Kelly Moran-Ultraviolet: Album Review

I don’t remember exactly how, but Kelly Moran’s single for this album came up on my feed and I just clicked on it.  I later learned that she was an Oneohtrix Point Never collaborator, has been somewhat widely praised in the classical community and, honestly, the she played the piano.  

At the risk of grandstanding a la New York Times on Bradley Cooper, the core of music journalism is the idea that we can find a greater musical truth at the intersection of the real life experience of listening to it and an education on the process behind it or at least the context surrounding it.  In some ways this is impossible because so often we’re following along with artist’s careers for a long time and, in the internet era, we know what they’re up to. The “real life” experience is always an educated one and we loose track of the experience of simply enjoying a work as an unsuspecting fan might.  However, sometimes we still come across something that sounds good and gradually dig into how it was made and perhaps why it sounds so good.

Having gone through the traditional piano avenues–masters degree, traditionally composed contemporary classical album with New York Times support–Kelly Moran may be slightly more out on the trapeze wire with the process behind her first release for Warp records.  The album is built on an extended improvisation session that followed a moment of peace in nature and later recieved electronic treatments, a situation that is cliche to the point that Moran herself tends to refer to it in a self-deprecating way, but the result is detailed and sprawling, yet strikingly natural in its flow–certainly a product of the freedom to explore that Moran felt when making it.

Admittedly, there’s a bit of a feeling of sameness.  I almost get the sense that you could play Moran a 5-10 second clip from anywhere and she might not know exactly where in the record it falls, yet there are moments of resolution and tension.  Autowave opens with stagnant beauty, before the extended length of Helix sees the piece deal with more open space, allowing ideas to float out into the air and dance around each other before the quaking synths arrive and the energy peaks with furious melodic contours.  Water Music emphasizes the prepared feel of the piano as the strings clang around like wind chimes and In Parellel is stunning in its stark, high-range emotive melodies.

At first click, Helix reminded me a little bit of this one four-tet song where a stringed instrument figure wanders through a haze of rhythmic fog.  As we know from his infamous tweet about the process behind that piece, Kieran Hebden didn’t have a piano or a harp at hand for him to pluck out a melody and then edit to hell so I wasn’t really thinking along the lines of Moran being classically trained.  It sounded like an eerie ambient-leaning electronic musician almost like Kelly Lee Owens with a more abstract rhythmic drive, but still felt firmly rooted in electronic music.

By the end of my first listen of the whole album, after I had learned about Moran’s backstory, I managed to reach through the synthesizer fog and immerse myself in the sound world enough to come out the other end feeling like I was listening to a piano record.  Maybe there’s some piano graduate student out there cringing at the idea that a music journalist would’ve listened to any amount of this and not known that a piano was involved, but this album is, in essence, an ambient record in a lot of ways so the turn-your-brain-off first listen is still valuable.

This is not a record about the micro-melodic movements, rather it is affective in its big picture motions and moods.  Ultraviolet is a place where motion never stops, but it doesn’t tell you where it’s going and the entire texture is flattened into one breathing mass.  It operates like a world-building electronic music opus so maybe the listener shouldn’t be thinking about a piano the whole time.  Maybe the work is equally valuable to those concerned about the process and those concerned about finding bliss.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

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Robyn-Honey: Album Review

Pop must be legible, but not boring; youthful, but mature; pressing, but timeless.  There’s a new Carly Rae Jepsen song out in the world that obviously strikes all of these markers and although Jepsen seems to be building a brand which has a song that rather directly addresses each and every emotion (sic) with an emphasis on massive, world collapsing crushes, and Robyn escapes on-the-nose lyricism and song form when it comes to album making; the beating heart of her new album Honey expertly describes an emotional state that all of her listeners are likely familiar with.

“Because It’s in the Music” is about a break-up song that brings all of the feelings of the recovery back, but Robyn still puts herself through it night after night for cathartic or possibly regressive reasons: “I’m right back in that moment/And it makes me want to cry.”  It’s been mentioned in meme after meme that sad folks and depressed teens tend to bathe in sad music when they’re sad–the question being what does this do? Does it help, hurt?  The answer may be unclear, but music that makes one continue to stew in the emotion they already feel certainly means stagnation.  Honey is triumphant in tone, but it’s not an album that necessarily moves on, rather embracing the pain that comes when you know time will be the only healing mechanism, and fighting hard throughout.

Us music critics are probably a bit to quick to jump on the “break-up album” train, nonetheless the whole album feels addressed to an ex.  The title track sees Robyn aware of the fact that this person is not healthy or necessary, but the two are sweet for each other and she tempts them.  This idea that the good parts of the relationship will be enough to revive it permeates the whole work.

On “Human Being,” she begs “don’t give up on me now;” aptly titled Baby Forgive Me sees the lyric “Just let me make you smile again, baby/I know we can work it out.”  Even the last song on the album, with the lyric “never gonna be broken hearted/ever again” doesn’t completely signal relief.  It feels like Robyn didn’t necessarily deal with the problem at hand, rather pushing it away to convince herself of resolution.  Whether it be the sex or some other comfort of the relationship’s past, Robyn certainly never gives up the hope required for real closure.

For the most part, the sonic world matches the desperation in the lyrics.  Robyn sounds like a sole warrior fighting through a storm of attack synths.  Especially on Missing U, it doesn’t completely feel like a song with parts, Robyn feels suspended, stuck in one melodic line.  There are moments of escapism, however.  Most obviously on Beach 2k20 which almost feels like lounge music as the lyrics toy with the idea of vacation.  Robyn’s m.o. has essentially always been that the dance floor is actually sad and the happiness has always been performative and when she does get away from the obviously dark material here this becomes no less true.

Now approaching 40, Robyn will admittedly probably not be adored by 14 year olds–maybe because they’re all listening to Post Malone–which should at least hold some weight in the pop world, but her work remains youthful and vital, able to address simple topics with mature depth and also leaving time to escape formula and dance the problems away.  Honey is another testament to her time-tested brilliance.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Empress Of-Us: Album Review

In interviews, Lorely Rodriguez has explained that she wanted to shift her esoteric alternative work of yesteryear into a place of more direct clarity, even going as far to call her previous work “emotionally isolating.”  Working with new producers, Rodriguez has certainly achieved a different sound, but the feel is still a bit skeletal. It’s pop music, but it certainly wouldn’t speak on the radio next to the likes of Dua Lipa or even The 1975 who are both a bit more supercharged in the sonics department.  There’s exceptions, single “When I’m With You” is lush and arresting with strings to complement the stunning chorus, but on the whole Us feels transitional as the artist grows from dark alt-R&B to a more brightly embellished pop figure.

Older Empress Of cuts such as “Water Water” didn’t depend on a whole lot of equipment; the climax of the song sees distant vocal “aws” complemented by a dark and punchy synth lead, production that’s much easier to get away with darker music.  If you’ve fooled around in audio software you know that mimicking the cacophony of Beach House or the grotesque atmosphere of experimental music a la Yves Tumor is a bit easier than trying to achieve the Phil Spector wall of pop sound–I mean when Kanye went really pop he was working with a pretty massive production team.  When it comes to molding her production chops into something a bit more joyous or brightly toned, the effects can fall flat.

“Timberlands” sees Rodriguez deliver coy lyrics over a simple sequencer and drum machine foundation.  The lyrics are fun and quirky: “Don’t need another man/I don’t wanna shake your hand/I don’t care or give a damn,” but the rhyme scheme accompanied by the simple major chord keyboard sound, makes for a bit too simplistic a feel, almost like a nursery rhyme.  When it comes to the cresting chorus, it’s hard to not feel like the song should’ve been given a more lush treatment.  Then there’s “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed,” which sees a climax not unlike “Water Water,” but the less catastrophic production climate makes the synth line feel too simple and flat, almost computer generated.

I’m not trying to say that Empress Of will never be good unless it returns to its roots, a narrative which I find generally tired, but Us won’t be the document that affirms her status as a pop titan.

-Donovan Burtan

6.5/10

Neneh Cherry-Broken Politics: Album Review

I don’t know if I would call it the most interesting producer/pop-elder combination right now, we live in a Bjork (feat. Arca) society after all, but Neneh Cherry working with four-tet is certainly a mark of her ability to stay with the times and explore ideas on her own terms without falling into trendy mainstream trappings.  Someone who’s career started with buoyant 1989 MTV hip-pop hit Buffalo Stance and intersected with Michael Stipe in 1992 and Tricky in 1996, Cherry has always been able to stay on top of the times in a tasteful way and 2018 is no exception.

For perspective, Tom Morello is the same age as Cherry, but his latest album sees contributions from Steve Aoki and Portugal, The Man.  Wouldn’t refer to those choices as indicative of someone with their on the pulse, but complemented by sounds concocted at the same time as 2017’s New Energy–an album that captured many on both the fan and critic side of music twitter–Broken Politics sees Cherry airing ideas about her identity and power amidst the political climate of the day with the mature, artistic backdrop of Kieran Hebden.

Perhaps the most quotable line is Synchronized Devotion‘s “it’s my politics livin’ in the slow jam,” which refers to the continuously vital “the personal is political” argument as Cherry’s idea of her own identity becomes increasingly political in these trying times.  From her understanding of her past “Don’t live for nostalgia/but the impact of everything resonates,” to her understanding of her innate ways of living and thinking “My name is Neneh/March tenth/Water sign,” seemingly innocuous ideas are brought under a new light.

This “slow jam” idea is also important considering Cherry’s career path. Someone who’s released roughly 5 projects in a near-thirty year history, Cherry is an artist who takes time to breathe and stew over ideas, rather than prolifically pump out material.  With the times increasingly looking utterly devastating, many folks who may not have had anything to say previously are feeling the need to get involved–perhaps the politics are Broken because everyone is feeling the need to get involved with the daily onslaught of devastation.

The album is primarily dedicated to similar material to this slow burning personal dissection, with the exception of one pop moment–the bouncing horn feel of “Natural Skin Deep.”  Perhaps the lack of stand-out material will not nail it into the history books, but Neneh Cherry remains a mature musical force both of the moment and out of time.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

Christine and the Queens-Chris: Album Review

“I am done with belonging” 

“My name became a slur…I’m forever whats-her-face”

Héloïse Letissier doesn’t necessarily sound in pain on her new album, but the work is simultaneously dance-floor ready and immersed with certain tensions. Queerness is somewhat the heart of the project as masculinity and femininity are always both present–the lyric “What must a woman do” is sung with a punchy macho energy, but when left in open space her voice floats with a certain feminine softness–and Letissier grapples with the concept of fitting in, what it means to her and how it should be valued.

There’s mention of the childhood setting, wherein playground politics tend to value those who most forwardly subscribe to mainstream gender roles and although this maybe doesn’t matter to her, the effects are still present to this day: “it’s been years since that playground.”  Whether or not it is always comfortable or safe, Letissier embodies her otherness and molds it into nuanced depth over the course of Chris.

Sonically, the work doesn’t necessarily sound singular.  The disco-lite funk sounds of the Blue Hawaii/Jessy Lanza/Nao school, but Letissier is such a multifaceted figure that the work continues to feel fresh at every turn.  “Comme Si” and “Doesn’t Matter” see bolstering confidence, the former with the lyric “There’s a pride in my singing/The thickness of a new skin,” and songs like “Girlfriend” strike a no-holds seductive tone.  The back half of the album, however, is littered with more second guessing.  After the more tender pains of “whats-her-face,” Letissier wonders what her partners real motivations may be with a dark, pain-staking smolder: “I might be the one just in place/To remind you/Of something you loathe.”

Chris doesn’t necessarily loose any sense of continuity or flow, but the work is never one sided, seeing its creator become an identity that cannot be locked down or simplified into one symbol.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Sarah Davachi-Gave in Rest: Album Review

Considering how quiet her droning electro-acoustic music typically is, you might be surprised at how jarring it is when Sarah Davachi leaves chunks of silence between drone sounds at the very beginning of her new project, but these phrase markings catch the listener off guard and bring them closer in to these little cells of sound that gently lilt up and down over the course of the track.

Although it might not be audible from a pure listening standpoint, the sounds here are a small microcosm of what Davachi does.  Pulling a piece of early music, namely recorder, and pushing it to the future with some sort of electronic device, here: slowing down the sound to a massive degree, her work sounds of the earth yet distant–allowing for newness to seep out of Davachi’s renaissance musical era inspirations.

After the first track, Gave in Rest largely sees Davachi sticking to her guns.  Lyrical musical lines played on violin float over subtle drones on the follow-up track, before “Evensong” evokes a more haunting feel with ghoulish vocal “oohs.” “Matins” provides another act in “pulling the listener in real close” as Davachi captures the sounds of a bow just barely gracing the strings of her instrument.

There’s not too many unexpected calls on the album, which is to be expected considering the clip at which she releases new music and even the genre–not to discredit anyone’s work, but I don’t think anyone is looking for William Basinski to take some radical new direction.  Like Basinski, Davachi has crafted a world and every new album is an extension of that place with subtly different focus areas.

Don’t think there’s a bad time to start following along and certainly don’t think there will be any blemishes on the horizon.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

Armand Hammer-Paraffin: Album Review

I get the sense that billy woodz and ELUCID see themselves as somewhat of a dying breed.  Whether it be the fact that they’re black, underground rappers in this dark period of Brooklyn gentrification, or the fact that their music doesn’t really concern itself with anything but biting rapping in this time of rap-singing; the pair stand out and sonically and lyrically paint a fleeting and violent picture of a world about to dissipate.

In the past, ELUCID has referred to his neighborhood as “the final frontier of gentrification” and equally dark, sarcastic couplets like woodz’s “onion powder only thing on they spice rack/but cats act like Quinton on his way” or even ELUCID’s candid mention of an “Urban green space” liter the work.  Complemented by a dense and vivid cacophony of buzzing electricity and loose jazz–and that one wandering Frank Ocean sample–the world they paint is all parts brooding and dark, making every word, no matter how esoteric, feel cataclysmic.  At first glance, the pair’s chemistry–and slight vocal similarity–makes them sound like one hive-mind finishing its own sentences, which is perhaps the source of the work’s propulsion.  Song structures, refrains, verses, and samples all melt into one another for a jolting singular feel throughout its run time.

Not unlike milo’s project from last month, Paraffin is hard to quantify, but the pair’s intensity keeps each listen on the edge of its seat and you can bet that these two will have plenty more to say just about every time they link up.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10