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

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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

Waxahatchee-Out in the Storm ALBUM REVIEW

On her fourth effort under the Waxahatchee moniker, Katie Crutchfield howls out the truth of a relationship doomed from the start over a sharp 10 tracks. Despite a similar runtime to that of her previous works, the slightly more streamlined rock sound and hardened song structures make for a quick, digestible sound. Self-deprecation remains central as Crutchfield finds fault in herself at every corner — even though her ex seems to supply most of the toxicity. The album strikes a sense of resilience and restoration sonically, but Crutchfield’s true battle of coping with having to leave without being heard adds complexity to the triumphant tone.

-Donovan Burtan

Brockhampton-Saturation: ALBUM REVIEW

Having all just moved to Cali and made their first full-fledged statement in two weeks of vigorous recording sessions, Brockhampton look poised to take over the underground on the first installment of the “Saturation” series.  The group is an impeccable fusion of hip hop’s past and its current moment with a hybridization of pure R&B, biting bars, and all the crawl spaces between.  A similar level of eclecticism is found in the production, which incorporates plenty of bubbling distortion and a magical lushness within the generally sparse landscape.  It’s an album that seems to reach both poles in many categories while also using the chemistry and love shared by the members as a spring board to overarching cohesion.

Deep in the track-list, “BUMP” perhaps sums up the group’s emotional depth in the most concise way.  Having heard some mean stuff on “HEAT” (I’LL BREAK YOUR KNECK SO YOU CAN WATCH YOUR BACK) and blunt, dirty lines like “Anthony Hopkins I’m eatin’ it raw,” the big, angry verse that opens (“I just want that bump bump in my trunk”) gives the listener an expectation of more boisterous, crazed-eye rapping, but then the hook drastically switches it up with earnest soul singing out in open space.

The lyrics make sense of it all, by implying that the group is having fun with their youth with all these wild experiences, while also showcasing a maturity that inspires them for the future: “when this ends at least I have a reason to live.” In essence, this is what the group is all about.

Although a bit overly direct, “MILK” also serves as a mission statement type track with the relatable hook: “I gotta get better at being me.” Again, there’s a lot of self-awareness as the group speaks about the goals of young adulthood as they struggle through the ups and downs.

Besides the moments of specifying their trademark, Brockhampton adds depth to their characters with tracks dedicated to smaller pieces of life’s journey.  “BOYS” speaks a little bit about how important a group of friends can be to mental health (amongst other topics… “y’all say you got bitches but your bitches make my dick soft”), whereas “FAKE” speaks about how peers can inspire us to fall into our rut and repress certain feelings.

The hooks and studio magic add a sense of sparkle with plenty of catchy moments and small details setting the group apart from the rest of the crowd.  There’s the smooth-as-silk “keep a gold chain on my neck, fly as a jet, boy better treat me with respect” of “GOLD;” or the ice-cold “tell me what you’re waiting for” on “FACE.” The group’s melodic decisions hold as much weight as the rap brilliance: “you can’t take black folks home, your parents racist, you said they hate me, well I love them.”  Add in the funky compression on the drums and the swirls of vocal effect, and the project rounds out to innovation and talent on all fronts.

Most importantly, Brockhampton aren’t shy.  They’ll take queerness in hip-hop and rap-singing autotune head-on with an ease of execution making every move they make believable.  Watching a video is watching the misfits you want to root living life fearlessly like they’re about to change the world or something.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Tyler, the Creator-Scum Fuck Flower Boy: ALBUM REVIEW

I haven’t been keeping up with the writing but I’m working on it.

 

Tyler, the Creator’s persona has yielded an insurmountable amount of reactions since his come up as the quasi-ring leader of Odd Future. His lyrics have been gross and his sonic decisions jarring.  Some have accepted his cringe-worthy lines as artistic absurdity others have written off everything he’s ever said as vile because of the more vicious and perverse lines.At the end of the day, there’s certainly a long history of bad decisions, but a reading of his career as completely free of substance would be misled.

“Scum Fuck Flower Boy” is a culmination of Tyler’s past ideas, all placed through a lens completely him while also grown-up, mature, and more self-critical than ever.  The sprawling jazz of tunes like “Fucking Young” has been given concrete song form; the relentless energy of “Yonkers” has found a newfound lushness.  The album strikes a new chord in a way that earnest past listeners would find logical.

“Pothole” and “911/Mr. Lonely” delver the lyrical crux of the work.  On the former, Tyler speaks about a romantic relationship with an older man who buys him cars. Alongside lines about his desire but inability to lead a normal life with kids and a wife, the cars become a symbol of his closeted queerness, fame, and wealth.  Rather than going to prom with his friends, he’s famous and wealthy.  Rather than marrying a woman and starting the “normal” societal life, he’s seeing someone of a different age who buys him things.

On “Mr. Lonely,” Tyler speaks about his antics, which are deemed a cover for his underlying loneliness.  Taking into consideration the borderline existential questions that open the work (i.e. “How many cars can I buy ’til I run out of drive?/How much drive can I have ’til I run out of road?”), the theme of material meaningless and emotional disconnect finds rooting in everything Tyler says throughout.

“Garden Shed” dives a bit deeper into how being in the closet can drive his loneliness.  Then, “Boredom” follows with knee-jerk lashing out against his friends: “My friends suck, fuck ’em, I’m over ’em” amongst words about how boredom is his “new best friend.”  Again, to bring it back to the opening: “and if I die and don’t come back who’s gonna know,” Tyler feels like he can’t connect with anyone in a healthy way and desperately looks for a new material thing or artistic endeavor to fill the void—it’s a serious look at who he is.

Sonically, the work is cohesive as all hell, despite instances that hearken back to days of Tyler old (i.e “Who Dat Boi” and “I Ain’t Got Time”). This is due in part to the consistent tone color. Rather than shifts from Death Grips-ian loudness wars to sparse trumpet, the lush, classroom-orchestral backdrop is maintained as deep trap bass comes in for the fist-to-the-face moments and half spoken hooks enter elsewhere alongside jazz-induced chords and synths.

Speaking of hooks—they’re all amazing—indicative of Tyler’s commitment to solid song-form.  “I feel like glitterrrrr;” “find some time, find some time to do something;” “take me back to November.”  It sounds like he spent time crafting the catchy parts and the wordy parts of each song on the project, making for plenty of head nodding verses and shout-able choruses.

“Scum Fuck Flower Boy” certainly showcases new sides of Tyler with lyrical focus and sonic cohesion, but unlike say Childish Gambino’s work on “Awaken! My Love” it’s not an artistic reset button.  Perhaps it’s best summed up with the line “Tell these black kids they can be who they are/die your hair blue shit I’ll do it too” the direct sociological point about how black teens are only allowed to act a certain way wouldn’t have happened in 2011, but “shit I’ll do it too” is as textbook Tyler, the Creator as it gets.

-Donovan Burtan

8.5/10

Jay-Z: 4:44 ALBUM REVIEW

You’ve probably heard a little bit about the life and times of the one and only Jay-Z since that incident in the elevator a handful of years ago.  Ever since the rap statesmen’s debut “Reasonable Doubt,” he’s talked up his game with the ladies and unfortunately this continued into his relationship with Beyoncé which of course inspired the earth-shattering Lemonade last year.  4:44 features Jay talking openly about all of it and more, even reaching back to the unhealthy start of the pair’s relationship.

Recorded seemingly within a stretch of a couple weeks leading into its release date—those Al Sharpton selfies that he references happened less than 2 weeks prior—the album is simple.  No I.D. throws together a reliable collection of soul-sampling beats and Jay raps his ass off for a quick 37 minutes, yielding an impeccable change of pace from the not-so-effortless blemish of an album Magna Carta Holy Grail.  Jay is a man with endless resources and to hear him just stick to his roots makes for a fantastic late-career highlight in a career full of victory.

The heart of the album lies in the title track—the fifth song in the track-listing.  Jay supposedly woke up in the middle of the night and wrote out everything he needed to say to his wife and he really holds nothing back.  Beyond divulging the threats he’s posed to his family and kids with his antics: “I apologize, often womanize,” Jay even dives into his immature mistakes throughout the relationship: “I said ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ instead of ‘Be mine’/That was my proposal for us to go steady/That was your 21st birthday/You matured faster than me, I wasn’t ready.”

This is Jay-Z at his most mature and raw and real, there are no excuses, no half assed apologies, Jay takes a step back and admits the problems he’s caused and promises to make a change for the future.  With the sample “Never gonna treat you like I should” from Hannah Williams sharply looming in the background, the track is truly a big emotional moment.

Surrounding the centerpiece are the album’s best standout tracks.  In the four slot, Jay talks about seeing through the fakeness into one’s eyes with a catchy-as-hell Frank Ocean chorus.  Sixth yields an empowering, forceful number with harmonized Beyoncé samples complementing Jay’s case for black people and culture being stronger together than apart.  “And old ni**as stop actin’ brand new like 2Pac ain’t have a nose ring too,” is a personal favorite line.

Following that is likely the best feature on the project from Damien Marley as Jay reclaims his territory in the rap game.  These songs aren’t necessarily as huge and radio friendly as “Empire State of Mind,” but between the killer bars and the fun hooks and sampling, they’re just as addicting.

Besides the string of killer tracks, Jay remains reliably solid.  “Smile” talks up the life of Jay’s mom, who had kids living as a closeted lesbian.  Again, Jay is divulging parts of his life that I don’t think he necessarily would’ve in the past, making for a deep emotional work.  “The Story of OJ” talks about how no matter the circumstances black people in the United States, they’re still not treated equally: “Rich ni**a, poor ni**a, house ni**a, field ni**a/Still ni**a.” “Legacy” serves as a great send of as well, with Jay-Z talking about how he wants to combat the gatekeepers by setting his kids up with money to support their dreams.  I’ve found myself singing back some of the choruses of the hits from the middle of the album, but the warm soul sound of the more laid back tracks, makes for a rewarding front to back experience.

Here and there Jay does show his age in a bad way: “That’s like sayin’ I’m the tallest midget/Wait, that ain’t politically correct.” Jokes about political correctness aren’t my cup of tea and this just feels a bit unnecessary.  Also, the chorus of “Moonlight” is a bit puzzling. “We stuck in La La Land/Even when we win, we gon’ lose” is a great start and commentary about how even when black greatness occurs, something gets messed up in the reward process, but then he talks about the younger generation of rappers: “Y’all got the same fuckin’ flows/I don’t know who is who.” The proximity between the monotony of the whiteness of reward shows and the monotony of triplet flow runs a bit too close to comparison, especially for the guy who just said “nobody wins when the family feuds.”

Besides a few luke-warm lyrical moments, however, the album remains truly fantastic.  Jay-Z never lost his ability to rap—obviously—but this is the most raw he’s felt in a while.  It’s great to see an artist a bit past his prime still laying it all out on the line.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Kara-Lis Coverdale-Grafts: Album Review

Montrealer Kara-Lis Coverdale has an impeccable ear for ambient music and sound composition.  At 22-minutes, “Grafts” is one of her more condensed projects and although works like “A-480” and “Aftertouches” certainly offer blissful sublimity from beginning to end, “Grafts” is certainly her most no-moment-wasted work to date.  Housing three different designs—“2C,” “Fluttering,” and “Moments in Love”—the work has just enough time to develop each idea to its fullest extent before the next idea gradually gels into place over the course of a one or two minute transition period.  The road map is logical and Coverdale’s unbelievable melodic sense nails the execution.

“2C” opens with a church-like aura.  The droney, keyboard undertones have the clicking of the keys sound of an old organ as more unclear source material plays around with a simple melodic loop in the high-range atop a lush pillow of sound. Coverdale has some pauses in the beginning phrases to immediately develop the sonic environment.  Eventually, less predictable plucks of melodic sound play around as the first melodic source finds a groove-like state pulsing between two or three notes with swaths of harp-like sound adding more ambiance.

“Fluttering” maintains some of the undertones, but also builds a circular storm of melodic ideas above the slightly less brooding pillow of backgrounds. There’s the crystals of big pulsing sound; the fluttering textures of electronics; and again harp-like rotating—it’s a bit more top-heavy than the first piece and more short lived but it’s within the same sphere for sure.

The final section is a more typical aquatic, ambient environment with a grace of the church-like hum of the beginning of the album.  There’s a slowly arching keyboard sound in a relentlessly subdued space.  The detailing is impeccable.  For instance, there’s an audible shift in white noise around the start of each background loop—almost as if the room noise changes.  Also, the piece finds a bit of tension in a super soft, pulsing industrial sound that remains hidden in the background.  As opposed to the second piece playing with the balance of for and background, this one brings everything down and forces the listener to find tiny details within the mix.

The project finds a certain singularity.  Restarting “Grafts” at the end is logical, as if the spirit of the initial melodic idea was beneath the surface the whole time.  Part of this cohesion comes from the brilliant transition moments as the formal sections of the piece come to a close. Around 6:22, “Fluttering” offers its first sentiments before the slightly more formal 8-minute time slot. Coverdale begins to run the whole groove-state of the first section of the piece through a fade out and eventually through a high-pass (?) filter as spastic flutters of harp and electronic noise play around in the foreground.

Here, there’s a complete stop in movement around 7:54, but in the case of “Moments in Love,” the transition is even less pronounced. It almost feels like the high-melodies of “Flutter” fade out for 3 or 4 minutes and at around 12:30, the final wandering melodic idea begins to take shape.  Both of these transition point make the project ridiculously cohesive, while also turning into a slightly new direction.

Coverdale is certainly a fresh voice in ambient music. There’s traditional aesthetics in the mix, but she looks forward with a particularly lively approach to musical phrase and instrumental mixing. A return to a more “full-length” format is likely and she’s sure to amaze, but these 22 minutes are nearly flawless and impossible to put down.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10