American Football-American Football (LP3): Album Review

If the original American Football record was all about capturing a moment–graduation, the end of an era, a relationship–their latest moment is something new—the marathon of adulthood, where one falls on old habits, some inherited, and the effects the grindstone of aging has on those around us–a reflection of the band’s current epoch and, well, age group.  With a twinkling, and beautiful new sound, the band matches this new reality. Though not their first comeback record, it is the one we will remember, one that honors who they are while providing a new perspective on all the things that make them great.

So what’s the core of the band? There’s the occasional trumpet, the mathy landscapes, lead singer Mike Kinsella’s soft almost-tenor vocals—formerly reaching towards notes they couldn’t hit to expertly nail the aspirational tone of youth and now perhaps reaching backwards, towards one’s younger years—and the band’s moody tones which parse the difference between the somber nature of minor and the satisfaction of major.

On that basis, this is an American Football record, but the main innovation here is in the studio polish. These songs achieve a glacial thickness with all sorts of bells and whistles. Whether it be a huge slew of vocal tracking—especially true on the features—a rogue xylophone set, or some welcome slowdive-esque guitar sounds—the band is not settling down by any means.  Now when a major chord comes in, it comes in crashing, and the moody jam sessions of tunes like “Every Wave to Ever Rise” or “Doom in Full Bloom” gradually become colossal in a way they never could have before.  It’s not necessarily apocalyptic, rather fleshed out about as extensively as possible without becoming over-produced.  Sure, some will miss the scrappiness of yesteryear, but American Football has always taken a tasteful dose from both Emo’s scrappy origins and ambient and shoegaze’s pristine textures, and this accomplishes just that.

The running lyrical themes also equally honor the band and look to the future.  Of course there’s talk of lovers, the realization that someone was never meant for you, the classic falling out of phase moments, but there’s much more speak of time and aging, creating a new type of introspection.

Rather than awkward 20-something lack of experience (see: “Goodbye with a handshake, Or an embrace, Or a kiss on the cheek…possibly all three” or: I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional), here Kinsella wonders constantly about the relationship between his actions and his father’s. Most directly with the lyric “I blamed my father in my youth/Now I blame the booze,” but then there’s the utterly fascinating incorporation of a children’s choir on Heir Apparent where the lyric “Heir apparent to the throne/the king of all alone” fades into the mix over time.  With lyrics addressed to his father and children sort of in the background, the band poses questions about how our individuality interacts with our upbringing.

This is a true masterclass in wearing “20 years since our break-out” as well as “complete make-over” on one’s sleeve.  American Football know who they are, but they are certainly not done with us yet.

-Donovan Burtan

8.5/10

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Nilüfer Yanya-Miss Universe: Album Review

Admittedly Nilüfer Yanya isn’t offering a completely new perspective on musical texture or what a song can do, but Miss Universe does more than simply pass the test for “singer-songwriter given a bit of a budget for their real debut.” With Yanya herself offering a bunch of goofy interludes to narrate her speak of self worth and its intersection with validation from others, the album offers a unique glance at its auter. Unpredictable, wirey melodies, build and caressing alongside synths, guitars, and horns that draw on everyone from Aaliyah to Blink-182. It’s sure to be relatable to anyone familiar with those musical references as well as those plunging into the depth of the teenage years today.

“In Your Head” certainly acts as a bit of a thesis. In it Yanya tells a potential love interest that she cannot act until she hears an exact description of how they feel.  Though she doesn’t play this manic type of character throughout, the songs paint a vivid inner dialogue about the growing pains inherent to that time where you have to figure yourself out as much as those who interest you.

“Safety Net” might just be the heart of the record where Yanya seems to find the upper hand in a battle of whether or not she deserves more out of a partner: “I’m not trying to be someone/I’m not/So stop trying to be someone.”. It’s undercut by her self doubt “I’ll find nothing instead/because I’m not good looking,” but that tug and pull between doubt and worth represents the tension between the moment you realize you have to leave and the moment you actually do it.

Closer “Heavyweight Champion of the World” also explores the tension as Yanya pleads for herself to realize that the one she’s chasing will never truly commit. Then there’s tunes like “Heat Rises,” which more metaphorically address anxiety or “Melt” which more devilshly wish for another’s pain.

These songs are well accomplished sonically, though I can’t help but feeling like there’s a little bit to be desired in terms of singularity. Not quite, but if you ignore some of the musical flourishes, sax solos, there’s an inclining of “this product was manufactured to please indie rock and R&B markets,” whereas something SZA’s Ctrl more endearingly combined the two. But overall, Miss Universe is a worthy debut from someone with potential to speak to a generation.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

Booker Stardrum-Temporary Etc: Album Review

This came out in October, so I recognize that I am absurdly late to the party, but I really like it so here’s my thoughts.

Temporary Etc. is one of the better examples of sensory percussion as a base for songwriting out there.  Though drum textures always feel like the main focus, throughout the album, the feeling is one of lushness and one of movement.  It’s an immersive listen that’s not directionless, a rare feat for an admittedly limiting instrument for a solo artist.

For one, Stardrum is willing to let other instrumentalists into his world.  The opening sees big shields of sound mass get blown out by background trumpet noise from Jaimie Branch as Stardrum’s drum textures gradually take over. “Swimming” gets a healthy crunch via John Dieterich’s stringed bass and guitar, whereas “A Passage or Time in a Hanging Truth” is one of the most time-bending moments on the album as almost anything percussive is replaced with gnawing clouds of saxophone and a stochastic final flourish of bells.

Even at his state of relative auto-pilot (i.e. the chaotic exercises of the “Drim-Dram” tracks), he manages a dense, and immersive experience, but the assists help the record never be too one note.

Stardrum also rarely sits around in one texture as time goes by, rather the work finds constant propulsion through its eclectic mix of song forms.  “Five Finger Cloud” is initially built on a rotating drum pattern, but then clouds of white noise gradually hover overhead, and the drum pattern is placed through a filter that makes it sound underwater.  It comes crashing back, of course, but by then a saxophone has arrived for a tense solo.

“Trash Island” parses the difference between noise and ambiance as the opening clashes of sound eventually pull back the curtain on a bed of comfort, before coming back later on to again provide tension.  Not only is the piece never static, it also develops unpredictably, never simply settling for a straightforward build.

Stardrum’s first EP showed a lot of promise and the LP is a massive exercise in fleshing out the artist’s sensibilities.  It’s a great piece and indicates greater potential for even more expansion in the future.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

CHAI-Punk Album Review

If Kawaii is a reductive stereotype for Asian Women and certain strains of Japanese culture, Chai give it to the listener with a punch in the mouth for good measure.  These songs oftentimes feature uber-bright melodic frills that could maybe sneak their way into advertisements, but at the end of the ride, Punk amounts to a raucous and intense experience.  Here, cuteness gets chopped up with near-Pere Ubu level avant-freak outs and Kawaii aesthetics are fashioned into a weapon.

Though for me, the album is essentially a sonic affair–I don’t read Japanese and their website doesn’t offer a full translation at the moment–the lyrics don’t just present cute ideas that are then subverted by the aggressive sonic material.  Rather, the band has completely re-tinkered Kawaii to be an inclusive and more wholesome word.  In Chai’s world, a rigid system of gender presentation and beauty standards is replaced with being yourself–freak-outs and all, blemishes included.  As described by Nina Corcoran for NPR, the opening lyrics are “about the importance of not letting anything hold you back in life” whereas another tune “shuns westernized hair products” and another “positions self-acceptance as a form of rebellion.”

If the lyrics reflect a multifaceted vision for self-love, the songwriting does so too.  In the first three tracks alone, there’s a power-pop opening track, followed by the more dance-like jump to track two, then the quasi-Kero Kero violent encouragement to “I’m Me.”  There’s a wide range of terraine there, and even within these tracks there’s plenty of room to grow. “Great Job” transitions from dance to anthemic missile vocals after the rhythm comes crashing to a halt.

There’s limits to the width of it.  Though these first three tracks offer a wild ride, it’s hard to say that all ten really do.  Will Punk be a document that changes music or literally ends Kawaii, probably not.  However, Chai offer a world all their own while subverting aspects of ours all the way through.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

Yves Jarvis-The Same But By Different Means: Album Review

Though I mentioned in my “looking ahead” post about this album that Jean-Sebastian Audet is “Re-branding to abstract soul,” this album constitutes less of a re-brand to a specific genre, and more of one to an urban explorer.  On The Same But By Different Means, Audet sketches out gospelly organ ditties, folky singer-songwriter moments, and technology-driven electronic affections.  If in the past, as Un Blonde, the singer maybe excelled at creating pleasant sounds, but failed to change it up enough, here he’s addressed that problem head-on and made a slippery work that’s constantly evolving into new lanes.  Still, there’s limits here as few of these two-minute jaunts get really drilled into your brain, but Audet is on the right path to crafting his own world and I think we should all be excited to hear more.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

duendita-direct line to my creator: Album Review

Considering that this intimate work was made for an assignment it almost feels invasive to open it up to the court of public opinion, but duendita immediately establishes her ability to sound homespun, yet warm; alone, yet relatable.  The work feels like an old friend showing you around their new apartment.  It bears all sorts of blemishes, whether it be a texture of a field-recording, or a distancing effect on the instrumentals–on “Blue Hands,” for instance, the vocals are clear-as-day, yet the guitar sounds lo-fi and distant–resulting in an overall conversational feel.  This perhaps makes some of the darkness of the work a bit easier to digest.  With a shout-out to women who go missing in the night  and a subtly great description of societal misogyny: “this isn’t about good men or bad men, I’m talking about a societal hatred of women,” duendita hints at her ability to take on heavier topics without ever loosing the breezy warmth of an August morning.  Though a bigger budget will likely allow the songwriter to explore more vivid terrain, this soft-spoken introduction is remarkably assured.

-Donovan Burtan

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

Little Simz-GREY Area: Album Review

Little Simz never really offers retreads, I mean look at what I just said about Boss the other day, but she doesn’t stray too far from her thematic path.  If Stillness in Wonderland was a log of the disillusionment that comes with the touring cycle and the general scummy nature of the music industry, Grey Area comes after another massive, endless tour and continues to question what it means for the rapper to be on the right path.  Luckily though, the album offers some of Little Simz’s most fierce and punchy tunes yet, giving Grey Area light and braggadocios energy here, slinky pop hooks there, and of course some of that trademark introspection.  Its a holistic representation of the rapper, perhaps her first one released as an LP, that never bogs the listener down in flexes or anxiety.

The opening trio of the work is some of the most firebrand songwriting in Simz’s catalogue.  After two bangers that basically sum up to the energy of the lyric “Jay-Z on a bad day, Shakespeare on my worst days,” with big brags and fast, hitting bars, she flips the script and offers a more sober self-critique.  Simz shows how versatile she is in this one go, which happen to be the work’s collection of singles, and then each of these moods garner more exploration as the work goes on.  Therapy carries a tone of “there’s no fixing me” as the rapper turns away from the treatment and Sherbert Sunset ponders a lover gone south, whereas 101FM remembers the old days of Simz’s crew throwing rhymes at the wall, imaging a radio show for their collection of flats.

The moods aren’t all separated though, as Simz offers more back and forth energy like that of Boss into Selfish.   Wounds talks of the darkness that can come with Simz’s community and reality, before Venom rears its head at anyone who’s ever doubted Simz due to her gender and then we’re into the bright nostalgia of 101FM.  The albums called Grey Area after all, so the tug and pull between the highest of highs and lowest of lows manufactures the weird mix that being 20-something can oftentimes yield.

Still, I think the fact that the album was wholly produced by Inflo is palpable and makes the 35 minute experience digestible.  In her Noisey profile, Simz expressed some concerns over the mixed bag of styles, but felt comfort in the fact that she just can’t be pinned down to one sound.  Though the work will toss in a big bass line, or some reggae vocal inflections via Chronixx, or a trumpet solo, the overall vision of the work is remarkably singular.  Without drowning in her own introspection or relying a little too heavily on features, Simz presents Simz, a voice that is perhaps still growing but also blissfully assured when it really needs to be.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10