Charly Bliss-Young Enough: Album Review

Charly Bliss have me thinking back to this quote from Todd on Bojack Horseman: “Sometimes I feel like my whole life is just a series of loosely-related wacky misadventures.”  To which Diane explains: “I think that’s just what being in your 20’s is.” You would think that a song that opens with the line “Someone used my card to buy a camera in California” would ponder that person on the other end, think about what drove them to this point, and maybe see the narrator projecting their own ideas and anxieties onto them, but Eva Hendricks instead quite literally sings “Everything is coming, not sure what I should be learning from it.”  She feels some vague melancholy, and mentioning that $566 is all they could’ve gotten maybe some lack of self worth, but at the end of the song, this opening and closing motif feels like a loosely related side plot.

Young Enough as a whole is zany and dynamic, letting apt descriptions of youth and wacky misadventures seep into the mix in equal measure.  “Karate lessons, reality shows” offer shorthand to suburbs nostalgia, whereas “we’re young enough to believe it should hurt this much” describes underdeveloped emotional intelligence that could fall anywhere on the pre-24 age spectrum.  It’s not necessarily the Frank Ocean approach to memory through cars and specific scenes, but the memory bank is similarly fluid, the band at times seemingly unable to parse what’s important and what is.

The sonic approach matches some of the teenage leanings.  With buoyant synths and driving guitars in tow, Bliss sounds somewhere between “Celebrity Skin is the most important album in rock history” and “Hounds of Love is the most important album in rock history.”  Their campy album cover could fit on the teenage bedroom walls that inspire their grab-bag sugar rush sounds.

The album is not entirely weightless, though.  Beneath the scheen lies occasionally harrowing material.  The lyric “I’m fucking joy and I hemorrhage light” perhaps makes sense of the fact that Hendricks is featured on PUP’s “Free At Last,” and then the album focuses in on one particularly damaging relationship.  If the opening batch of tunes operates as a suite about youthful attraction, inexperience, and the need to be liked by all, the final few tunes are almost like a breakup EP.  Single “Chatroom” rather pointedly takes down an abuser who others see as some sort of god, “I was fazed in the spotlight, his word against mine/Everybody knows you’re the second comin,” and the surrounding tunes log the fallout of this particularly jarring heartbreak.

Though the 20’s tend to feel like a series of fun, unrelated misadventure, they can also be a dangerous time, when youthful inexperience can meet drugs or relationships with more at stake than those of the teen years.  Charly Bliss is modeled on this, a fun band that captures darkness and maybe proves that these ‘unrelated’ happenings may indeed have more at stake than at first glance.

-Donovan Burtan



Tyler, the Creator-IGOR: Album Review

Since his time as the ringleader of Odd Future, Tyler, the Creator has had an impact, but reviewers had a tough time supporting him wholeheartedly until his most consistent and introspective work, Scum Fuck Flower Boy.  Between his antics, rougher lyrical patches, and mixed bag musical ones, Tyler always presented some sort of elephant in the room.

Still, Tyler’s progression has been almost precisely logical throughout his career.  Punky jabs were his start, and gradually his production chops have gotten jazzier and sleeker–yes, Cherry Bomb was a bit of a mess, but Flower Boy would undeniably have been impossible without the likes of “Find Your Wings” and “Smuckers.”  Neither Igor nor Flower Boy, his best two albums, signify the arrival moment were he got it right, rather they both prove that Tyler is in fact here for the long haul.  He will continue to evolve and hopefully listeners will be within the same hemisphere for more albums down the road, but for now we are presented with a consistent pop cultural figure with a remarkable versatility that no one could’ve seen coming.

IGOR is Tyler’s least rap-forward project.  Some have deemed it a R&B project, and I’d have to say I consider it more of a producer work–almost in league with the work of Kaytranada.  The songs find propulsion from warm beats moving in vague directions.  Vocals are repetitious and in a lot of ways secondary to the emotional content of the sound here.  Rather than the straightforward pop texture of “See You Again,” with its catchy chorus and rapped verses, songs here are much more loose.  This probably saves him a bit on songs like “Earfquake,” where Tyler’s almost squeaky voice sings lovelorn words to a former lover.

‘Loverlorn’ kind of takes me to the next key part of the album.  Yeah, its pretty much a breakup album, but its atypical in a lot of ways.  The beginning of the album operates as a blown up version of Lorde’s “Supercut,” capturing the initial explosion where you run back all the good moments in your head and can’t really imagine where or why it went south.  “For real this time…I cannot fall short;” “I think I’m falling in love/this time I think its for real;” “running out of time/to make you love me;” these phrases verge on numbing which is kind of the point.  When your life falls apart there’s a lot of pieces and little analysis of them.

Then, there’s the jealousy of the “New Magic Wand:” “It has nothin’ to do with that broad/But if it did, guarantee she’d be gone;” the “stay the fuck away from me” of “A Boy is a Gun;” and the “I can’t maneuver without you next to me” of “Puppet.”  The production has a meditative, almost calming nature to it, but for sure close listens reveal a bit of Tyler’s internal chaos.  “What’s Good” is the obligatory nod to Tylers former self with firebrand rapping, incidentally the moment that leads to the self acceptance of “Gone, Gone:” “I hope you know she cant compete with me.”  Like Ariana Grande’s thank you, next, Tyler takes advantage of the occasionally crazed break up experience to make a dynamic, wrestling work that never settles into one sound.

I will say that you kind of have to be on board for Tyler already to appreciate this one.  Some of the ‘rap’ verses sound a bit awkward if you remove yourself from the place of ‘fan who finds Tyler’s faults endearing,’ but again the evolution is in some ways the biggest appeal.  If Flower Boy proved that Tyler could make us pay attention for a full 45 minutes, IGOR proves that staying on board is a must.

-Donovan Burtan


Big Thief-UFOF: Album Review

Big Thief makes music that feels close from the jump. Adrianne Lenker’s singing conjures images of the microphone fitting somewhere nicely between her teeth and guitars occasionally sound plucked from your own membrane—matching lyrics that should be relatable to anyone who’s ever remotely been involved with some version of ‘the woods.’

Yet, there’s still an evasiveness. Whether the pronunciations falter a bit in Lenker’s haunting croon, or the imagery remains focused on one particular detail that feels detached from a more substantial story-line—“Jennis in my room?” well, what are they doing there—making meaning sometimes falls on the listener’s shoulder.  Their latest album is called UFOF after all, which quite literally pairs something unidentified with something familiar; serving as the perfect metaphor for music that pairs the kinship of playing hide and seek amongst nature and the incomprehensible nature of death.

Having gradually built cred on Saddle Creek records, Big Thief are clearly ready for more world building with their bump up to 4AD. Whereas older tunes like “Sharksmile” and “Mary” felt cut from the ‘best of indie’ cloth, UFOF serves as a more whole experience. It is a thick swamp of sounds, some terrifying, others crushing, and still others purely openhearted material to wrap oneself up in.

Opener “Contact” tweaks nervously. Though Lenker begs for intimacy, the general feeling is slanted towards dread: “wrap me in silk, I want to drink your milk.” After more disturbing calls for “sinking,” and the body horror like: “she gives me gills/helps me forgive the pills,” the whole song ruptures into terror with a distant scream and impossibly raw guitar line. The title-track that follows pivots to warmth, however, with Lenker imagining a friend taking her off on some sort of emotional journey. This type of flow is par for the course here. At any moment, there’s a complex array of emotional tones and maybe you hold onto one specific affectation.

“Cattails” pairs nostalgia with swaths of a specific place, an “open window,” those plants at the side of the road, whereas “Open Desert” looks at disruptions of the home: “The white light of the living room/Leaking through the crack in the door.” And again, these songs are paired with lots of ambiguity.  The lyric: “After all my teeth are gone/after all the blood is drawn” is spoken with such delicacy that you start to feel like death is some old friend.  Not to mention the sonic details which lift this music up. Towers of piano reach here, and crunches of life bring you down into the earth there. Lenker’s nebulous, androgynous vocal approach bends into all these spaces making a their singular sound rife with life.

“Orange” is a maybe a candidate for the heart of the work. Only accompanied by guitar, it stands out, and Lenker for once doesn’t name her counterpart in the song and simply speaks to ‘her.’ Lenker explores body and flesh as well as the details of their memories: “she kneels down and holds the frozen dove/the moon drips like water from her shoulder.”  This again is what UFOF is all about–the way someone can be full to the brim with so much familiarity and yet still unknown.  Lenker thinks about this unnamed character, and though they’ve been close enough to tangle limbs, one day they will die and Lenker can never know what that will mean.

-Donovan Burtan


Rico Nasty-Anger Management: Album Review

Rico Nasty’s voice is a weapon.  Sometimes grainy and raw like a hardcore singer, elsewhere easily overpowering her instrumentals with auto-tune croons, if nothing else her discography is a testament to her ability to draw all the attention in the room in a versatile way.  If her debut album took a wide lens at this strength, Anger Management is more a focused study in rage.

The songs are short and snappy, beats apocalyptic, and rhymes almost never delivered without blood curdling intensity.  Opener “Cold” is scruffy firebrand rapping, with a mission statement chorus: “none of these bitches cold as me.” “Cheat Code” features horror movie strings and cascading rhymes, “Hatin” thrives on electric ornamentation to a more old-school sample, and “Big Titties” clinks and clanks along with buoyant features from Baauer and EarthGang.  Fully produced by Kenny Beats, who specializes in this deathly electro blend, the pair’s chemistry is impeccable.

Of course, the project isn’t entirely one note: “Sell Out” is more warmly introspective like the singing that dominated Tales of Tacobella.  Still, the hallmark of this mixtape is the carefree intensity that burns on for the first string of hits.  At 19 minutes, the mixtape tends to feel like a start of something rather than an artistic peak or the peak of an artistic era, but Rico Nasty continues to grow and hopefully this knotty music energy will continue with each new release.

-Donovan Burtan


Aldous Harding-Designer: Album Review

Aldous Harding gives you thoughts to ponder.  Like the splatter-paint way she tosses vocal melodies in different colors onto her canvass of small instrumental devices, she throws out lyrical ideas that the listener must then piece together.  Designer is a vaguely evocative world that maybe could fade into the background on first listen, at least outside of some of the catchy numbers, but rewards deeper reflection on what it all means.

Sure, Harding leans into absurdity on occasion.  One song opens with the question “what am I doing in Dubai,” and closer “Pilot” as a whole can be particularly incomprehensible: “I wish it was white/But it needs blood for the new erection.”  Aside from these lyrics that rupture, however, certain ideas seep into her language throughout the work.

One recurring focal point is the idea of childhood perspective and how that creates tension with jaded adulthood.  Single “The Barrel” features a character who essentially knows how the magic trick works and is not interested in seeing it, but Harding speaks constantly about finding that childlike awe again.  “Do not lose your youthful eyes” she instructs on the title track and elsewhere depicts a literal conversation with her younger self: “I took my inner child to a show/he talked all the way home.”

This then relates to a larger theme of temporality–though with time we grow and change, we are constantly in conversation with different versions of ourselves. The simple contrast of the title “Fixture Picture,” for instance, sees the tension of a moment in your life and a person tangled with you more long term.  In it she plans a meet-up with a friend who’s moved on for now: “And how’s the wine where you live? Bet it’s expensive/One day we’ll share a glass together.”  Though the tune begins with a ending of sorts (“As the memory kisses you goodbye”), the moment is never truly gone; whether a person’s memory remains a part of us or we actually manage to reconnect, the people we interact with remain a part of our life.

Tunes like “Weight of the Planets” and “Heaven is Empty” look at the big questions of time, growing up, and death with a more confounded or terrified glance, but the overall effect of the album is rather playful.  Harding’s videos for this album have gotten a lot of traction, and though they can look rather daunting with their specific color patterns and angular motions, they also give you an out with their sense of humor–a perfect metaphor for a provocative work that also doesn’t seek to get you down.

-Donovan Burtan


Beyoncé-Homecoming: Album Review

It’s easy to make a case for Homecoming as the peak musical moment of the decade. Like other decade highlights such as A Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or To Pimp a Butterfly, and of course Beyoncé’s own Lemonade; Homecoming is a visual-oriented experience with that leans towards high concepts and narratives. But perhaps a bit more than these others, it avoids leaning on its concept too heavily and feeling very tied to this decade.

It presents Beyoncé as the heady auter that the 2010’s pop star was intended to be, but it also presents her as the classic pop system virtuoso of dance and performance, where little is needed outside feeling awestruck by the pure spectacle.  It is the best Coachella performance ever, in a time when the festival is more regulated than ever. This pyramid-stage remixing of her whole discography is perhaps the most flawless run of Beyoncé songs in a row that you can take home and listen to, with a vocal performance so transcendent that it sounds super human.

Aside from the constant stream of sheerly impressive performance, the impeccable planning makes the energy feel like one big climb.  The horn entry of “Crazy in Love” should make anyone making music today green with envy, but you can kind of hear how Beyoncé paces herself a bit.  She doesn’t coast through by any means, but she remains a bit constrained in the verses and the chorus is cushioned by her backup singers.  There’s also a dance break and a half-speed break down following the first chorus.  This way when she sings the absolute piss out of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” or closer “Love on Top;” or starts the quick, undeniable run through “Hold Up,” “Countdown,” and “Check On It” before diving into “Deja Vu,” it subtly hits a bit harder.

The arrangements are also intricate and mostly pretty damn huge, but they don’t become supremely over-the-top or over produced, so it can feel like a balm listening at home, which is kind of what’s compelling about the combination of this album release and the Netflix film to accompany.  Aside from actually being there, the peak experience is watching it all happen with your living room TV turned way up.  But somehow, the album offers something a bit different.  In headphones, you can bear witness to the ways her horns punch into “Drunk in Love” to prop up the chorus without overpowering Beyoncé; the intricacy with which stepping and clapping pulls us into that glassy “Diva” sample; and the way “Single Ladies” effortlessly interpolates a phat New Orleans parade break down without missing a beat. This is capped off by a bonus track, Beyoncé’s rendition of classic “Before I Let Go,” which expertly meshes her modern sensibilities with that undeniable classic horn line.

It might be a bit harder to pin an exact instant to it, as her most dedicated fans already streamed it live in full and now, though freshly mixed and mastered, it doesn’t have the surprise, sudden impact that her two big secret album drops of the 2010’s had. However, Beyoncé has built an astounding live track record and with the addition of documentary footage to illuminate the insane preparation between her giving birth and return to performing, this document illuminates the ferocity with which Beyoncé created this victory lap.

Beyoncé also tends to have a bit of a wall between her and her audience. Sure, she’s penned lyrics referencing their theories, but she doesn’t do interviews anymore, and pretty obsessively controls the narrative around her, but here that is shed to an extent.  She quite literally thanks her Beyhive on stage, and with the accompaniment film seemingly involves us in her personal life.  Of course, the whole experience is directed at the black community and black women in particular, but it also feels like a personal note to anyone who wants to listen.  Perhaps that what the 2010’s were all about.  It was a time period where specific identities (queer, black, queer and black) that may not have been previously accepted in mainstream culture were directly addressed by the people who experience them and more than any of them, Beyoncé transcended this and felt vital to all.

-Donovan Burtan


Billie Eilish-When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Album Review

Pop music when it’s good tends to make us feel like its auter is being unabashedly themselves. Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream feels like Perry being capital K Katy for all of its unabashed feminine glory, but Perry’s stumbles stem from moments that feel oppressively Katy.  Katy is loud, she is endearingly too much, on the nose in her hope.

This works with a cheery hot pink ode to California, but when you’re singing a Dolly Parton song next to Kacey Musgraves at the grammys, it’s easy to over do it. Sure, “Firework” is pretty algorithmically designed for the fourth of July, but it soars, which is mildly less true of something like “Roar,” another tune that takes one thing that is loud and louds about it.

Billie Eilish feels like she’s too much Billie right now. Her album is over stuffed with unnecessary and annoying flourishes. From the jump, she takes out her invisalign braces and laughs maniacally, later their will be a “duh” to punctuate a song section—she’ll sing along to her bass line then laugh off how dumb it is and unabashadly sing the following near-sighted lyric: “I just kinda wish you were gay…To give your lack of interest an explanation/Don’t say I’m not your type/Just say that I’m not your preferred sexual orientation.”  Though part of her brand is “I don’t care but also REALLY care,” and these self deprecating ruptures in the album experience accentuate that, they also place it as childish and carnivalesque.

This translates to whole songs as well.  An “Oh So Quiet”-core fake-jazz redux about Xanax sounds like a ostentatiously weirdo pop answer to the most surface level trap music of the day; and the baby voice+ukelele answer falls somewhere between the emoji movie and the whole “baby shark” situation.  Admittedly, it could be a bias problem. Her music comes across as if Eilish is the chesire cat in a Tim Burton film and maybe if I was a film critic, I would be the one who doesn’t like Burton.

I can see how there is a place for that, and the ways in which Eilish could be considered radical.  Especially considering the usual slant towards pristine femininity that women in pop music usually must embody.  Some of the best material stems from her subversion of this box.  Opener “bad guy” skews Eilish, her gender, and her demons into a smoldering pummel, and a tune like “bury a friend” with its zombie-like vocal delivery sound disturbingly chill.

But for now, I feel like the childish aspects tend to limit her scope and date her rather specifically to today.  The predecessors and audience are very obvious, and though Billie Eilish is great at being uniquely herself, I’d like to see how she matures to offer something a little less sarcastic and blatty.

-Donovan Burtan



Priests-The Seduction of Kansas: Album Review

Unfortunately, some of my reservations with the title track to this album do expand their reach to much of the material here.  At 43 minutes in length, the work almost feels like the band literally stretched out their songs.  Rather than punchy, quick tempos, the band is burning slowly, leaving lead singer Katie Alice Greer out in more open spaces, which can lead to humdrum lyrical moments.

Though some of the classic Priests lyrics like “And Munayyer says Netanyahu’s actually the best thing” and “consider the options of a binary” aren’t exactly evasive and artsy, in their context they feel like important calling cards, here the effect is a bit more corrosive with lines like “it’s your movie that you wrote, starred, and directed in/I may be your muse but I’m necessary” or “No agency or complexity/Not a single feelin’ inside of me” feeling overly on the nose in the more spacey musical territories.

There’s also entire songs that honestly feel kind of cruel.  Titled in reference to a book essentially about how Fox News made Middle America the main audience of the right wing, the album sometimes seems to rear its teeth at the people themselves rather than the huge conglomerates misguiding them. Yes, Youtube is probably the most toxic version of discourse to ever exist, but “Youtube Sartre” points its knife at the libertarians arguing for apathy more than the platform itself, which is more worried about regulating queer content than hate speech.

Of course, not all of these moves are really new; the title track of their last album was also slow and quiet, but its emotional openness made it feel more like a ballad than anything else.  Here, their snarly jabs at dumb Americanisms never really stop and the spotlight doesn’t ever seem to be on the interior of the band.  There are exceptions–“Jesus’s Son” and “Good Time Charlie” fly by and feel more lyrically nuanced and less cruel, but the album feels like a band between their punk roots and a larger rock storytelling ambitions.  I think they’ll figure out how to do their thing in a new way, but it doesn’t quite feel comfortable yet.

-Donovan Burtan


Billy Woods and Kenny Segal-Hiding Places: Album Review

Ranking Billy Woods projects, at least in recent years between the likes of Paraffin and Known Unknowns, is kind of impossible. His flow is so singular, sonic environment so vivid and rich, that each moment feels carved out of the same holy stone. Hiding Places is fueled by some of the same anxieties of his past work, speaking about gentrification and the livelihood of the poor, the kinds of societal limits that keep economic mobility at bay, classes and races segregated, and bad habits going.  It’s a perfectly balmy listen that may not get stuck in your head, but will keep you coming back.

“You’ll never get no answers/not for the stuff that keeps you up” he spoke on Known Unknowns in 2017, and here, there’s other forms of stagnation amongst daily struggle—in one particular passage he talks about how poor people don’t exactly get their mail forwarded to them because they can’t pay their bills, a song is punctuated by the ATM voice telling you that there’s only $10.22 in your account, these types of things prevent growth. Then there’s lyrics about how tough it is to bridge the gap between this reality and those who might legitimately be able to afford tickets to see Nas play with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall: “no man of the people, I wouldn’t be caught dead with most of y’all.”

Still, his rhymes are typically a bit difficult to unite to one single theme. There’s a line about the emotional lifting of depression; one that showcases the ways in which Woods’ community is forced to eat itself: “tape ain’t even out yet how the hell’d they get a copy;” and another that uses the image of tugging on a joy stick when you don’t have money to speak about an unprivileged life: “life is like a couple of quarters you either have them or you don’t.”

Like the way his rhythmic delivery spills over bar lines and wavers between exacting and loose, his words spill over themselves, ideas constantly developing. Turning on his work is like hopping on a treadmill that’s already moving—you gotta just get right up to speed. “Mosh through the orchestral pit” opens the work, and then his stream of consciousness is off.  The lyric: “too scared to write the book, took it, put in the hook of a song, no one listened to it” showcases his borderline word association methods were each line blooms into new space—it’s MF Doom in its rhyme scheme and spoken word in its imagery.

The metaphor breaks down a bit when you think about the moments after that initial jolt of needing to get up to speed with the treadmill as Woods maintains surprises with each footfall no matter how many times you listen. You cannot know all the words to a Woods verse. You cannot remember the conclusions you drew the last time, there is only forwards on his timeline.  Now, Kenny Beats does give certain hallmarks to the album. There’s little guitar licks here, a disembodied voice there. Like Earl Sweatshirt’s hypnotic loops, there’s a raw darkness and a perfect chemistry between production and vocals, but it’s to be expected.  Woods’ treadmill is always going; approaching it is all on you.

-Donovan Burtan


Weyes Blood-Titanic Rising: Album Review

Natalie Merling has previously built a world out of beautiful pillows as Weyes Blood, but her latest effort is more plush than ever. Evoking the cosmos in more than just lyrics, Titanic Rising is a monolith of galactic electronic tones, flourishing Philip Glass strings, and occasionally bellowing vocals. Though Merling’s voice can still be a little bit one note, her emotional senses are more eclectic than ever giving the listener doses of hope, and heart wrench; humor and irony in equal doses. It’s not so much packed with singable hooks and melodies, but these slow burning lamentations encapsulate the puzzles of life and love, and finding yourself in there somewhere.

To a degree, Merling plays the role of the hopeless romantic. Single “Everyday” strikes this rather directly with lines like “true love is making a comeback” and a chorus reading “I need love everyday,” but she’s also hopelessly devoted to giant cultural items–“Movies” frames her as a sucker who can’t resist a good blockbuster–and enamored with the world–“Wild Time” offers a somber answer to “Oh, What a World.”

She’ll add in a dose of existentialism for “Andromeda,” which sings to an empty galaxy, full of nothing to peak her romantic interest. Then on “Mirror Forever,” the concept of empathy creeps in through the lens of a break-up. Noting that no one can ever fully grasp your emotional experience, Merling still accepts that her experience has led to a place where she needs to move on and leave someone behind in the process.

If “Will I ever be satisfied by a partner?” is the connective thread, “what does that mean about connection?” is next on the docket, and “maybe not knowing is ok” is the final conclusion. Or A final conclusion as Merling also sends us off with “Picture Me Better,” which yearns for a world where she isn’t so stunted by these questions and able to just breathe.

The grappling nature of the album is achieved rather effortlessly, however, which makes it digestible and even fun. These may be brooding ideas but they aren’t brooding tunes as the listener is enveloped delicately and openly. Titanic Rising puts Merling in league with the likes of Fiona Apple and Mitski who find the depths of life’s meaning through nuanced exploration of interpersonal relations.  And like those two auters, she comes across as the conversationalist–a philosopher your can see yourself in.

-Donovan Burtan