jesus herself an ownership over the dark demise us humans eventually face.

Certain aspects of her songwriting seem to come back to bite her on the album’s deep cuts. The lyrical bluntness on “Wiseblood,” for instant, comes across as rather hamfisted: “If it doesn’t make you wiser/Doesn’t make you stronger/Doesn’t make you live a little bit/What are you doing?”  Coupled with the rather lazy melody, the track is a total throwaway.  “Remains” also has a throwaway chorus: “What remains of us? (x4),” as well as a drum machine that just seems totally out of place on this album.  The short outro track sort of implies resolution against the intro’s tension, but these triumphs over the darkness of life don’t go over so well making the storyline incomplete.

“Okovi” is disappointing to some degree. However, it’s disappointing because it offers a great introduction followed by six sharp tracks that flow into one another impeccably before the album trails off to an unearned outro of glorious strings.  Had this been an EP, it would’ve been  mistake free, but it just sucks to hear weakness from Jesus alongside some hardened career highlights.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

Laurel Halo-Dust: ALBUM REVIEW

“What’s In my Bag?” can go a lot of ways, many of them rather inconclusive—New Order bought a Lady Gaga remix album for a daughter, Lightning Bolt seemingly bought a bunch of random shit with cool covers, and Krist Novoselic was included for some reason.  In the case of Laurel Halo, however, the results are telling.  Citing a rather misfit bag of avant-weirdoes—cult figure Father Yod turned out to be an interesting Wikipedia search seeing as he died by hang-gliding accident “despite having no previous hang-gliding experience”—Halo illuminates the loose rhythmic and melodic sensibilities of her latest album “Dust.”

Artists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Henry Flint only sidestep typical song-form and allow for jarring cuts in the program and the blurring of rhythmic structures as their acoustic collages fly through space.  Halo fascinatingly places this ideology through an electronic music lens with tunes that throw together sketches of club beats and dive into complete abstraction in seemingly the same breath.

Although a hyperdub signee, Halo’s beats aren’t the straightforward, dance-able type.  On the opening cut, sparse bass lines juggle non-militant snares as her slightly juxtaposed vocal lines clash over top.  “Jelly” incorporates odd surface sounds that almost sound like taking a bite out of an apple.  The mid-range again is disorienting as a reliable, but disjointed bass sound rumbles beneath.  Perhaps the catchiest moment comes on “Moontalk” with the dazzling sounding sample and the fluid vocal lines, but overall Halo leaves you in a sort of liquid space not entirely dedicated to dance or abstraction.

The shorter cuts amplify this.  As “Jelly” reaches its space-bound completion, “Koinos” centers odd ball rhythmic motions around a subtle, looping melodic device.  Then wildly pitch-shifted vocals come through, adding to the hypnotic disorientation.  “Nicht Ohne Risiko” is a jolting mix of angles as textures bathe between the minimal “Who Won?” and the album’s closest pop moment.  Somehow, Halo never loses momentum on the album, but these tracks certainly pull the concept of time into a lot of different zones.

Halo’s lyrical sense is appropriately odd and occasionally charming. “You don’t meet my idol standards for a friend” charismatically bounces out on “Jelly.”  “Who Won?” throws together some masterful political undertones as saxophones wander over top: “what’s the password…the house is very big I only have five dollars.”  “syzygy” remains equally vague as Halo paints a despondent scene to complement her sonic gloom: “I was in a dead devil’s car she said get ready I turned my eyes away and she release an evil laugh…I said get up, I said tough love.”

On the other hand, Halo does tend to sneak up on her listener, which accomplishes an addicting aura as her collage somehow coalesces into one entity.  As the despondence develops on the six-minute burn “syzygy,” that “tough love” couplet becomes a kind of hook with a lushness gradually building up with each passing repetition. “Do U Ever Happen” follows with rumbling undertones that eventually turn to late night synthy glory with layers of soulful earnesty.

Halo’s sonic world is wholly unique and her understanding of past avant-garde endeavors seems to drive her aesthetic ideology, making for an album equal parts out and slow burn.  It won’t make sense on first listen, but you’ll come right back.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Downtown Boys-Cost of Living: ALBUM REVIEW

There’s a lot of ingredients that make Downtown Boys the premiere punk band of the moment. “A Wall is just a wall” they preach on the opening track before fighting against the portrayal of Latinx people in current political rhetoric with lyrics in Spanish. However, on songs like “Promissory Note” — a reference to Dr. King — the band promises to never stop fighting for freedom no matter which imperialist is in charge. Coupled with a virtuosity of performance and occasional infectious hook, you’ve got an album that will require constant listening and inspire direct political action for years to come.

-Donovan Burtan