Parlor Walls-Opposites: Album Review

Armed with konked-out free jazz saxophone and no-wave punk sensibilities, Parlor Walls paint an emotionless, futuristic void to speak about modern mundanities, societal constructs, and relationship tensions.  Self-described trash-jazz musicians, the walls pit Alyse Lamb’s raucous vocal deliveries and scrapping guitar musings against Kate Mohanty’s screeching horn over open-faced drum grooves from Chris Mulligan in a number of different aesthetic realms.  Crime Engine Failure opens with a straightforward distorted landscape, but tunes like Me Me My and Cover Me jump into a more industrial realm, leaving the tumultuous jam session Teach Me Where to Roam out in left field as an outlier.  At this point in time, the lines between free jazz horns and punk-induced yelps have been drawn before, but Mohanty’s lyrics leave room for interpretation and the dynamic songwriting approach makes for a riveting experience.

The lyrics on the project certainly require a bit of interpretation, but Lamb’s way with words makes her lines particularly unique and enticing.  Crime Engine Failure opens with passing remarks: “cut it into little watches/I got the script you hear my voices/running images across the screen/scan for the one’s dear to me.”  The idea of running images across a screen is decently discernable as something to do with technology—Instagram?—and the script implies something rehearsed, whereas the last line touches upon emotional meaning.  I sort of draw this together as the faux-emotions of the internet where you almost have a script of things to do in order to convince your friends that you still care.  The chorus bursts out with “but you pulled the chord right out of me and now I don’t know how to call out,” which again touches upon technology as Lamb doesn’t know what to do when she’s unplugged.

Other areas on the album allude to various figures in Lamb’s life.  Play Opposites seems to be about gender, particularly when one’s parents feel as though their children didn’t turn out as expected: “Is this what you wanted mother/empty shells to fill your hole.”  The “play opposites” tag refers to some sort of binary, perhaps a childhood game in which brother and sister play opposite.

With pounding 7/8 in full swing throughout, Hesitation creates a particularly violent atmosphere for a dystopian take on having feelings for someone: “crawl through your infatuation/can you say my name.”  With a chorus about tearing down the walls between each other that gets delivered in complete anarchy: “welcome through I’ll leave my light on/rearrange my shade/we can imagine partition/see it fall away.”  The mood of the tracks is always reflected in Lamb’s words and although the line “burn it to the ground” seems to be rather all-encompassing for the record, there’s a great deal of variety throughout.

Sonically, the group is grounded in a certain aesthetic, but the subtle changes at the beginning of each track make for a new context for their improvisatory gestures.  On Teach Me Where to Roam, the cacophonous drums make for a particularly bleak environment.  Mohanty’s smoldering saxophone lines add to the haunting moodiness, trading ideas with the lofty guitar melodies.  Cover Me is even more daring in its improvisation as Mohanty’s manipulated saxophone unleashes idiosyncratic lines throughout, to match the brooding, looped electronic bass sound.

The instrumental, Carstairs, is brought to a much more mellow sound space with glistening, textured electronics.  Of course, Mohanty carries the track into a slightly more anxious place with her melodic climaxes, but it’s interesting to hear a bit more of a barren landscape for their gushing energy than the usual heavy riffs.

Opposites showcases a punk band that’s primed and ready to wreak havoc on DIY spaces all over the continent.  Parlor Walls certainly pay homage to the no wave era, but their integration of improvisation into the punk idiom is pristine and Alyse Lamb’s poetic lyrics inspire deep listening and contemplation.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Molly Burch-Please Be Mine: Album Review

On Please Be Mine, Molly Burch showcases her prowess as a frontwoman with simply crafted songs that rely heavily on her charismatic delivery and expressive inflections for success.  There’s sort of an element that Burch never sings the same thing twice on the album.  When a song has two repetitions of the chorus, Burch finds a way to make each one more convincing.  Each song follows a loose, love-song classification, but Burch and her band make each moment shine with their ear for riveting detail.  From the occasional moody modal jazz chord, to the distant sonic sparks and the impressive, yet coy guitar solos, Please Be Mine lifts folk tunes to soaring heights.

The album is certainly a bit monochromatic in terms of lyrics.  Downhearted paints a picture of a person who hasn’t quite come around: “I could be your dream girl/your whole world/if you let me,” then Wrong For You talks about loving the wrong person “you said I was the only one, but I know you say that to all the girls.”  Some other highlights include Loneliest Heart’s gloomy take on the changes we go through in our time alone and Not Today’s sorrowful, nostalgic glance at past relationship’s demise.  Overall, Burch isn’t really breaking any rules with these subject matters, but the sonic material makes things meaningful and she also sticks in some particularly biting lines on occasion: “you say my name it feels like fire.”

Burch’s singing shines on every track.  Again, it’s not necessarily that she uses any flashy material, but she adds so much expression into the mix with dynamics and rhythmic deviations.  On Try—for instance—Burch merely breathes the vocal melodies for much of the track, but then she barks out “I’m your little baby, your little baby PET” to contrast the slow, sweeping instrumental backdrop—it calls attention to itself immediately and shows that Burch has really got the audience by the throat.

Fool, on the other hand, is a prime example of Burch digging in deeper with each repetition of the chorus.  Burch first has this addicting pre-chorus with this big interval jump on “ha-RD,” then the chorus is a bit more anthemic.  First time around, Burch doesn’t too much other than sing out the melody, but during the second verse she plays around with the rhythm much more and just before the chorus she barks out another jolting line “you were not ni-ah-ICE” to kick off her belting reinterpretation of the refrain.

This track is also a good example of the other little sonic details that help along Burch’s expressive gestures.  The chorus has this cool call-and-response with the splashing backing vocals on ahh.  Also, the distant guitar solo compounds the sense of detachment.

The record’s treatment of piano is also particularly stellar throughout.  For Fool, it plays these pressing chords that are only fully realized at the climaxes of the tune.  With Loneliest Heart, there’s these tiny staccato plucks deep in the mix that add a lot of movement to the lethargic tempo.

Burch still needs to develop a little bit as a songwriter.  On later projects, it would be nice to hear other introspective topics or perhaps some sort of storyline, but Please Be Mine is a worthy collection of songs that show just how much of a presence Burch must have in the studio.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

 

Nikki Lane-Highway Queen: Album Review

With a song called 700,000 Rednecks and lyrics about “muddy waters” and “viva las vegas,” Nikki Lane truly wears country on her sleeve.  At the same time, her mellow voice and moody band sound don’t necessarily pander to the commercial country crowd.  Highway Queen comes across as a log of Lane’s young adulthood.  First, we get a confident lone wolf, but then, Lane beats herself up for depending on her love interest and by the end she’s heartbroken over the break-up.  It’s not entirely a concept album or a break-up album as some of the tracks are a bit off-topic, but Lane delivers earnest, heart-wrenching material between raucous fun, while also placing country within reach of the modern indie rock crowd.

The record opens on dramatic ambience and suddenly Lane comes in and yelps off a “yippie ki yay” that echoes off into the canyon as her methodical guitar lick gets going.  There’s a lot of ways that the “yippie ki yay” strategy can go wrong, but right after we’ve jumped into a well-mixed bluesy sound space with Lane’s smoldering vocals surrounded by acoustic and electric guitars, the occasional rip-roaring solo and some distant, vintage backing vocals—the goofiness overstay it’s welcome so to speak.

This tune is a fun start to the record that talks about all the people you got to get through to get to the top, but Highway Queen follows with a bit of a dive into Lane’s psyche.  Opening with some soaring slide guitar and pulsing bass, the tune is clearly a travelin’ song and the lyrics speak about a woman who doesn’t stick around for too long and never falls into a dependent relationship with a significant other.  This tune is probably about Lane herself to some degree, but—considering the love songs that come later—it also comes across as an ideal that Lane was striving for at one point or another, which sort of becomes a reoccurring songwriting strategy.  Lane often talks about topics vicariously through other characters making the record simultaneously dynamic and focused.

On Lay You Down, for instance, Lane takes on the underlying anxieties that the lone wolf experiences by discussing the death of a man around town.  We start with him venturing off alone, but his story takes a turn for the worse and Lane paints a depressing portrait of dying alone: “Who’s gonna lay you down tonight?/Put aside the fear and the pain/And hold your hand while you die.”  Lane’s voice on this one is particularly striking.  The chorus is in that slightly strained high range, so you hear her inner fears dripping out of her.  Also, the guitar solo reaches symphonic heights with big tom movements from the drummer and a chorus of Lane’s offering “oohs.”

Next in the story is a fun gambling tune, but Lane also uses it as a metaphor for dating and falling in love. It seems like the thought of dying alone has pushed her to pursue a relationship of some kind and Companion follows with a love song about the honeymoon phase.  Companion is a great example of Lane’s sonic prowess.  The sonic elements—such as plucked bass, arpeggiating guitar, and classic vocal countermelody—are panned left and right and continuously pile up making for a thick instrumental texture.

The second half of the record goes through depending too heavily on someone and dealing with distance, before delving into the end of a relationship.  Muddy Waters offers poetic self-reflection.  Lane talks about her own stubbornness and how her significant other may not have meant to harm her, but she can’t pull herself to believe him and she really rips her heart out on the final track: “And anyone could try to say we didn’t keep the vows we made/But they’d be lying/Cause we said ‘til death do us part and it was true/Cause my heart feels like it’s dying.”

Admittedly, there’s some hamfisted lyrical moments on the record.  Between those heartbreaking words on Forever Lasts Forever, we hear a bit of excessive bluntness with “Yeah, we swore for better or for worse/And it was better at first, and worse at the end.”  Also, Big Mouth is a bit high school for my tastes: “Well, I just heard a dirty secret/Should have known you couldn’t keep it/And now the shit’s done hit the fan.”  It’s also hard to say that the record offers groundbreaking artistry.  However, Lane avoids autopilot and honors the country tradition with great introspective reflection and telling your own story through the plight of others.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

Jessica Ackerley-Coalesce: Album Review

Jessica Ackerley is a Canadian-born jazz guitarist who has since relocated to New York City.  On Coalesce, she seems to have completely accomplished her goals.  To quote her liner notes: “Coalesce is an exploration of the guitar trio. The compositions have been a three-year process of honing the perfect balance between compositional form and complete free improvisation.”  It’s clear that the songs on this record are structured and planned, but the group’s flexibility is impeccable.  Melodies melt into open sections of improvisation with ease; solos flip-flop between individual focus and collective conversation effortlessly; and the group finds room to embrace space and silence between their primal noisy jam sessions making for a record that offers constant surprises and a perfect balance between not only improvisation and composition, but anticipation and stimulation.

To some degree, the final track ‘merica provides the best summary of the group’s various dynamic levels and playing spaces.  As the longest track of the collection, ‘merica builds up from near silence to a heavy final vamp, touching upon all the levels of the spectrum in between.  Ackerley opens alone with wandering guitar melody.  The line is rather simple and alters between a small handful of notes, but the delivery—especially considering the pounding heaviness of the preceding track—is quite unpredictable, drawing the listener closer for every strum.  As the presence of drummer Nick Fraser and bassist Mat Muntz grows in the middle, the group offers some great textures especially when Muntz rips squealing high notes out with his bow.  Towards the end of the track, Fraser rounds out the sound with frantic cymbal work as Ackerley lays down dramatic distorted pillars of guitar sound.

On other tracks, the group takes a variety of different approaches to song form, but focusses a bit more on specific levels of volume.  The opener, Clockwork, offers a comfortable middle ground to introduce the band.  The structure of this one is rather straight-forward as well with the group diving from main theme into a ‘solo’ section, then back to the main theme.  Again, I use the term solo rather cautiously because the forms are still rather fluid and each player seems to be constantly changing their playing style to fit wherever the melody is headed.

Minneola opens with guitar solo before jumping into a head with a bunch of different sections.  The end of the track doesn’t revert back to the beginning, rather Ackerley transitions from her solo to a vamp to give Fraser room to play around for the last couple minutes of the track.  Because the head never comes back in full, the track has a highly improvised sensibility.

Snakes in the Grass is perhaps the most bombastic tune.  Ackerley opens with some heavy-handed chords, and although there’s a bit of a digression after the initial head, madness overtakes a great deal of the track.  The primal intensity of this track is well earned and keeps things pushing towards the end.  Perhaps my only complaint on this record would be that the middle of the track-listing can be a bit slow, but this track and the final come together for a rousing finale.

The album shows a mastery of guitar tone from Ackerley.  Her subtle array of effects always seems to place her perfectly within the context of each piece.  On the introductory Clockwork, Ackerley keeps it rather clean, but when given space to her own on the aptly titled Solo Guitar, she plays around with an echo effect to fill up the room a bit more.  Heavy numbers obviously inspire distortion, but as we see at the beginning of ‘merica, Ackerley also finds time to caress slow melodies with waving foot pedal action.

Coalesce is a sensible name for this project.  It’s an experience that blends everything together super well, resulting in a dynamic 48-minute block with shining standout moments as well as a cohesive flow from idea to idea.  New York is a crowded place, but Ackerley is sure to be one of the young stars around town in the coming years.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Dirty Projectors-Dirty Projectors: Album Review

Now essentially a solo project of David Longstreth, the “Dirty Projectors” as an art project are in a state quite similar to Longstreth’s personal life.  Having just gone through a break-up with former band member Amber Coffman, both Longstreth and his “band” are feeling lonely and torn apart.  As a result, Dirty Projectors is a breakup album.  The very first lyrics evoke those initial thoughts when part of your being has been ripped out: “I don’t know why you abandoned me/You were my soul and my partner.”  Later, Longstreth reminisces on the beginning of their relationship, talks about the pointless fights, and victoriously finds some sense of moving on by the end.  Sonically, the record almost sounds like a Bon Iver cover version of Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreaks; or perhaps just a glitchy pop aura with some fake rapping and funk riffage questioning whether or not Longstreth is worthy of the alternative R&B tag.  It’s a beautifully displaced piece that finds a unique, but sensible place in the contemporary musical moment.

As stated, “Keep Your Name” jumps into the main subject matter rather quickly.  We open with these hymnal, pitched-down vocals over piano before somber backing vocals come into play with the establishment of the unwavering, slow beat.  Rounding out at only nine relatively long tracks, the album features a lot of contrast within the bounds of each song—which is exemplified here.  In the bridge of the track, there’s a bit of a breakdown and the pitching of the vocals is changed with each phrase, which feeds into the slight narrative element of the lyrics.  Longstreth goes through some negative self-reflection, uttering phrases like “I don’t think I ever loved you” or “I wasn’t there for you/I didn’t pay attention.”  With the different pitchings from line to line, it almost sounds like different characters within Longstreth’s mind battling about what went wrong.

“Death Spiral” flashes back to within the relationship, when they realized that their love was in its final stages: “it’s final Death spiral.”  It’s interesting how Longstreth seems to be pulling quotes from various stages of his break-up process.  In the beginning of this track he seems to place the blame on his former partner: “you wanna blow us up,” contradicting his biting self-hate on the previous track.  “I don’t know your state of mind, mine’s good, bye” Longstreth later lies (I don’t think we’d have this album if that were true).  This idea of mixing different parts of the break-up process also plays into the general timeline of the album.  We open with his intial reactions, then jump into the very end of the relationship, before getting a bit of background on “Up in Hudson.”  Sonically, this song incorporates some awesome rhythmic texture to complement the raucous mass of melodic motion and occasional touch of Yeezus horn-blast.

In the middle of the album, Longstreth jumps between good and bad moments in the relationship for a handful of tracks.  “Work Together” and “Winner Take Nothing” address arguments and how he and his partner won’t get anywhere without working together, whereas “Little Bubble” touches upon waking up next to each other, and the points in their relationship where they felt as though they had crafted their own little world.  “Cool Your Heart” seems to be Longstreth’s moment of rejuvenation.  Sporting an awesome feature from D∆WN, Longstreth victoriously announces “Last night, I realized it’s been feeling wrong/To start relying, making decisions based on another person” and joins in on the infectious hook.

The lyrics are definitely a bit blunt and occasionally drab.  Longstreth isn’t exactly coating his story in glossy language or esoteric metaphor, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the occasional “I was listening to Kanye”-esque line tries a bit too hard to relate to the millennial crowd he just recently bashed.  The sonics of the record also have spots that shine more than others.  “Little Bubble” features an acoustic moment between violin and piano that breaks up the general glitchiness of the album quite nicely.  “Cool Your Heart” is fantastic all around, and the last track offers some soaring instrumental melodies.  On the other hand, “Up in Hudson” seems to be a bit too lyrically driven, making the melody overly idiosyncratic. Still, the record comes together nicely with emotional depth and biting songwriting.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Thundercat-Drunk: Album Review

We’ve always been living in a world where bass master Thundercat gets to do whatever he wants all the time.  Past albums haven’t taken themselves all that seriously—as exemplified by his ecstasy anthem “Oh Sheit It’s X”—and his features have popped up all over the place, entirely dependent on where Thundercat’s computer took him that day.  But Drunk is peak random and takes the album experience to astoundingly sarcastic heights.  It’s an album where falsetto oohs and ahhs suddenly turn into raucous be-bop lines, with 60 seconds about Japan and anime here, a 20 second instrumental there and a Wiz Khalifa drinking tune for kicks.  The result is unfortunately far too choppy of an experience that also somehow attains the same general aesthetic throughout, making for a bit of a dry addition to the catalogue.

Save standouts like “Show You the Way” and “Friend Zone,” the first three or four tracks are pretty much all you need to hear to know what happens on “Drunk.”  Opener “Rabbit Ho” is 39 seconds long and comprised of one jazz motive, then “Captain Stupido” follows with lyrics about waking up after leaving your wallet at the club over a quirky bass melody.  Thundercat then trades off solo ideas with a pianist on “Uh Uh” before singing about the addicting nature of cell phones in a quasi-reading-rainbow style on “Bus in These Streets.”  Each of these tracks are just so short and underdeveloped that it’s hard to really grasp anything and even though Thundercat is offering a lot of different musical ideas in the short spurts, his vocal capabilities just aren’t versatile enough to really alter the impact from track to track.

“Show You the Way” shows that Thundercat is at his best when he’s working in something of a pop-music format.  Sporting awesome features from Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald (yes, you read that right), the tune has clear verses tied together by a catchy chorus and a fun, danceable bass line.  The lyrics are poetic and a bit undefined, but they’re focused.  In the refrain, Thundercat asks for trust in an upcoming journey: “Let me show you the way/A burning light on the edge of dark/We’ll live with dark, just take the ride.”  Then, each verse talks about how love can carry us through whatever lies ahead: “Wake up and dream, tear down the wall/Of all you believe that might not be true/Long as love lies waiting there.”  The track also has the perfect balance of personality and legitimacy as Thundercat semi-ironically introduces each feature with a lounge-singer tone followed by light-clapping—it’s a tune that doesn’t take itself seriously, but it’s still a TUNE.  It’s just unfortunate that it took nine half-assed tracks to get to a well put together composition.

Immediately following is a Kendrick Lamar feature that goes wasted as the track is far too mellow, to the point of being bland.  “Tokyo” is a hilarious ride through fandom that again suffers from bland delivery and “Jameel’s Space Ride” is fun, but simply far too short for notoriety.  By track 14—“Friend Zone”—we finally hear another focused pop tune, however, it’s tainted by the shitty lyrics (I thought the stupid concept of the “friend zone” ended in 2014).  Past that there’s little to talk about besides the demo quality of the Wiz Khalifa feature and the slow decay of all that could possibly be considered interesting in the last five tracks.

At 16 minutes in length, The Beyond/Where Giants Roam—Thundercat’s last offering—got away with the same whispery mood on each of its four short, fleeting numbers and pulled together two memorable stand-out tracks with the help of Kamasi Washington and Herbie Hancock.  “Drunk” is 52 minutes long and delivers roughly the same amount of memorable material—including a repeat performance of “Them Changes”—over 23 tracks with far too many mellowed-out, two-minute-or-less gusts of wind coming in between.  Perhaps if lyrics like “I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway” or “gonna blow all my cash on anime” came with a bit more of an inspired vocal delivery, the album would be more fun and energetic but, the over-arching impact falls completely flat.

-Donovan Burtan

5/10

If this is harsh it’s because I really love Thundercat and felt really let down by this album.

Stormzy-Gang Signs and Prayer: Album Review

Stormzy will tell you himself that this debut record was a long time coming.  Since gaining recognition as best grime act in the 2014 MOBO awards, he’s been a bit aloof, releasing only singles, mixtapes and music videos.  The air gets cleared quickly on Gang Signs & Prayer as each of the first three tracks hit hard and emphasize—convincingly—that there’s nothing to worry about—Stormzy is clocked in a ready to go.  He also quickly convinces us that he’s not one dimensional with a gospel number and later features offered by Kehlani and Nao.  Perhaps the album is a bit of a mixed bag and perhaps a few too many tunes gush with excess, but this record showcases a dynamic songwriter who commands each and every minute with his striking personality.

“First Things First,” “Cold” and “Bad Boys” are for the haters and the doubters.  After dramatic, stormy sound effects, Stormzy’s voice comes in over the sluggish, subdued beat with words about how he’s been out of the studio for a minute, but he’s nonetheless one of the best in the game.  It’s impressive how Stormzy conjures such an intense impact without an overbearing beat.  Even though “Cold” follows with a bit more activity—in the form of icy, circulating synths and bouncing electronic horns—Stormzy’s passionate, blistering flow remains the centerpiece.  “Bad Boys” finishes off the banging trilogy with a return to a slow tempo, this time with a bit of smoldering, dark church tones from organ and choral vocals.  We also get our first real taste of singing here in the autotune/reggae hook.  The first leg of the album flies by with hard-hitting, quick material, silencing any doubt in Stormzy’s conviction.

“Blinded By Your Grace Pt. 1” beckons in a bit of a change of pace in the record. Even though the more heartfelt tunes are broken up by high intensity singles “Big For Your Boots” and “Mr. Skeng,” tracks four through ten are much more contained then the ravenous beginning.  First Stormzy sings with a few backup voices over soulful chords.  Then, on “Velvet/Jenny Francis,” Stormzy takes an awesome second look at the intro track from Nao’s For All We Know from last year.  Chipmunked reinterpretations of Nao’s already high voice complement Stormzy’s slow flow, before another chorus from Nao really blows everything out for a rousing finale.  “Cigarettes and Cush” operates similarly with Kehlani offering some heartfelt words beside another touching pair of verses from Stormzy.  A second look at “Blinded By Your Grace” notches up the gushiness once again for the climax of the album with seemingly every gospel singer on the planet in tow.  The last five tunes on the record sort of peter out into the ending, but “100 Bags” and “Shut Up” are worthy highlights.

Stormzy’s lyrics aren’t all fun and games.  Take this sweet as hell refrain from “Velvet” for example: “But loving you is easier, the simplest/Running through the world you’re my princess girl/I grow fonder, girl I grow fonder/I grow fonder, girl I grow fonder.”  Still, he’s not one to aim for an extensive narrative or complex metaphors and his greatest attribute is likely his personality and sense of humor.  Between trying to tell older rappers to give him the throne and young guns to shit the fuck up, Stormzy shouts out the one and only Adele: “Try tell me I’m way too big to rebel?/Nah, man, you’re never too big to rebel/I was in the O2 singing my lungs out/Rudeboy, you’re never too big for Adele.”  Stormzy also hilariously mentions twitter beef at every turn: “Man try say he’s better than me/Tell my man shut up/Mention my name in your tweets/Oi rudeboy, shut up.”  Of course, there are some dull offerings like the somewhat lacking rhyme scheme on “Cigarettes and Cush:” “Cause I fucked up badly/All I did was push/Now there’s no more weed/No more cush,” but the album is fun and the lyrics never take away from the experience.

Sonically, as mentioned, Stormzy’s voice is the soul purveyor of impact, but the record is also notable for its masterful switches between traditional grimey electronics to more pop sensibilities and gospelly, chipmunk hip hop.  Combined with Stormzy’s infectious personality and solid feature list, the record is a fantastic debut with many different songwriting skills on display.  Perhaps more focus on a narrative or one particular aesthetic could make a follow-up shine a bit more, but Gang Sings and Prayer is clearly one of the best debuts of the year.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10