I got the chance to speak with Gordon Grdina (guitar and Oud) on the radio tonight. He plays at La Vitrola tomorrow. We spoke a bit about his experiences learning from Gary Peacock, playing in the vastly diverse Vancouver scene, as well as the group Haram who he’s currently touring with.
On the apply titled “New Energy,” esteemed prince of subdued UK dance Four Tet finds inspiration in his older material and later explorations. The singles operate as such with pulsing, driving grooves and complementary melodies, yet the album blooms in a gradual manner, making the moments where the planets align truly pop. It’s an album for fans true and casual, sure to suit the boiler room stage with a bit more dance-able material.
After an intro, “Two Thousand Seventeen” is the slow burn highlight of the work. With the pillow of soupy base lines and the sparks of high vocals crafting the atmosphere, Tet’s huge bastion of a centerpiece looms. Despite priding himself on his minimalist recording process, Tet manages to find a great deal of different textures throughout the album. Here, the big melodic force evokes strings with its plucked timbres and oddly paced loops.
Foreboding melody marks the next string of tracks as melodies allude to oncoming action, before “Lush” and “Scientists” give it to you. Light on its feet, “Lush” remains sensible, but it’s biting speed reaches for the rafters as a mixed bag of gentle melodies combine for a heavenly atmosphere. “Scientists” is Four Tet’s songwriting at its finest. The pillars of bass line bounce over the acoustic sounding high-hat. Gradually more drums enter, before the track implodes with smoldering vocal combinations and a rogue trumpet solo.
“You Are Loved” is life affirming with its humanist, simmering synths, before “SW9 9SL” delivers the summary track. With the mean straightforward beat setting in right away, this track doesn’t mess around. Even the head room isn’t too lofty, focusing all energy on the rhythmic energy. Momentum seems to completely shift around the midpoint as Tet builds a “bass drop” type of effect out in open space. Melodies wander without a true rhythmic foundation, growing and boiling to a climax that immediately cuts back to the distilled groove that opened, except this time it’s adopted one of the signature warmly emotional bass melodies beneath it. The overall spirit of the work is funneled into this track as the tried and true dance spills into ambience, then brings something back for the fans.
“Daughter” is another standout with a gorgeous combination of bright vocal loops and more warm synths, before “Planet” brings it home with a pummeling victory lap. Perhaps some would classify the work as Four Tet doing Four Tet, however, his career path is evident in the music. Even on tracks that burn with dance energy he seems to find a bit of “Morning/Evening’s” ambient meditation to underpin his ideas. It’s a front to back experience that also features some of the guy’s best songwriting. There’s not many on his level right now.
DF is an Audio/Visual collaboration between Saxophonist Dustin Finer and visual artist Daniel Freder. Their new EP tries to both capture their immersive live performance as well as stretch into new territories with music video making.
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.
This week’s podcast features a talk with underground New York legend Matthew Shipp who first gained recognition as a member of David S. Ware’s band in the 1980s before collaborating with the likes of Roscoe Mitchell, El-P, Evan Parker, and everyone in between. He comes to Montreal on September 18th to play with Thomas Lehn (AT/DE) and John Butcher (UK).
Vince Staples’s persona is perhaps most well explained by his case for pandas as his favourite animal: “He thinks they all wanna die. It’s true that zookeepers often have to force them to procreate. Vince cites that—and the fact they just look so sad—as evidence they hate being alive. They’re his favourite animal.” The world is dark and terrible, but Staples also sounds like he’s half playing around all the time as if the concept of thinking the world is gross is “corny”—one of his most used words. On “Big Fish Theory,” Staples maintains his usual drawl speech and coy attitude as huge, biting electronic-influenced beats explode beneath him and hooks talk up his come up, moving from little pond problems to “countin’ up hundreds by the thousands.”
The album opens in murky territory with whistling wind and sparse electronic melody. Vince uses a dog-eat-dog type metaphor with “Crabs in a Bucket” to discuss the ruthless world of underground rap shows. As becomes common on the record, he tosses in a line about the black-entrepreneur experience in the United States: “Feds takin’ pictures doin’ play by play/They don’t ever want to see the black man eat,” but he hasn’t yet reached the “bitch I’m going all in” snarl of the back half of the record. “Big Fish” sees Staples lock into first gear. He still talks about getting past the little-town problems of his neighborhood, but as the hollow bass rolls through and Juicy J recites the boasting, robotic hook, the album alludes to a more commanding attitude.
An interlude follows to keep things under control, but Staples pops out some more fierce bars over the dance-vibe of “Love Can Be…” Admittedly, his first verse—which follows a cheeky, fast-paced Kilo Kish verse and a rather violent build-up of electronic static—is a bit underwhelming. For a three-minute track, the wait for a pummeling set of bars is a bit long, but after spouting off some quick phrases, Staples commands that biting electronic line with a verse about choosing money over women. Again, this whole “chase a check never chase a bitch” attitude seems a bit half-sarcastic considering that Staples doesn’t exactly seem to be all that interested in wealth. There’s just always some sense of Staples thinking all this rap shit is ridiculous while falling into certain tropes—it makes the record fun to sit with and reinterpret.
“745” continues the discussion of women in his life and the desires he was fed as a child and how they’ve led him down the wrong road: “All my life man I want fast cars, NASCARs/All my life I want runway stars, Kate Moss… All my life pretty women done told me lies.” Considering his later lyric “This is for my future baby mama/Hope your skin is black as midnight,” there seems to be an element of race involved: “Eyes can’t hide your hate for me/Maybe you was made for the Maybelline.” Brands like Maybelline have told him to desire rich white models for his whole life, but at the end of the day he can’t relate to these people and they’ve wronged him in the past.
After another quick interlude, the album starts a continuous string of savage. Produced by PC-music weirdo SOPHIE, “Yeah Right” hits as hard as just about any rap track has this year with a huge distorted 808. Vince offers a series of questions “Do the trap jump? Is the plug right? Got your head right?… Pretty woman wanna slit the wrist/Pretty woman wanna be a rich man’s bitch” then announces they’re full of shit with the repetitive chorus of “yeah right.” Kendrick Lamar then shows up for a traditional “I can put rappers on life-support/everyone wants to kill me” feature. It bangs. Some other highlights include the boiling bass-line of “BagBak,” the percussive energy of “Homage,” and the sludgy industry of “SAMO.”
Vince Staples has his cards in the right place. With voices like Stormzy and Skepta starting to gain traction in the US, Staples seems to be incorporating a bit of UK-grime influence, while also wearing his American rap influences on his sleeve. “745” sounds like an electronic version of some west coast rap slow-jam from the 90s and his bars could seem fit just about anywhere as quick-tempo jams also find place on the record. His songwriting is like punk-rock jabs rather than the lengthy jazz freak-outs of Kendrick Lamar or the wacky post-punk fusions of Danny Brown, but with the help of producers SOPHIE, Flume, Ray Brady, and Zack Sekoff, Staples combines new and old to look to the future.
Solo project of Mike Hadreas, Perfume Genius has been prolific throughout the current decade and never fallen short of staying true to their songwriting footing. “No Shape,” their latest, isn’t earth shattering and doesn’t mark a dismissal from Hadreas’s glam-baroque pop (with a dash of heartfelt ballad) background, however, it’s a logical step forward and never falters in delivering entertaining, emotionally moving material.
The album opens with a great sampling of the dynamic range to come. We open with a tiny, twinkling piano line as Hadreas sings esoterically about how our true self is bound to come out eventually: “Even in hiding/Find it knows you.” As he rounds the corner of his chorus, a huge explosion of instruments and vocals soars to the moon and back. The album continuously bounces between soaring hugeness and subdued tenderness and right from the get-go Hadreas gives his listener a taste of both sides of the spectrum.
“Slip Away” follows with one of the best standalone tracks on the record. Percussive bass sounds open before Hadreas unleashes infectious catchiness with each passing lyric. The chorus flies in leaps and bounds with pounding drums, rattling cymbals, and some huge plucked melodic motions. The lyrics bleed empowerment, touching upon loving the way you want to love: “They’ll never break the shape we take/Baby let all them voices slip away.” It’s a true anthem and maintains all the momentum suggested in the introduction.
From here, the album operates in groups of songs a bit more. Ideas grow over handfuls of songs with ups in downs in energy and dynamics carrying over from track to track as well. Lyrically, “Just Like Love,” “Go Ahead,” and “Valley” continue the notion of “be yourself,” but hone in on feeling confident and effortless in public. First, Hadreas encourages a child to ignore those who judge him: “They’ll talk/Give them every reason/For child, you walk,” then “Go Ahead” takes a mission statement of ‘go ahead and judge I’m unbothered,’ before “Valley” wonders “How long must we live right/Before we don’t even have to try?”
These three tracks are all connected sonically by some slightly more subdued grooves—in comparison to the first pair of tracks—that don’t quite reach the balladic levels of later tracks like “Alan” or “Braid.” Hadreas generally works in pretty small cells with songwriting—most of his tracks don’t run much longer than three minutes—so, having three or four of them intertwined in theme and sonic pallet makes the album’s momentum rather effortless.
Later, some of Hadreas’s most breathtaking moments come when he places his voice out in space completely untethered. The final track, “Alan,” is the most straightforward example. His flying high vocals reach a blissful purity as he sings to his lover: “You need me/Rest easy/I’m here/How weird.” Elsewhere, Hadreas doesn’t completely let his listener in on his plan. “Valley” is has a nice little chugging guitar line, but all of the sudden the space is cleared for a pillow of strings (and organ?) with Hadreas crying out over the top. He’s got the delicacy to execute these floating moments and the various approaches he takes to them makes for a varying listening experience.
Admittedly there are a few tracks here and there that are less notable than others. “Choir” and “Die 4 U” are particularly left field lyrically, but the minimalism in the sonic material suggests that the lyrics should be the main focus. The result is a bit of stagnation, but luckily things pick back up a bit to finish the record strong.
A review of this record would also be incomplete without mention of the fantastic Weyes Blood feature. The song “Sides” takes up a thesis about the balance between alone time and letting one’s significant other into one’s world in times of trouble with Hadreas and Natalie Mering each sharing a verse. More than just adding her voice to the equation, Mering seems to take over the sonic fingerprint of the song as her voice comes into play, making for a complementary yet welcome change of pace. Perhaps Hadreas’s next record could look to recreate this a bit more often.
Yet again, Perfume Genius delivers with “No Shape.” It’s a sonic tour de force with biting lyrics and moments of tender heart-wrench provided solely by Hadreas’s voice. An occasional weak spot falls relatively unnoticed as the boundless momentum pushes energy forward from beginning to end.