boygenius-boygenius: Album Review

You don’t see it everyday that three songwriters who’ve garnered recognition in their own right decide to dive into a band together. It’s more often the opposite wherein bands with multiple singers and songwriters grow apart and head in different directions, but maybe that’s where the boygenius moniker comes in.

Given four days of studio time, the members of the band became each other’s yes men, convincing each other that all their ideas were good, and valid—you know, the way society tends to tell smart young men that their ideas are worth pursuing, in some cases leading to a lifetime of entitlement. Rather than being a three headed monster of headstrong, entitled men; boygenius are a group of women songwriters who probably naturally avoid dominating the conversation and find confidence in communal assurance rather than walk in the door already sporting it. Over the course of the six songs, three voices all flow in and out of the spotlight making for a perfectly balanced elision of the talents at hand.

The songwriting differences are key.  Although all three generally get tossed into indie rock, Bridgers’ contemplative and snarky folk leanings don’t necessarily encompass the emo inflected primal yell of Baker, and Dacus is the most guitar-centric of the three.  You can almost hear where a song turns from the initial idea of one of the songwriters and then gets ornamented by another presence at hand, or enveloped into some sort of group sound.  “Salt in the Wound,” for example takes the slow burning rock form of a Dacus tune like “Pillar of Truth,” but when the guitars begin to roar, Baker’s signature belts help lift the tune into the stratosphere–the last moment of the song is the gleaming highlight of the work as both emboldened voices lean up to their respective high notes over the massive stew of guitar sound.

Single “Me and My Dog,” on the other hand is inline with the Bridgers brand of humor, longing for a simple life rather than one spent stewing over heartache: “just me and my dog and an impossible view.”  Again the climax gets molded into something new with the assistance of Baker and Dacus, the two combining to create a supportive pillow for Bridgers’ cries.

Perhaps the through-line of this album, and the solo work of each artist, would be their lyrics.  Yes they’re generally sad, but there’s always specificity in each of them.  On her debut, Baker centered a song around “Appointments,” giving a clinical approach to escaping depressive tendencies; and Dacus talked about a “Night Shift” to avoid seeing an ex-partner.  Bridgers’ most quotable line is probably “emotional motion sickness,” which showcases the visceral reactions some people can give us.

Here, the three arts continue coin terms and find nuanced ways to ground their emotional states.  Whether it be the escapism that “Souvenir’s” can yield or the weird associations with the word “Home” that come with the young 20’s, the EP constantly offers ideas that are relatable, but also impossible to imagine anyone else executing the same way.

At six songs and 22 minutes, the EP calls for more; but it’s proof of the viability of the project.  Boygenius could easily produce a couple phenomenal full-length projects and by the sounds of it they probably will.

-Donovan Burtan



Vince Staples-FM!: Album Review

Vince Staples can just rap his ass off, so it shouldn’t necessarily come across as a surprise that he’s reinvented himself several times into his career at the age of 25.  He doesn’t produce so maybe some would imagine him sitting around just ready to throw rhymes at the wall over whatever gets handed to him, but the sonic, visual, and lyrical direction he’s aiming for is always clear, concise, and fully formed.  Whether it be the gothic drear that underpinned the catchy sensibilities on Summertime ’06 or the lawless electronic sprawl of Big Fish Theory, Staples always sounded in the driver’s seat, making every detail flow immaculately.

FM! is relatively straightforward, tackling the culture of pop-rap radio mixing, DJ-ing, and even commentary in a short, flowing opus.  The quick run-time sounds like an excerpt from a pop-art world where Staples holds the pen, deciding who the big names of the moment are and even crafting a hilarious call-in mini-game where a contestant doesn’t know his name.  Hooks and features abound over minimal, pounding production primarily from Kenny Beats who’s clicks, beeps, and 808’s replace the shields of electronic lightning from BFT.

The album continues a thread of fearlessness in Staples’s choice of collaborators.  Staples doesn’t care if you think he’s going too commercial or too experimental, if he digs SOPHIE and Ty Dolla $ign he’s going to jump on a track with them and the songwriting always seems to come together due to Staples’ adaptability.  People like Ty and Kehlani bring a vocal chops and melodic melodies to the mix, but a tune like “Outside” still jostles on with the help of Staples’ enthusiastic refrain.

The lyrics are of course snarky, but not mindless.  Whether it be candid, off the cuff remarks about Staples’ childhood neighborhood: “we gonna party till the sun or the guns come out,” or a more solemnly tuned song like Tweaking, which discusses coping mechanisms and the struggle for mental stability that comes with violence: “When Jibari died was off the porch for homicides/Then when Hefe died, I bought some things to pass the gas/But when Johnny died all I had was shows booked.” Staples infamously said lil Bow Wow was his favorite rapper and came under fire for dissing the 90’s gangsta rap boom and by hiding this sentiment in an overall pop-rap oriented work he showcases the cruelty which comes in wanting to hear the work of “real ganstas” with blood on their hands and darkness in their past in consumable music.

Listening to the type of station Staples is referring to this week, some of the big items were the hook for single of the moment “Mo Bamba” spliced all over the place; verses from rhymer of the moment Cardi B’s growing bag of features; and the in-between eye catching grace of Drake’s rap singing.  Here, “Mo Bamba” would be a tiny snippet of Tyga effortlessly bouncing over an impossibly late-night club beat; Cardi B would be Earl Sweatshirt’s 15 seconds of fleeting gravitas, and Drake would be replaced by Staples crowning himself the zeitgeist king of this world he’s created.  Although the work is short, it’s merely compressed and Staples somehow has involved himself with enough material to keep an FM station going for a lot longer than 25 minutes.

-Donovan Burtan


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


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


Looking Ahead: 11/2.

Vince Staples-FM!

Surprise release from the adventurous west coast rapper sees him tackle more straightforward club moods to follow last year’s electronic opus.

Kelly Moran-Ultraviolet

Associated with Oneohtrix Point Never, and having found success in the contemporary classical community, Kelly Moran continues her solo career with her Warp! debut, making music that pushes piano into a completely new context.

Jessica Moss-Entanglement

Moss made my year-end list last year and Entanglement sees her again molding tiny ideas into massive events.

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