Armand Hammer-Paraffin: Album Review

I get the sense that billy woodz and ELUCID see themselves as somewhat of a dying breed.  Whether it be the fact that they’re black, underground rappers in this dark period of Brooklyn gentrification, or the fact that their music doesn’t really concern itself with anything but biting rapping in this time of rap-singing; the pair stand out and sonically and lyrically paint a fleeting and violent picture of a world about to dissipate.

In the past, ELUCID has referred to his neighborhood as “the final frontier of gentrification” and equally dark, sarcastic couplets like woodz’s “onion powder only thing on they spice rack/but cats act like Quinton on his way” or even ELUCID’s candid mention of an “Urban green space” liter the work.  Complemented by a dense and vivid cacophony of buzzing electricity and loose jazz–and that one wandering Frank Ocean sample–the world they paint is all parts brooding and dark, making every word, no matter how esoteric, feel cataclysmic.  At first glance, the pair’s chemistry–and slight vocal similarity–makes them sound like one hive-mind finishing its own sentences, which is perhaps the source of the work’s propulsion.  Song structures, refrains, verses, and samples all melt into one another for a jolting singular feel throughout its run time.

Not unlike milo’s project from last month, Paraffin is hard to quantify, but the pair’s intensity keeps each listen on the edge of its seat and you can bet that these two will have plenty more to say just about every time they link up.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

 

 

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Marie Davidson-Working Class Woman: Album Review

You know she’s kidding when she starts off “Work It” with simply “you wanna know how I get away with everything? I work, alllll the FUCKING time.”  Like much of her new album, Marie Davidson says this with such drawling dead-pan tone you don’t exactly know how you’re supposed to react to it.  However, between her staple role in Montreal band Essai Pas and a litany of solo projects and collaborations, Davidson is legitimately one of hardest working people in electronic music today.

Over the course of the decade she’s honed her dynamic brand of French techno sounds all while being critical of her position in the world, knowing that club culture can have its faults from the harmless fake fans to the more terrifying lack of real concern for people’s health and, particularly, women’s safety.  Working Class Women is a pointed answer to an age where capitalism has turned even feminism into a grounds for commodification and destruction of women’s autonomy all while continuing to break new sonic ground for the creative electronic musician.

The idea of a woman’s work is an important battle ground at this point in time.  Women are thankfully no longer limited to the house wife role, however, we also live in the gig economy where everyone is their own boss and nobody has health insurance and certain publications and advertisements are acting like it’s inspiring if women (and any lower class person) go to hell and back everyday so they can become a “doer.”

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On “Work it,” in particular, Davidson sounds like this dubious rhetoric, but she places a critical lens on it with the tenacity of the violent sonic environment and the aforementioned sarcasm.  This theme permeates the album.

Opener “Your Biggest Fan” sees Davidson facing a lot of questions from a fake fan including one particularly jarring line where the character wonders if she really needs all the equipment she carries around.  Whether it be the literal musical experience of dealing with sound dudes who don’t believe the women coming to their venue actually know what they’re talking about, or perhaps the reactions to a young female journalist’s admittedly flawed take on the Aziz Ansari story, Women are facing this dichotomy of needing to become workaholics while simultaneously being side-eyed in their work as if they cannot handle the tasks they are doing.  Despite seeing the absence of Davidson’s vocals, plainly title “Paranoid Workaholic Bitch” sees this in its full-throttle violent energy.

Another point of discussion in today’s mainstream is Mental Health.  Another seemingly well-intentioned battle ground, Mental Health is somewhat of a SEO buzzword that capitalism has gnashed its fangs into in recent years.  Speaking with a disembodied male voice, Davidson repeats the work “Crazy” constantly and also flirts with insanity: “you like it when it’s insane?”  I’m sure this doesn’t literally sound like anyone’s therapy appointments now, but the idea of the manic pixie dream girl still permeates much of our media so modern women tend to be faced with another contradictory notion as they must both be well versed in mental health issues as well as unhinged and fun in the dating game.

It could even be more autobiographical than that as we’re living in an era where these mental health concerns can also creep into our analysis of pop stars and performers.  I won’t dive into the complicated stupidity of 2018 Kanye, but even in the Yeezus era there were ideas that West was losing it and this was reflected in his jarring music–and don’t get me started on the rhetorical sludge that surrounds musicians who have fallen victim to suicide.  Davidson’s live shows carry a certain tenacity so, I’m sure people have thought it reflected a crazed person letting entirely loose with their art–an ideal that simply wouldn’t be sustainable with the rigorous (read: workaholic) touring schedule of the modern performer.

The album can be tied specifically into Davidson’s experience, but it also addresses contemporary culture in a more sweeping way and thankfully there’s room for fun in there too.  Whether you want to feel the overwhelming weight of the day, or head-bang it away, Working Class Woman has you covered.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

 

 

 

Brockhampton-Iridescence: Album Review

The Brockhampton ethos is a bit torn between endearingly immature and just plain immature.  America’s greatest boy band had an intentionally EPIC 2017 with their three album releases, one of which I especially enjoyed and reviewed, and between their social media presence and wild music videos they’ve become a cultural force.  Having come together through a Kanye West Forum, the group is certainly a product of the internet so its sensible that they would be good at using the internet to replace a traditional infrastructure of PR and label to support them, but this begs the question of whether or not this open media landscape has produced a healthy system.  Would Kevin Abstract be rapping about same sex attraction on RCA records right now if his group didn’t first prove themselves to be a consistently titanium brand throughout 2017? Likely no, however as their brand grows, it becomes a bit harder to decide if this is an apt “listen to the kids” moment or if the frenzy is approaching concerning levels.

Below is a tweet wherein Abstract encourages a fan to risk their job by offering discounts to costumers who stream their album–a part of the loosely organized twitter campaign to get the boys a number 1 album.  Again, a hip hop group that emphasizes raw emotional honesty; has previously kicked out their member who was accused of abuse; and rarely falls into misogyny or other tropes of male-made, commercially successful music earning a number 1 album could be huge, but we live in a post-Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Kanye, and even Lil Uzi society.  These rappers have their faults, Lamar has supported xxxtentacion and his “stretch-mark” line is certainly not the best example of male allyship, but he and the rest of these rappers have talked about inner strife, including depression, without making themselves into a vessel, to quote Mitski,  confessing diary entries that make their twitter followers feel like they have a direct line into their psyche.

Of course I’m supposed to be a music journalist and I’m suppose to review the music not their personality, but by using social media in this fashion, the group, their personalities and their music are becoming harder and harder to separate.

Iridescence marks a more lush production pallet for the band.  They still rely on big, gummy melodic devices to complement their harder raps–i.e. “New Orleans” which doesn’t sound too different from previous openers like “Heat” or “Boogie”–and more singalong moments to pin down their more somber ones, “San Marcos” being the most exacting example, but recording at Abbey Road with an actual budget certainly fleshes these moments out more.

The band has explored completely new territories as the project is intentionally inflected with European influences.  “Weight” is the best example here as the rappers discuss the issues that they’ve faced in their come up with a 90s UK Garage breakdown in the middle.  There are of course limits to everything and with this many members, they’ve sort of come into a very specific collection of roles and ideas.  Sure, Bearface raps, but its middling and he reverts right back to his singing later on.  Merlin does his wild flow alongside Joba, Kevin Abstract does his standard mix of autotune singing and autotune rapping, and Matt Champion honestly gets kind of lost in the mix.  The album also has some underwhelming material in the middle, “District” is uninspired and haphazard, whereas “Vivid” is plain boring.

Brockhampton is probably an overall good, and “Weight” and “San Marcos” could be some of their best material yet, but the frenzied fandom makes them a bit unsustainable.  They can only change it up so much if there fans are front and center on every step of the process.

-Donovan Burtan

6.5/10

Yves Tumor-Safe in the Hands of Love: Album Review

I’m certainly not going to say that Yves Tumor came out of nowhere, as TEAMS he made music that drew all sorts of lines between sonic exploration and pop-minded accessibility, but this past is so fluid and unpredictable that it’s hard not to listen to Safe in the Hands of Love, his most fully realized work to date, as evidence of time or space travel.  Similarly to SOPHIE’s debut earlier this year, the work smashes ideas of song form, album flow, genre all in one feel swoop and somehow lands on its feet for the most part.

Single Noid is the most focused exercise of the album.  The album opens on an intro track that pushes and pulls a trumpet sound over static energy; followed by Economy of Freedom which again takes sound and stirs it up like soup, eventually adding yearning vocals; and the more structured Honesty, a song that almost sounds like something off of Laurel Halo’s Dust with an actual meter and lyrics about the early stages of love when you’re both unsure and infatuated.  All this amounts to a gradual focusing of ideas, which to an extent is what Yves Tumor is all about.  The listener is put out in the dark before a gradual sense of familiarity eventually sets in.

The beginning of Noid is thus both sudden and expected as the gradual decline from the no-man’s land of the very beginning of the album climaxes with some sort of indie-post-disco world with a tightly wound drum part and fat bass line.  Here the lyrics somewhat approach protest music, showcasing how black people feel unsafe basically anywhere outside of their homes due to police presence: “Have you, have you looked outside/I’m scared for my life/They don’t trust us.”

From there, the project meanders a bit in this familiar-ish space before blasting off with distortion on the final track.  A solemn string melody here, some punchy, sharp drums there, contrasted later by a distant maniacal preacher.  More rockist tendencies set in with the vocals between the barked out verses and screamed out choruses of Lifetime or the (dare I say new metal sounding?) calls of “I CANT RECOGNIZE MYSELF” of Recognizing the Enemy.  Even when the songforms somewhat make traditional sense with something approaching normal album flow, there’s a sense that you don’t know where anything is coming from.

The project is certainly an important exploration of sound, but to an extent its ambition is a bit over the top.  Sure, we’ve been given great albums that don’t necessarily give a lot of hooks to hold onto, or leave the listener out in the dark for periods of time to eventually bring them back to light with a big pop moment, but there needs to be some sort of sonic through line, whether it be Sophie’s hyper-fake plastic sheen or Laurel Halo’s crunchy texture feel, or the dark cloudy feel of say Massive Attack;  Tumor’s throughline seems to be the lack of one, which creates a unique experience but also makes it a bit hard to listen to repeatedly.  He’ll for sure develop as a songwriter, however, and the project is certainly going to leave a mark on a particularly vivid year of fractured musical approaches.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10

Noname-Room 25: Album Review

Maybe it’s reading into things too much to say that Fatimah Warner attains a sense of urgency on her second Noname album due to financial pressure, but the project was made in LA–a new move for the Chicago-born talent–in a month–after two years of praise of the potential shown on “Telefone”–with her family back home in mind and she sounds ON FIRE. Sure, Noname is of the warm, low-key jazz rap breed, but in comparison to her debut’s haze, here the young rapper sounds untouchable with a newfound sense of confidence making for a jam packed 35 minutes that’ll stick to you like glue.

The energy of Room 25 is encapsulated in its intro track.   After the relatively standard pillow of vocals sets in, Warner ponders why her listeners might be tuning in, suggesting a late night drive, “religion, Kanye, bitches” but she doesn’t care: “Nah, this is for me.”

The sonic shifts of the record haven’t completely set in yet, but the lyricism is sharper, seeing the rapper address both well meaning fans and those who weren’t on board for the first record.  Although Noname wields her spoken-word background to paint vivid tales and address socially minded issues, as she’s mentioned in interviews, she doesn’t necessarily want her work to be pitted against other rappers, in particular women, who are more overtly sexual in their work.  As she says in her recent FADER profile: “A lot of my fans… I think they like me because they think I’m the anti-Cardi B. I’m not.”

So, when she says a line like “My pussy wrote a paper on colonialism in conversation with a marginal system in love with Jesus” she captures both the braggadocios sexual energy of the likes of Lil Kim or Cardi B and the more focused ‘conscious’ point about society in relation to her race.  And, again, she’s just saying things that are on her mind, Warner doesn’t want to be FOR anyone other than herself.

That energy of those first 90 seconds never lets up leading to highlights such as the punchy, bass-heavy follow-up Blaxploitation, which highlights Warner’s sense of humor over a more blazing sonic territory: “Keep the hot sauce in her purse and she be real, real blacky/Just like a Hillary Clinton, who masqueraded the system.”  Prayer Song sees hushed tones, but powerful raps that glance at the contradicting stereotypes of black masculinity: “why or why my dick gettin’ bigger this violence turns me on.”  And, of course, the Chicago posse cut of the moment “Ace” featuring words from Smino & Saba and a chorus of “fuck is you sayin?”

Even at only 35 minutes, its hard to distill down the album into one highlight reel.  Without ever over stepping her bounds, Noname showcases wit and brilliance both sonically and lyrically, completely living up to the standard set by her previous work.

-Donovan Burtan

8.5/10

 

 

Steven Hauschildt-Dissolvi: Album Review

Deep into a career on the famously boundryless Kranky and Ghostly International record labels, Chicago native Steven Hauschildt continues to hone his hauntingly open-ended brand of techno.  Never settling too deeply into one texture, Dissolvi sees cascading, emotionally tinged harmonies float around sounds ranging from Julia Barwick’s loose, echoy vocals to something vaguely resembling radio-friendly song form–Album highlight “Sycope” sees skittering synthesizers sounds wielded into driving action with a blunt kick drum before Brooklyn’s Gabi adds a sense of drama with her emboldened, smoldering soprano.  It’s ambient but driven; glacial yet dynamic; and a great modern glance at the world of ambient techno.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

Troye Sivan-Bloom: Album Review

If I had to guess a couple months ago which pop album would be dragged down by material that sounds like its most underwhelming single, I would’ve guessed Sweetener.  As mentioned in the review “the light is coming,” is awkward and doesn’t gel well with the future-pop ease of “God is a Women,” “No Tears Left to Cry,” and the rest of the record.  Luckily, that single turned out to be a blip on the radar of an otherwise solid album.  In the case of Bloom, the most underwhelming single “Dance to This” turned out to included Grande, seemingly as a back-up singer? (WHAT A WASTE), and describes the album much more than the buoyant, horny joy of January’s “My My My!”

Maybe it’s a marketing problem–eight months from single to album is way too long especially when the record doesn’t even reach the 40 minute mark–but Bloom feels like record that professes to be tasteful, lush, and delicate and ends up just being far too one-note.  Make no mistakes, Troye Sivan can make a queer as fuck bop and that’s inspiring considering his place in the world, and of course addressing topics such as bottoming and the jarringly omni-present tale of underaged queers hooking up with older men is vital, but pop music can be tasteful AND exciting, immature in an endearing way.  Bloom’s monochromatic sheen isn’t enough to carry Sivan’s soft-spoken vocals to the upper echelon of critically acclaimed pop.

Part of the issue may lie in Sivan’s vocal range–he doesn’t really have any, both in the literal pitch sense as well as the personality sense.  Even when the songs are good, it’s hard to feel like Sivan is the only one who could deliver the vocal takes, and there’s little runs or variation.  “The Good Side” sees Sivan singing the swaying melody gently and plainly, only one variation coming in the last chorus.  Sure, part of the appeal of albums of the likes of Mount Eerie’s “A Crow Looked at Me” or Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie and Lowell” is the clear and simple singing, but these works are more lyrically driven, dealing with grief in an open way, whereas Sivan is writing a simple goodbye to an ex lover in the context of a pop record so it doesn’t quite hit you in the gut.

When the songs get a bit more exciting, they tend to be dragged down by the following track, making the album constantly loose momentum.  “My My My!” goes into a ballad; “Bloom” goes into the even less impassioned ballad “Postcard;” and “Lucky Strike” is followed by the gradually developing “Animal.”  Even when Sivan hits the listener with two “bangers” in a row, they’re the underwhelming “Dance to This” and the sheerly boring “Plum.”

Just in a general sense, Bloom doesn’t stack up to the unabashed gay joy that it’s supposed to and maybe it would’ve been less annoying if he released it all at once, but it still wouldn’t have stuck out in a crowd.

-Donovan Burtan

6/10