Valeda-Unearth: Album Review

I’m insanely late on this but I heard an interview with this artist on my beloved CKUT and I’ve been listening to the project quite a bit for a couple weeks.

Valeda is a solo electronic artist who is a part of susy.technology, a Montreal-based collective who—not unlike the great Kohlenstoff crew—are interested in multi-disciplinary artistic endeavors.  Their website specifies the “creation of audio-visual art engaging with the futurity of interactive media, cyberculture and augmented reality.”

Although Valeda is yet to release a music video, her music lends itself to immersive audio-visual experiments and her position in the collective is sure to lead to some great live experiences in the coming years.  On Unearth, she keeps her lyrics and sounds abstract and sparse, but also manages to offer an intimate, moving experience.

The album opens with cacophonous drones that remain constant as melodic sounds both gentle and violent grace the ear drums and frame Valeda’s quiet voice—the only source of brightness in the rather dark musical experience.  On the eight-minute opening track, for instance, pointed samples that sound like plucked strings are the first real “moment” before quick hits of ridged, high-pitched electronics and subdued quarter notes.

The world is bleak but active leading into the real entrance of Valeda’s voice around the half-way point.  Much less erratic, but sort of in the same melodic shape, her vocals model the high-pitched electronics of the beginning of the tune with quick ideas that eventually turn to full-fledged lyrical phrases: “never forget you.”  Her songwriting doesn’t lend itself to sing-able hooks and verses, however, the album is ridiculously enveloping and the excruciatingly gradual path to full lyrical ideas keeps you focused on every detail.

Perhaps the most impactful example of this lyrical strategy comes in the final tune, “Convent/Peril.”  Only four minutes long, the song mostly distorts its words with a mix of pitched-down, conflicting vocals, sound effects, and textural devices, before Valeda finally stands in the clear with the cutting line “my skin remembers what you can’t” around three minutes in.

The whole project has this tumultuous nature that alludes to trauma with the underlying sonic violence, but here is the most obvious allusion to past traumatic experiences and it really brings the work full circle.  Also, the use of the pitched-down vocals in the beginning of the song almost sounds like another person’s voice, invading in Valeda’s space so to speak.  Whether or not this exact interpretation was intended, the work offers a lot of room for multiple interpretations by keeping its themes cloudy, but also articulating specific bits and pieces.

Valeda’s middle two tracks are also great and the impeccable manipulation of space on each song carries over to the overall flow of the project.  “Under Ice” sort of reverses the approach to vocals in the first track by uttering the main lyrical idea first and continuously reinterpreting it throughout the track. It’s also the most rhythmically concise song, expanding on the rhythmic momentum of the first track with a stagnant beat from beginning to end.

“Losteling” is certainly the loudest song on the work, mostly by virtue of a single melodic strand of crackling sound that continuously inches up and down.  From the first track’s subdued beat to the more forward beat of the second, the third’s blasting melodic idea is quite logical and the brooding backdrop of the track helps along the seamless transition to pure force.

Unearth is emotionally moving and showcases a great deal of contrasting talents from Valeda without any real misfires.  I hope to hear more extensive, ambitious projects in the future, but 23 great minutes is a promising start.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Miwon-Jigsawtooth: Album Review

After a nine-year hiatus, the return of Berlin’s Miwon sees a sensible addition to his catalogue with more bright ambient landscapes and techno sensibilities.  True to the nature of N5MD records, the album continuously emphasizes melody with each 4-5 minute tune having a great deal of replay value while also expertly navigating open sonic terrain.

The album somewhat loses the rhythmic directness of 2008’s A to B and perhaps strikes a less emotionally moving tone.  Save the late-album dives into darkness, these songs are breezy and light. Still, the project keeps the listener engaged with spot-on songwriting with each passing track.

The beginning of the album serves as a decent representation of much of the project.  Opener “Fuzzy Words” builds swells above the active rhythmic foundation before the simple, but infectious melody comes in gently over the top.  This track doesn’t dig too deep as it sort of stagnates forward, but it works great as an introduction to Miwon’s particular aesthetic.

“Wolkengedoens” and “Shutter” are a bit more of the meat of the work.  Here, Miwon works in more drastic developments by continuously pilling on layers and emphasizing new melodic ideas. “Wolkengedoens,” for instance brings in a high synth melody towards the last 30 seconds of the tune to give a new splash of color that contrasts the slightly melancholy melodic centerpiece of the song.  “Shutter” is sluggish in tempo, opening the space for a blissful, wandering melody that gradually gets surrounded by more and more rhythmic activity, making for a natural, unpredictable development.

“Mondharke”—track 7—serves as the first full-fledged look at violence and darkness.  The crackling industrial sounds put the song on edge with pulsing low-end synths adding to the drama.  “Cool Your Jets” doesn’t necessarily read as violent, but it maintains the dark, smoldering nature of the previous track with an especially bouncy melody over brooding chords and low-end rhythmic sounds.

Although these two tracks contrast the sonic pallet of the beginning of the project, the exploration of this territory comes a bit late into the work.  Without these additions, the album would’ve been a bit one-dimensional, but it doesn’t feel all that well integrated into the project.  If Miwon had issued one of his more violent songs sooner into the track listing and then let that sound influence the tracks that followed the tug and pull between smoldering darkness and bright ambient sounds would’ve been more constant.

There’s no shortage of great songwriting and it’s great to hear a long-anticipated work that bites like “Jigsawtooth,” but it might have been a bit more impactful had Miwon dabbled into the violent, smoldering side of his sound aesthetic more often in the work.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

Album Review: Matthew Shipp, Mat Maneri, Whit Dickey-Vessel in Orbit

First 9/10 of the year folks, three legends keeping it straightforward with 48 spotless minutes of music.

“Vessel in Orbit,” the latest album from the great AUM Fidelity Records, features three greats doing what they do best in a neat, 48-minute package.  In terms of background, Matthew Shipp, Mat Maneri, and Whit Dickey are all names that most fans of improvisation are familiar with.  Last year, Shipp was featured on a re-release of sorts of old concert duets between him and the late-great David S. Ware.  Perhaps this combined with his biting “Cactus” album from the fall with Bobby Kapp puts him on a bit of a winning streak—of course it’s hard to say he’s ever NOT been on a winning streak.  For Dickey, this is a little bit of a return to the studio, although he also laid down some work with the freaky cornet player Kirk Knuffke last year, and violist Maneri has been active as ever, playing on Ches Smith’s “The Bell” in 2016.

From beginning to end, the album pulses with life.  These musicians hold blues and swing in everything they do, but they sound ridiculously fresh, unique, and in the moment at all times.  Dickey is a painter at the drums.  He never lays down the rhythm too obviously, yet the allusions to swing can always be heard.  “Space Walk” reads as barren and contrasts the slightly more consistent rhythmic drive of the first track.  Dickey is all over his toms on the track, but he also taps at the ride cymbal with the swell of each miniature musical phrase.

Also, the project is quite digestible.  Most of the songs run around five or six minutes, making them packed with activity and still, Shipp keeps his bashing bass sounds and freckled high notes contained.  Of course, these musicians aren’t compromising artistry or pandering to a mainstream audience, but this album might be a bit more applicable to any music fan with a pulse than their more stretched out, no-holds material.

Each track also maintains an individual identity.  With its bass pedal foundation and brief stints into bashing improvisation and reserved lyrical playing, opener “Spaceship 9” frames the project nicely without putting all the player’s cards on the table.  Longest track “Galaxy 9” features a great change in direction, first playing around with a squirrely little motive, before the spaced-out bridge leads into pulsing, brooding ending.  “To a Lost Comrade” might showcase the band at their highest commitment to delicacy, a term I’m using very lightly considering the rather big swell at the center of the tune.  Still, Shipp places a little bit of a sweetened emotional tone in the work and the ideas from all three remain a bit more lyrical than the mix on the other parts of the project.

Maneri and Shipp’s chemistry is truly uncanny.  Both of Shipp’s hands continuously deliver melodic ideas and Maneri also somewhat subscribes to that ideology.  As both hands spill over the bar lines on “Turbulence,” Maneri adds his own pecks and lines to the mix, the middle of the track crafting a mad house of melodic ideas before the ending also features charismatic back-and-forth tossing from the two.

Perhaps the trio isn’t carving out an entirely new aesthetic space—the acoustic, piano trio is fairly commonplace in 2017—however, some band outfits are never to die and certain musicians are gifted enough to remain fresh with each passing year.  “Vessel in Orbit” bleeds greatness from three tried and true veterans.

-Donovan Burtan

9/10

 

 

Album Review: Kendrick Lamar-Damn

Damn isn’t a concept album, it isn’t a huge, sweeping narrative, and, truthfully, it isn’t packed with as much depth and nuance as To Pimp a Butterfly and Good Kid Maad City.  However, it features the best rapper of the current moment doing exactly what he needed to after an 80-minute cinematic ploy.  Damn features Kendrick contemplating his position and humility, it features his right-of-passage radio hit with Rihanna, and it features him plain old rapping his ass off.  It doesn’t feature the hyper-organization of To Pimp a Butterfly, nor does it feature the linear story telling of Good Kid, but what Kendrick has done is he’s just exploded all his usual forms and simply delivered song after song with incredible production, mind-blowing beat changes, and catchy hooks.

Now of course Lamar does what he does and frames Damn in a highly artistic way.  We open and begin with the same phrase, “so I was taking a walk the other day.”  First, Lamar describes meeting a blind woman whom is lost and looking for something and when Lamar offers his assistance, she shoots him: “you’ve lost YOUR LIFE.”  Then, in the final track, Lamar tells the tale of his father and his near run in with Top Dawg, the head of Kendrick’s record label, back in his gang-banging days.

Throughout the album, Kendrick goes back and forth on a number of different issues facing him.  At times he feels the power of a god, and elsewhere he feels as if his fame could be taken away at any moment.  The feeling of back and forth shows how on edge he feels, as if his reign could be taken away, or if his mortality will get the best of him.  Thus, the woman becomes a metaphor for his lifestyle.  Kendrick is doing the best he can, he’s helping those that can’t see, he’s trying to lift people up, but even that can get him killed at any moment.  In the case of “Duckworth” his father narrowly escapes and “Blood” shows how heartless the world can be.  This gives the work a certain color and mood and questions all the moments where Kendrick feels powerful, but it’s not making every moment feed into one over-arching idea.

Between the framing device, Lamar continuously proves his songwriting talents.  “DNA” is another cop car bon fire, rapper in the trenches number where Kendrick discusses his family and how they make him carry certain burdens as well as excel in certain ways.  He samples a Fox News clip that insults his performance twice, and the second time around the track makes one of the hardest beat changes anyone has ever heard.  “Yah” and “Element” cool things off a bit. The beginning to “Element” feels a bit clunky as Kendrick revs up—“I  don’t give a fuck/I don’t give a fuck”—only to cool things right back down, but overall the tracks ride smoothly with a slightly hilarious hook coming into play: “If I gotta slap a pussy ass ni**a, Imma make it look sexy.”

“Loyalty” and the latter half of the album’s “Love” are probably the most apt at receiving criticisms from the fans of hard-hitting rap, but Kendrick still raps over the bar line with his usual virtuosic dose of internal rhymes, and both have some truly beautiful features.  Zacari takes more of a traditional feature, singing the hook between the rapping, but Rihanna takes a little bit of a rap verse, before singing out a little bit towards the end—she’s truly got a gift for adding just what a song needs whenever she gets the call to collaborate and this is a prime example.

“XXX” sports what is likely the strangest feature from U2, but the sort of out-of-time vocalizations from bono divide the two parts of the song.  At first, Kendrick is rapping along the lines of, “if you mess with my family, Imma fuck you up,” but then he speaks about how America has trained its black community to be violent with it’s own mistakes and terrorizing acts: “America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does.”  Without the stark sonic contrast, the song wouldn’t have the same impact.  “Duckworth” also deals in beat changes, but here Kendrick’s bars are more stagnant, it’s almost as if he’s the beat and the different beats are the decoration atop his rhythmic foundation.

Kendrick’s sonic facelift on this project is also important to note.  Once again, this project is entirely different from his past works.  It’s a bit hard to pin down as To Pimp A Butterfly was mostly focused on afro-futurism and Good Kid was a lot of straightforward moodiness.  Wholly, this album is a bit more erratic, almost like a pop art version of some of his past sounds.  “Pride,” produced by the absolutely brilliant wiz kid Steve Lacy, almost reads as a long-lost hit off of God Kid (Anna Wise is also featured for crying out loud), but it’s rounding out at the end aims higher than Kendrick would’ve back in those days and Lacy’s starburst guitar sound takes a much different approach to rumination. Single “Humble” also sounds way more condensed than almost anything Lamar’s ever put out.  It’s a braggadocios face-melter, but it does so with only a little, minor piano riff and a highly articulated drum line—the guy can make a hit with practically nothing but his voice.

Besides the artistic framing device, Kendrick does what he does best on the introspection of “Fear” and the storytelling of “Duckworth.” “Fear” ties up a lot of ideas on the project as Kendrick simply discusses how fearful he still remains after all this success. “Duckworth” is essential, of course, because of the tie in to the beginning of the album, but also “Fear” touches upon the relationship between Kendrick and his father, which gives it more impact.

Once again, Kendrick Lamar has released a project where every track is worth talking about.  Perhaps his old organized self is gone and perhaps this won’t go on as one of the best concept albums of the decade, but that might just have been just what we needed to hear.

-Donovan Burtan

8.5/10

Album Review: Tennis-Yours Conditionally

Having been around on the semi-alternative (i.e. Sirius XMU) scene for three albums, Tennis have found a way to bring retro vibes together in a digestible, pop setting without completely losing their raw sensibility.  “Yours Conditionally” again floats with blissful vocals from Alaina Moore, who touches upon political commentary without cutting the knife too deep as Patrick Riley adds groove and ambiance to her keyboard and guitar instrumental foundations.  It’s not an album to shatter expectations, however, it’s another focused and valid collection of songs from a reliably intriguing festival band.

The album’s brightest moments come when Moore takes up a bit of a sarcastic tone.  Especially catchy hit “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar” pierces the rules placed around women in the world of music and more broadly to marriage: “Try to build a legacy/That will not complicate the future of your own progeny.”  “My Emotions Are Blinding” also addresses similar issues, Moore throwing “Women are much closer to nature” right your face at the first downbeat, before “Please Don’t Ruin This for Me” takes a stab at religion over soaring high notes: “Speak half-truths that sound arcane.”  The sarcastic element adds a nice juxtaposition to the pastel tone color of the sonic landscape.  Perhaps the album would come across as too clean and straightforward if everything was meant to be read at face value, but the subtext gives a little bit of bite.

Unfortunately, there are moments that feel a bit too clean and the difference between sarcasm and earnest material gets muddled.  The album talks about Moore and Riley’s marriage here and there, with much of the same mood as Moore’s takedowns of societal norms.  On “10 Minutes 10 Years,” for instance, Moore says “Those who measure time and distance haven’t known a love like mine/There is only perfect closeness, don’t you leave it all behind.” Over the smooth bass line and bright guitars, it comes across a bit like a Carpenter’s song and loses any sense of risk.

Sonically, the album obviously doesn’t try to dive into any noise jams or guitar solos, so it’s a bit one-dimensional and the grooves sound occasionally quite drab.  “Modern Women” is a bit too slow for my taste and kind of just rides a cloud of mood, like a Drake number that features his singing.  Also, most of the songs don’t have a great deal of sections.  It’s just a chorus and a verse almost strictly over the same blissful groove.  Still, there are some great moments here and there. The first handful of tracks ride at a nice clip and feed into each other nicely.  “Fields of Blue’s” biting drum part, leads into the squirrely bass line of “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar,” for instance.

Tennis are super Coachella and super marketable.  They’re providing commentary on all of their songs on genius and their vinyl is likely the most sold object at Urban Outfitters this season, but they prove that the fake indie scene isn’t the COMPLETE dead zone that people who only listen to Pavement think it is.  These songs are well thought out and here and there master the art of slight parody to provide a look at the position of women in music and society.  Perhaps if the entire thing wore a costume of expectations, the album would read as a more necessary political statement, but Tennis don’t seem to be trying to provide the most significant political commentary to date, so a collection of nice vibes doesn’t entirely disappoint.

-Donovan Burtan

6/10

 

The Uncoverables Podcast: Jaimie Branch Interview

The week’s episode features an interview with trumpeter Jaimie Branch in which she gives a full rundown of the composition and recording process of her debut album for International Anthem Records.  Out on Friday, Fly or Die emphasizes improvisation over grooves, noise jams, and out in open space–it’s an eclectic listen that should have appeal to music fans of many different backgrounds.

Click Here to Download

Playlist:

Erik Hove- “Morse Code” from Polygon

Trio3- “Stick” from Visiting Texture

Jaimie Branch- “Theme Nothing” from Fly or Die

Classic Album of the Week: Bjork-Homogenic

Bjork’s third full-length saw the combination of her iconic vocal mannerisms with an equally potent electro-acoustic instrumental pallet, a bit more focussed than her sophomore LP.  The album is relentlessly icy as electronic beats and soaring strings both underpin the ridiculous passion with which Bjork delivers each line.

The album dots the line between symphonic grandeur and more condensed danceable material.  “Pluto” pulls straight out of the industrial underground with a death-defying vocal effect; “5 Years” is a bit stripped back, but the beat delivers a bit of head-nodding ear candy; then, on the other hand, tunes like “All is Full of Love” or “Bachelorette” read as operatic.

Bjork seems to find peace at the end with the triumphant “Alarm Call:” “It doesn’t scare me at all,” but for much of the album the pulsing tension in the sonic landscape is matched by Bjork’s anxious lyrics.  On “Joga” she embraces “the state of emergency,” whereas “Bachelorette” places a relationship through a dire lens: “I’m a path of cinders burning under your feet.”

Of course Bjork also maintains her talents for the tongue-in-cheek as epitomized on Post’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” but this time perhaps a bit less brash: “I tried to organize freedom, how scandinavian of me;” “I’m no fucking buddhist but this is enlightenment.”

Like nearly all of her works, Homogenic was an entirely unique, left-field collection of tunes that also managed to conquer the world.  Her creativity is unfathomable and to this day she remains a force in music and an inspiration to songwriters of all genres.