The National-Sleep Well Beast: ALBUM REVIEW

The National are one of those bands where you either believe it or you don’t.  Matt Berninger’s vocals are deep and emotional, but easy to lack impact if the instrumentals don’t properly embolden his baritone wallow.  Spanning nearly 60 minutes and made by a bunch of bros now all upwards of 40, “Sleep Well Best” didn’t give me much hope going in.  However, the work manages to deliver throughout as deeply textured, lush material occasionally reaches for the rafters with big drum parts and streams of crying guitar.  Perhaps it’s not the group’s seminal work, but it’s one that should impress fans old and new.

Particularly catchy single “The System Dreams in Total Darkness” gave the veteran group their first Billboard hit, and it operates well as a centerpiece of sorts.  Opening with pillars of piano, the song’s catchy guitar interjections herald in chugging bass lines and inspired vocalizations.  The whole album sort of emulates it’s cover with the smoldering swaths of black highlighted with dashes of clear, brightness and here, the chorus flourishes with backing vocals and strained high-notes.

Thematically, the work doesn’t necessarily follow a single, cohesive narrative, however, a great deal depicts anxieties within a relationship and here Berninger touches upon the idea of isolation, the phrase “the system only dreams in total darkness,” alluding to the idea that his current relationship only thrives when both parties are totally focused on it and perhaps missing out on other things.  Considering other parts of the record Berninger seems to be critical of his partner and himself, but it shows a certain maturity when he expands his lens in the middle of the work to depict potential systematic issues.

The momentum in this song seems to seep into the rest of the album, but with a lot of different variations.  The band is the most direct on “Day I Die” with the streaming guitar lines and the pounding tom pattern.  “Born to Beg” lilts and yearns, but the Steve Reich-inspired synth backdrop adds a constant sense of tension; and “Guilty Party” drives with electronically induced drum kits injects a pulsing drive to the somber mood.

Lyrical highlights include opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” where Berninger seems to be meeting up with a past love interest: “Can you remind me the building you live in/I’m on my way.”  He feels as if there’s still something there and hopes they can put everything behind them and embrace: “Goodbyes always take us half an hour/Can’t we just go home…nobody else will be there.” The line, “Holding our coats/We look like children” helps paint the scene as Berninger wonders about the childishness of it all.

Here and there, Berninger seems to throw a lyrical air ball: “It’s so easy to set off/The molecules and the caplets.” Get it? Instead of Shakespeare it’s drugs (side eye), but “Carin at the Liquor Store” encapsulates the sonic and lyric wins on the project.  That piano line flows like hot tea with a glorious atmospheric guitar line rounding out the ending.  The lyrics are still dark “so blame it on me, I really don’t care, it’s a foregone conclusion,” but with the embolden sonics, it feels like and ending point on a journey of self-disovery.

The album is still long, but each song is inspired and unique, yet committed to the smoldering mood.  Feels good to hear an indie act aging with grace and still occasionally kicking ass.

-Donovan Burtan



The Uncoverables Podcast: Nick Fraser Interview

Click Here to Download

This week’s episode (is four days late….) features excerpts from an interview I did over the summer with Canadian Improvising Drummer Nick Fraser.  We spoke a bit about his philosophies surrounding improvisation and the process behind his latest album Starer which you can find at!  New music from outside the jazz world included after the interview portion.  Tune in!

(photo credit: Christer Männikus)

Playlist (artist-“tune” from album)

Nick Fraser-“Sketch #20/22” from Starer

Gintas K-“Minmi” from Under My Skin

Sarah Davachi-“Ghosts and All” from Vergers

Sneaks-“Inside Edition” from It’s a Myth

The Courtneys-“Silver Velvet” from II


Julie Byrne-Not Even Happiness: Album Review

There are certain formulas that have stood the test of time and the folk singer/songwriter equipped with acoustic guitar is clearly one of them.  Although the pillars of the 1960s and 70s—Dylan and Mitchell—might still be the ones truly at the tip of your tongue when the topic is brought up, Chapman, Elliot, and Sufjan have carried us on to modern day.  Aided by some blissfully subtle decisions from producer Eric Littman, Julie Byrne has carved out a nice niche for herself on Not Even Happiness.  The album’s transient landscape effortlessly maintains a natural sensibility, while also tapping into some gorgeous electro-acoustic findings.  Byrne’s lyrics are beautifully introspective and focused so the album reads as a personal journey with words of wisdom for all people.

Built on themes of nature and dreams, Byrne finds herself torn between her relationship with herself and that of another person.  Nostalgia comes through quite often on a time when Byrne spent much of her time alone, needing only nature as a source of peace: “I’d cross the country and I’d carry no key/Couldn’t I look up at the stars from anywhere” she breathes on “Sleepwalker.”  Later on in that song, however, Byrne admits this time was imperfect: “I saw peace, and it never came to me/They often spoke as though I had been set free/But I traveled only service of my dreams.”  In retrospect, Byrne sees her former self as a sleepwalker, living under the influence of her own dreams without a sense of the outside world.  This idea that Byrne’s time in nature offered a false sense of peace explains her sacrificial line from the first tune: “To me, this city’s hell/But I know you call it home” and although it seems as though the relationship in this tune didn’t pan out, Byrne’s need for others to come into her world is expressed.

As the album pushes forward, Byrne marks significant relationships with an association between the other person and nature, reflecting the idea that she needs to balance her love of nature with her human connections. “Natural blue” constantly reuses the line “when I first saw you, the sky it was such a natural blue.”  This also works into the continuing theme of dreams and solitude.  Again on “Natural Blue,” Byrne spouts “Live in dreams, I remain forever/inside the colors you’ve shown to me,” thus combining a theme about her sense of self with her relationship with another.

The real crux of the project is finding a way to let others into our world without changing ourselves.  There are certain things that we keep hidden and perhaps solitude can provide comfort, however, it’s also important to find people in life who we can connect with.  Also, in Byrnes’s execution, there’s a sense that the message can work on a rather broad scale.  It doesn’t seem to be an album about a monogamous love story, simply a message about relationships as a whole.

Besides the major pieces of her emotional journey, Byrne constantly offers really striking wordplay. Simple phrases such as “life’s as short as a breath half taken,” “from your lips which splashed my dull hose with muses,” and “you’re the sea as it glides” decorate her tunes, whereas more complex ideas deepen the impact of the work. “And the stars are well where they are/For those who belong to them,” she speaks on “Sea as it Glides,” speaking to the people out there who remain alone in nature as she once was. The whole project also seems to come together in the last song where Byrne wonders “And I have dragged my life across the country/And wondered if travel led me anywhere/There’s a passion in me, but it stands no long for those things/Tell me how it feels for you to be in love.”

The sonic content is undoubtedly a bit one dimensional, but certain details add to the beauty of the words.  “Melting Grid” kicks off with a sort of pan flute sound effect adding to the airiness of the work.  Elsewhere, sound effects hide in the background like the waves crashing on the shore on “Sea As it Glides.”  Backing vocals also play an integral role, particularly on “Morning Dove,” where an intimate, lilting melody is ornamented by these glorious soprano-range “oohs” that swell ever so slightly.  Then, the project really comes full circle on the final track with these hymnal keyboard chords looping throughout as Byrne’s voice gets replaced by soaring strings.  These details feel effortless, but they clearly pack a lot of precision and delicacy.

Not Even Happiness is a beautiful accomplishment.  It’s not quite a concept album, but the lyrical focus gives it a sense of journey.  Also, the delicate intimacy in Byrne’s voice is matched by the subtlety in her instrumentation.  It’s not groundbreaking reorganization of form, but its emotional weight cannot be underestimated.

-Donovan Burtan


December 99th-December 99th: Album Review

Mos Def has unfortunately been a bit of a hit or miss figure over the years.  His seminal debut “Black on Both Sides” is widely considered one of the best underground hip-hop moments of the late 90s, but his long-awaited follow-up failed to impress fans and critics and the rest of his career remained rather inconsistent.  On December 99th—Def’s goodbye record—Mos Def is operating under the name Yasiin Bey, working with Ferrari Sheppard, and seemingly lacking any substantial material.  The album drones on with rather similar beats as Bey sings over top in a quasi-Kid Cudi/808s-Kanye style.  Bey’s voice is pleasant, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of effort on songwriting as he drawls forward in rambling melodies, occasionally reprising previous material without any notion of structure.  Although the work achieves cohesion as the beats flow into one another and Bey maintains a rather similar vocal style, the flow of the album only takes away from the experience as Bey seems to only wish to craft a mood rather than construct a poignant work as he has done in the past.

The first tune on the record essentially summarizes everything that follows.  A slow-tempo, heavy beat begins things with a vocal sample before a rather momentous melody comes into play with what seems to be Bey’s hook even though he only repeats “gone, gone, gone.”  Lulling verses fail to accomplish much of anything with faux-philosophical lines like “Girls at the playground/they say they like you/do they even like themselves” and “you like yourself too much/fuck what you like.” “Blade in the Pocket” again vaguely approaches philosophy, making some sort of point about the bystanders of a tragedy: “Only god can stop it/All they could do was watch it/Stick to gossip/The view of the department.”  His words may have some sort of underlying idea to them, but, like his vocal melodies, they remain far too abstract to achieve any memorability.  “Spesh” melts in next around the same tempo, offering little contrast sonically, followed by another lyrical mess on “Local Time:” “we experience yesterday/above all we’ve been blessed today/same as everyday/in a special way.”  Although there’s somewhat of a flow to the front-half of the record, nothing specific really sticks out as interesting.

The back-side of the record really just continues much of the same.  In fact, the first song, “Seaside Panic Room,” even reiterates the same hook from the first track on the record (gone, gone, gone).  Lyrics that exude wisdom, but don’t accomplish much of anything run rampant: “a lot of ways to measure presence/a lot of ways to measure essence” and sonic efforts that don’t do much other than crafting a mood ramble on for far too long.  The last song on the record convinces us that its failures are not the fault of Ferrari Sheppard.  Bey’s bland vocal styling is absent and Sheppard manages to build a solid instrumental groove over a distant vocal sample, making for a nice epilogue to the work.

As a whole, the project just feels unfocussed.  The songs don’t have any real structures and there’s not a whole lot of standout moments.  It almost sounds like Bey is just offering some off-the-cuff melodies to match the droning beats of Ferrari Sheppard.  Occasionally, Bey even returns to ideas from tracks far back on the record, making it almost sound like the record was thrown together in one sitting.  Bey also isn’t really that strong of a singer—as we hear when he attempts to bust out some high notes—so the project lacks a real personality.  Even Bey’s lyrics remain far too vague throughout.  There’s no major story or narrative making Bey’s attempts at social awareness and philosophy unfulfilled.  Obviously, not every song has to tell a story, but successful esoteric artists do enough to get their message across.  Run the Jewels, for instance don’t really incorporated an underlying narrative to their album structures, but the mood they craft clearly reacts to the problems facing the United States government and their newest effort clearly advocates for some type of revolution.  Bey’s slightly socially aware abstractions here simply don’t match up.

December 99th sounds like a 90s artist making fun of the modern day mumble-singers.  Bey’s nonsensical words and rambling melodic ideas fail to muster anything worth listening to deeply and it simply sounds like his isn’t putting in any effort.

-Donovan Burtan


Certainly a misfire.

Listen Via Tidal

Steve Lehman-Sélébéyone: Album Review

S�l�b�yone album cover

Jazz and hip-hop coexist along similar planes, however, a fusion of the two often results in a tendency towards one particular aesthetic.  For The Roots, the soundscape certainly leans more towards hip-hop, with the jazz induced horn improvisations providing a throwback sound.  Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly falls under a similar category, despite the tune “For Free? (Interlude),” which places Lamar’s fierce flow alongside be-bop influenced quartet playing.  Robert Glasper and Christian Scott lean in the opposite direction.  Their records breathe improvisation, an occasional hip-hop beat or rap verse sneaking into the ensemble sound to achieve a sense of modernity.  On his new record Sélébéyone, Steve Lehman is nearly dead center.  His angular, modern-jazz melodies perfectly complement the jumping overtones of Gaston Bandimic’s flow with vivid production pulling from both idioms.  Rhythm also plays a big role in the album, each song encompassing different influences in the underlying bass line, challenging the soloists to exist outside of their typical comfort zone.

“Laamb” kicks of the album intensely; the ominous drones complement the vocal urgency with anxious piano arpeggiations adding to the menacing ensemble sound.   Slowly a beat emerges with both rappers presenting brief verses, before ceding the space to Lehman and Maciek Lasserre for a long-form sax duet.  The song serves very well as an open-ended introduction: none of the soloists completely expose themselves with the lyrics remaining relatively esoteric alongside subtle improvisational melodies.  “Are You in Peace?” carries a bit more weight.  Many layers of Lehman’s sax playing linger over the modern jazz groove with highly articulated meter changes adding to the impact of the vocal and instrumental solos.  Both rappers touch upon moving on in the world while staying committed to their roots.  HPrizm suggests that his career “Depend[s] on the pen” but he “still spray[s] an aerosol,” implying that he has made it as a rapper, but still uses graffiti on the streets.  Bandimic also talks about his community, first suggesting that they are on stage creating art: “we’re flourishing as God intended,” then reminding the world that they are still at war: “There is no peace and no love today, only war.”

The following tune, “AKAP,” provides a decline in sonic activity.  Bandimic simply shares words over an electronic beat to release some of the tension that has been amassed over the first two songs.  “Origine” essentially throws the listener back into the thick of things.  Another ominous synthesizer beginning leads into a heavy beat with verses from each rapper as well as high intensity improvisations from keyboard and saxophone.  Similar events occur on “Cognition” with a bit more time given to the instrumentals.  The back side of the record may stand out a bit less than the front, but “Dualism” provides a dramatic high point as HPrizm is left in ambience with eerie melodies courtesy of Lehman; “Bamba” then ends the album off on a high note, its seven minute length filled to the brim with fiery performances.

The fact that Lehman’s group have placed rap within an advanced rhythmic space is no small feat and it may be the driving force behind the album’s ability to speak as both a work of contemporary jazz and hip hop.  Syncopated underlying bass lines provide the listener with varying rhyme schemes as the rappers are forced out of their comfort zone.  The rhythmic conception is also not entirely comfortable to the more jazz experienced players.  From bass-driven, African rhythms to slight London grime-tinged electronic beats the album presents a variety of sounds with the soloists guiding each other throughout.  There truly is a trade-off taking place.  Another product of these varying rhythmic approaches is contrast.  Although the album is a bit lacking in memorable vocal hooks, Lehman and his ensemble achieve contrast with each tune presenting different rhythmic motives in different ways.  Just as the rhyme scheme is made more advanced by varying metric schemes, the melodic development is constantly being shifted as well, leaving the soundscape open for variation.

Sélébéyone comes together extremely well.  Not only do all of the soloists present well-constructed material, they successfully construct a fusion of idiom without over-emphasizing any individual player.  By displacing each other rhythmically, the players open a cultural dialogue in which style and delivery constantly oscillate, resulting in fresh sounds and musical conceptions.

-Donovan Burtan

Steve Lehman presents a fantastic example of jazz/hip-hop fusion. Perhaps the album could benefit from stand-out singles but the overall experience is fantastic. 8.5/10

Kamaiyah-A Good Night in the Ghetto_First Impressions


Between Datpiff, Soundcloud, and Hot New Hip Hop, the internet has become an endless supply of free mixtapes.  Although it is very easy to make music accessible to a wide range of people, this ability makes the act of standing out much harder.  On her most recent project A Good Night in the Ghetto, Kamaiyah stands out by employing influence from grime and west coast rap with vicious flows and infectious hooks making for a unique sound.

Kamaiyah has the perfect voice for delivering looping, ear-worm hooks and she knows this.  In the first five tracks of the album, the focus is put on ruthless vigor, Kamaiyah destroying men who have wronged her on “Niggas” and articulating her perseverance on “I’m On.”  Throughout each of these initial tracks, looping electronic bass-lines accompany Kamaiyah’s melodic flow with enticing hooks spacing out the more speedy verses.  The grime influence seems to be the driving force behind the bass lines particularly on the “Fuck it Up.”  Kamaiyah is west coast so perhaps this is simply a modern-tinged version of G-funk, however, the heavy electronic elements in the beat certainly indulge in the sound conception of the other side of the pond.

On “Break You Down,” the listener is given the first glance at Kamaiyah’s tender side as the beat slows down to showcase the beauty in her voice.  Here, the subject of conversation is about sexuality.  Kamaiyah both suggests that the person the song is addressed to needs her to treat them right and that she is a “freak” so to speak, which serves as a powerful message as the hip hop community generally implies that “sexy” woman aren’t long term relationship material.  Kamaiyah may want to be a love interest of sorts, but she doesn’t need to lose her sexuality to be a suitable counter-part to someone else.

Having a nice voice is an aspect of rap not often discussed.  Although the genre doesn’t have singers per-say, a person’s voice definitely plays an important role in their success as a rapper.  There’s just something special about Kamaiyah’s voice.  Her flows can be very laid back and also in your face with her voice always fitting the sound of each song.  The character of Kamaiyah’s voice is another important factor in her ability to stand out.  It is fair to say that her presence will be immediately recognizable on any of the tracks she participates on the future.

Overall, I enjoyed this work quite a bit.  Kamiyah’s sound isn’t necessarily the most unique on the scene right now, but her aesthetic pallet signifies a high level of originality.  This combined with her great voice and knack for quick-hitting flow makes for a very enjoyable experience from beginning to end.


Speedy Ortiz- “Death Note”_Ear Worms

Foiled Again EP cover art

Fresh off of a solid 2015 album, Speedy Ortiz have a released an above average follow-up EP.  Sometimes EPs that closely follow albums are an attempt to extend the excitement of a good album, but this EP feels truly necessary from the very beginning with the killer straight-ahead rock tune “Death Note.”

“Death Note” is an anthem of self-love.  Opening with “Be kind to your bad self/Cause sooner or later you’ll come out good,” the song makes a point about how in times of self-doubt it is important to avoid being to hard on oneself as love may be the key to improvement.  There does seem to be some internal conflict as Dupuis contrasts her “Love letters to me” concept saying that “I only send anything not fond of me.”

Aesthetically the song doesn’t escape categorization as a simple rock tune, but its execution remains unique enough to warrant artistry.  The guitars use distortion well contrasting Dupuis’ pleasant melody.  Subtlety is key and the group does not attempt to show off with some sort of soaring guitar solo.

Although this song remains relatively easy to digest and categorize it certainly makes a good case for solid alternative rock in 2016.