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

8/10

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Laurel Halo-Dust: ALBUM REVIEW

“What’s In my Bag?” can go a lot of ways, many of them rather inconclusive—New Order bought a Lady Gaga remix album for a daughter, Lightning Bolt seemingly bought a bunch of random shit with cool covers, and Krist Novoselic was included for some reason.  In the case of Laurel Halo, however, the results are telling.  Citing a rather misfit bag of avant-weirdoes—cult figure Father Yod turned out to be an interesting Wikipedia search seeing as he died by hang-gliding accident “despite having no previous hang-gliding experience”—Halo illuminates the loose rhythmic and melodic sensibilities of her latest album “Dust.”

Artists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Henry Flint only sidestep typical song-form and allow for jarring cuts in the program and the blurring of rhythmic structures as their acoustic collages fly through space.  Halo fascinatingly places this ideology through an electronic music lens with tunes that throw together sketches of club beats and dive into complete abstraction in seemingly the same breath.

Although a hyperdub signee, Halo’s beats aren’t the straightforward, dance-able type.  On the opening cut, sparse bass lines juggle non-militant snares as her slightly juxtaposed vocal lines clash over top.  “Jelly” incorporates odd surface sounds that almost sound like taking a bite out of an apple.  The mid-range again is disorienting as a reliable, but disjointed bass sound rumbles beneath.  Perhaps the catchiest moment comes on “Moontalk” with the dazzling sounding sample and the fluid vocal lines, but overall Halo leaves you in a sort of liquid space not entirely dedicated to dance or abstraction.

The shorter cuts amplify this.  As “Jelly” reaches its space-bound completion, “Koinos” centers odd ball rhythmic motions around a subtle, looping melodic device.  Then wildly pitch-shifted vocals come through, adding to the hypnotic disorientation.  “Nicht Ohne Risiko” is a jolting mix of angles as textures bathe between the minimal “Who Won?” and the album’s closest pop moment.  Somehow, Halo never loses momentum on the album, but these tracks certainly pull the concept of time into a lot of different zones.

Halo’s lyrical sense is appropriately odd and occasionally charming. “You don’t meet my idol standards for a friend” charismatically bounces out on “Jelly.”  “Who Won?” throws together some masterful political undertones as saxophones wander over top: “what’s the password…the house is very big I only have five dollars.”  “syzygy” remains equally vague as Halo paints a despondent scene to complement her sonic gloom: “I was in a dead devil’s car she said get ready I turned my eyes away and she release an evil laugh…I said get up, I said tough love.”

On the other hand, Halo does tend to sneak up on her listener, which accomplishes an addicting aura as her collage somehow coalesces into one entity.  As the despondence develops on the six-minute burn “syzygy,” that “tough love” couplet becomes a kind of hook with a lushness gradually building up with each passing repetition. “Do U Ever Happen” follows with rumbling undertones that eventually turn to late night synthy glory with layers of soulful earnesty.

Halo’s sonic world is wholly unique and her understanding of past avant-garde endeavors seems to drive her aesthetic ideology, making for an album equal parts out and slow burn.  It won’t make sense on first listen, but you’ll come right back.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

On the Monthly: June 2017

Kelly Lee Owens-Kelly Lee Owens

“taps into ambient and drone traditions while also delivering a constant stream of danceable bass lines and bouncy synth arpeggiations.”

Full Review

Lorde-Melodrama

“Lorde took a while to come back, but the last four years have been all growth and her empire is just beginning.”

Full Review

SZA-Ctrl

“SZA pinpoints relatability while avoiding tired cliché”

Full Review

Clark-Death Peak

“a great deal of variety in the project and the logical march from light to mean makes it digestible and addicting”

Full Review

Vince Staples-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.'”

Full Review

Kara-Lis Coverdale-GRAFTS

“‘Grafts’ is one of her more condensed projects and although works like “A-480” and “Aftertouches” certainly offer blissful sublimity from beginning to end, “Grafts” is certainly her most no-moment-wasted work to date.”

Full Review

 

Kara-Lis Coverdale-Grafts: Album Review

Montrealer Kara-Lis Coverdale has an impeccable ear for ambient music and sound composition.  At 22-minutes, “Grafts” is one of her more condensed projects and although works like “A-480” and “Aftertouches” certainly offer blissful sublimity from beginning to end, “Grafts” is certainly her most no-moment-wasted work to date.  Housing three different designs—“2C,” “Fluttering,” and “Moments in Love”—the work has just enough time to develop each idea to its fullest extent before the next idea gradually gels into place over the course of a one or two minute transition period.  The road map is logical and Coverdale’s unbelievable melodic sense nails the execution.

“2C” opens with a church-like aura.  The droney, keyboard undertones have the clicking of the keys sound of an old organ as more unclear source material plays around with a simple melodic loop in the high-range atop a lush pillow of sound. Coverdale has some pauses in the beginning phrases to immediately develop the sonic environment.  Eventually, less predictable plucks of melodic sound play around as the first melodic source finds a groove-like state pulsing between two or three notes with swaths of harp-like sound adding more ambiance.

“Fluttering” maintains some of the undertones, but also builds a circular storm of melodic ideas above the slightly less brooding pillow of backgrounds. There’s the crystals of big pulsing sound; the fluttering textures of electronics; and again harp-like rotating—it’s a bit more top-heavy than the first piece and more short lived but it’s within the same sphere for sure.

The final section is a more typical aquatic, ambient environment with a grace of the church-like hum of the beginning of the album.  There’s a slowly arching keyboard sound in a relentlessly subdued space.  The detailing is impeccable.  For instance, there’s an audible shift in white noise around the start of each background loop—almost as if the room noise changes.  Also, the piece finds a bit of tension in a super soft, pulsing industrial sound that remains hidden in the background.  As opposed to the second piece playing with the balance of for and background, this one brings everything down and forces the listener to find tiny details within the mix.

The project finds a certain singularity.  Restarting “Grafts” at the end is logical, as if the spirit of the initial melodic idea was beneath the surface the whole time.  Part of this cohesion comes from the brilliant transition moments as the formal sections of the piece come to a close. Around 6:22, “Fluttering” offers its first sentiments before the slightly more formal 8-minute time slot. Coverdale begins to run the whole groove-state of the first section of the piece through a fade out and eventually through a high-pass (?) filter as spastic flutters of harp and electronic noise play around in the foreground.

Here, there’s a complete stop in movement around 7:54, but in the case of “Moments in Love,” the transition is even less pronounced. It almost feels like the high-melodies of “Flutter” fade out for 3 or 4 minutes and at around 12:30, the final wandering melodic idea begins to take shape.  Both of these transition point make the project ridiculously cohesive, while also turning into a slightly new direction.

Coverdale is certainly a fresh voice in ambient music. There’s traditional aesthetics in the mix, but she looks forward with a particularly lively approach to musical phrase and instrumental mixing. A return to a more “full-length” format is likely and she’s sure to amaze, but these 22 minutes are nearly flawless and impossible to put down.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Vince Staples-Big Fish Theory: ALBUM REVIEW

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.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Clark-Death Peak: Album Review

Deep into his career on Warp Records, UK’s Chris Clark is still surprising.  “Death Peak” continues his long streak of placing sound-art leaning material over a strong sense of rhythmic drive, but in terms of sheer length of songs this is his most ambitious project to date and the album’s early techno-induced numbers make for a new connotation to his sound.  The drama at the end of the work is huge to say the least with giant, shimmering stabs and Pink Floyd child-choirs coming into play as pulsing tracks bleed into one another, but the album holds onto fun dance-ability for the whole front half.  There’s a great deal of variety in the project and the logical march from light to mean makes it digestible and addicting.

Clark alludes to the violence that will inhabit the end of his project in the ominous first track.  After sparse melodies in a light, metallic texture, larger melodic motions start to inhibit the space with frightening vocals pushing towards a dark sonic landscape.  Although the next two tracks spend a lot more time on light-hearted material, this opening track helps prepare the taste buds for what’s to come.

“Butterfly Prowler” follows with a bouncy synth melody that remains in the equation throughout as the surroundings change color about 50 times.  Vocal pops on the twos and fours add a quirky dance vibe, before throbbing echoes add a dark smolder to the middle of the track.  “Peak Magnetic” picks up where “Prowler” left off with more jolting energy, this time a looping keyboard line remaining central throughout.

 

The album never has a moment where a song isn’t logically incorporated, but “Hoova” certainly heralds in a shift in mood.  The tracks very first moment is a big industrial explosion before relentless percussive noise takes over for the front-half of the track.  However, whereas songs like “Slap Drones” or “Catastrophe Anthem” only rev-up the storm, “Hoova” strives for a bit of a different ending.  Around the four minute mark, the song takes a turn to the atmospheric with soaring melodies and delicate vocals making for a break from the chaos.

“Slap Drones” is driving from the very beginning, but not in a completely violent manner.  Light shades of snare sound open before an abstract but club-worthy beat sets in.  Around the last 20 seconds of the track, the pummeling industrial sound is all-encompassing but again, Clark showcases an example of momentary clarity within the hectic intensity of the back half of his record, which makes his ploy into violence dynamic and palletable.  The album continues to amp things up for the next few tracks until the last number, “Un U.K,” offers a 10-minute reprisal of sorts of the path of energy on the whole album.

Clark is never one to offer an uninteresting project, but “Death Peak” is certainly an important work that utilizes his previously explored sonic talents while showcasing his ability to shine in the six to ten-minute long track format.  As he nears the second decade of his career behind the boards, it’s clear that his ambition is still strong and his talents are enough to execute his plans.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Perfume Genius-No Shape: Album Review

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.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10