Album-art-for-Lantern-by-Hudson-Mohawke Hudson Mohawke – Lantern

★★★★☆

Hudson Mohawke (aka Ross Birchard) is a wild, melody-obsessed producer whose beats engulf listeners in an environment of his own creation. His sophomore release, Lantern, is organized chaos at its finest; it has a frenetic energy emphasized by textural synths and bass.

Sonically, Hudson Mohawke is maximalist, with overproduced electronic beats that hit hard with little pause. Gritty, multilayered tracks that throb and pulsate as microbeats are layered and melodies are affected with breaks and drops. This oversaturation is at its peak near the end of Lantern on “Portrait of Luci” and “System.” HudMo’s tracks are more neoclassical than anything, with complex arrangements that happen to be manipulations of synths, drum kicks, and occasional vocals, instead of traditional orchestral instrumentation.

Four tracks feature artists, but do so discretely. The vocals don’t distract or outshine the production, but are very intentional. HudMo uses Jhene Aiko and Miguel’s features as tools to construct his perfect compositions.

Hudson Mohawke chose not to feature any rappers on this album, unlike his previous releases. HudMo’s history runs in hip-hop—he had a hand in several rap hits of the recent past, and is a part of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music. Breaking away from earlier hip-hop affiliations and previous trap endeavors (such as TNGHT with Canadian DJ Lunice), HudMo has tried really hard to not be bound to his previous sound.

“Ryderz” is the one track on Lantern that is an overt nod to old, soul-sampling Kanye. The track features a sped up sample of “Watch Out For The Riders,” by D. J. Rogers, adorned with crashing percussion à la Kanye West.

Throughout Lantern one can tell when HudMo is trolling listeners a bit; he teases expectations, offering “breaks” in the otherwise overwhelming production, satisfying the need for quirkier interruptions in the beat. “Lil Djembe” stands out because it is perfectly off.

It’s weird instrumentation, but with the structure of a banger.

Similarly, “Scud Books” triumphantly bumps, causing a confused euphoria because the trap production is borderline migraine-inducing with screeching embellishments, a blaring horn section and keys that melodically dash around.

Opposite the general over-the-top feel of Lantern, feeling gluttonous at times, the track “Indian Steps (feat. Antony)” is slower—as close to a ballad as HudMo may ever get. The bass pumps with emotional lyrics sung by Antony, “Look at the sky/Now look through my eyes/Swim up from the deep/Dance in a field of weakness/Forever I love you/Like a lamb under the gun/I tried to guard your spirit/You became someone.” While the majority of the track is consistently calmer, the end shifts into deranged noise to close out the track. The chemistry is clear; Hudson Mohawke will, in fact, be producing Antony’s next album, alongside Oneohtrix Point Never.

HudMo seems to be hyperaware of what his tracks evoke. His melody obsession is obvious, but he consciously force certain sounds into pleasing structures.

Hudson Mohawke – Lantern tracklist:

  1. “Lantern”
  2. “Very First Breath (feat. Irfane)”
  3. “Ryderz”
  4. “Warriors (feat. Ruckazoid and Debaeux)”
  5. “Kettles”
  6. “Scud Books”
  7. “Indian Steps (feat. Antony)”
  8. “Lil Djembe”
  9. “Deepspace (feat. Miguel)”
  10. “Shadows”
  11. “Resistance (feat Jhene Aiko)”
  12. “Portrait of Luci”
  13. “System”
  14. “Brand New World”
Album-art-for-Mercy-by-Active-Child Active Child – Mercy

★★★★☆

From the very beginning of his career, Active Child (aka Pat Grossi) swept us into his own universe. Mercy is the sophomore album from Grossi, and is in a similar style to his debut You Are All I See, but there are some stylistic changes that Grossi made in the four years between albums. Mercy effortlessly moves between ambient rhythms, neo-soul, and subtle pop beats; Grossi’s style could be described as angelic acoustic post-dubstep that evokes an introspective yet fun feeling.

The tracks on Mercy fluctuate between chill and dazed to dance tracks. “Stranger” has a solid pulsating, club-ready beat, “Never Far Away” has a late ’90s/earl ’00s R&B vibe, and “Too Late” is a piano ballad. While this album is still driven by electronic instrumentation, it isn’t used in as upbeat a manner as it was on You Are All I See. Mercy is calmer in comparison, which works well and makes the album seem more mature.

Beginning with an acoustic guitar, Grossi croons, “Darling, how have you been/I know the world is low/But with patience you will find/A new strength and piece of mind,” on “Darling.” Grossi’s lyrical style is simple and repetitive. This track in particular is reminiscent of a lullaby—perhaps one of the stand out moments on Mercy. The track is delicate and perfectly placed amongst the more beat-oriented production on the album. Grossi is particularly skilled at striking a balance between the moods and sounds on the album.

Grossi’s vocals are choral, polished, and soulful; he did grow up as a member of the Philadelphia Boy’s Choir. His voice is wonderfully paired with his production style. The marriage between the two stands out on the title track, “Mercy.” On most of the album he stays in a higher range, which is gorgeous, but when he consciously dips into his deeper voice it has a grittier vibe.

“Midnight Swim” is a precious moment amidst vocals, electronic production, and a little bass. The track is entirely instrumental and primarily composed of strings. The track begins light and quirky, with subtle distortion lurking in the background. The strings are plucked in a jarring staccato fashion, distracting from the echoes and glittering guitar strums happening simultaneously. Eerie electronic slices make brief cameos before the track turns entirely to a drone. It is easy to get caught up in Grossi’s vocals, so having the instrumental break brings the listener back to focusing on production.

Grossi is a like a very polished and sonically interesting late ’90s boy band member gone astray. What stands out about Grossi is his compositional skill and use of his voice to obtain the sound he wants.

While listening to Mercy, one can get a sense of Grossi’s understanding of music.

While Mercy isn’t exactly a “fun in the sun” summer album, it suits milder afternoons and the occasional lonely night. Aesthetically, it engages from the beginning, and technically, it is masterfully made. Grossi has fine-tuned his style and talents, making Mercy a necessary listen.

Active Child – Mercy tracklist:

  1. “1999”
  2. “These Arms”
  3. “Never Far Away”
  4. “Darling”
  5. “Mercy”
  6. “Midnight Swim”
  7. “Stranger”
  8. “Temptation”
  9. “Lazarus”
  10. “Too Late”

 

Album-art-for-Restless-Ones-by-Heartless-Bastards Heartless Bastards – Restless Ones

★★★★☆

Heartless Bastards first came together as a three-piece outfit in Cincinnati, Ohio, including singer Erika Wennerstrom and her then-boyfriend Mike Lamping. After a couple releases (Stairs and Elevators, All This Time) the duo parted ways, so Wennerstrom headed to Austin, Texas. What came of the breakup and move was The Mountain, which turned out to be quite a success for the band.

Heartless Bastards is now back with Restless Ones. This new album is classic Heartless Bastards—blues, rock, country, whatever sound comes out of guitarist Mark Nathan’s magical stringed instrument.

If trademarking a signature sound were a thing, Heartless Bastards would be first in line to protect its valuable property. Restless Ones is all the best things about Heartless Bastards, like Wennerstrom’s honest and heartfelt lyrics, and a distinct, full musical arrangement.

There’s no way to mistake Heartless Bastards for another band.

Restless Ones begins with the fantastic “Wind Up Bird,” in which Wennerstrom discusses ingenuity and how deception and fabrication eventually wears thin. The opening guitar riff could give an easily spooked person a heart attack. If that sound were physical, it would rip through speakers and everything else it came into contact with. The guitars sound no less than wonderful in “Wind Up Bird.”

The album’s first single, “Gates of Dawn,” is a perfect pop song that’ll probably be played on repeat on every alternative station in the country. It’s quick and the lyrics are sparse, but Wennerstrom still manages to be concise with her train of thought as she sings, “I have awoken/The spell it has been broken/Went through the cold, cold wind of the eastern snow.” Drummer Dave Colvin is absolutely tireless in his efforts on “Gates of Dawn.” The drumming is precise and extremely meticulous; he plays every part with purpose.

In “Into the Light,” the entire band plays excellently, including plucky, cheery piano, which is somewhat unusual for a Heartless Bastards song. The track touches on the mental and emotional ailment of over-thinking everything. Wennerstrom sings, “Oh, I’ve been so in my head/I need a vacation from myself,” and nails this feeling of personal exhaustion. The phrase “into the light” suggests that Wennerstrom sees the bright side of her philosophy and that things will get better eventually.

What separates Heartless Bastards from most current rock bands is its authenticity.

Every member of Heartless Bastards is an outstanding player, and the band doesn’t rely on Protools and extreme overproduction to make its music sound good. Restless Ones sees Heartless Bastards playing its heart out, not caring about what its peers are releasing. The album is for people who are sick of a questionable music scene with bands that care more about clothing than instrument tone. Heartless Bastards undoubtably put every ounce of energy it had into these ten songs.

“Tristessa” is an ambient and almost primal departure from Heartless Bastards’ comfort zone of wailing guitars and furious drumming. Wennerstrom sing-chants throughout the hypnotic track, and it’s completely mesmerizing. “Tristessa” is Restless Ones’ zen moment, inciting a fleeting and breathtaking sweep through one’s ears. It’s calming, bringing the listener down from an album full of high-energy.

Restless Ones is not doing the same tireless and overdone blues-rock thing that is popular on the radio today. Yes, Heartless Bastards is influenced by the blues, but what the band plays is fresh. Heartless Bastards continues to grow, and Restless Ones proves the band’s success with going with gut instinct.

Heartless Bastards – Restless Ones tracklist:

  1. “Wind Up Bird”
  2. “Gates of Dawn”
  3. “Black Cloud”
  4. “Hi-Line”
  5. “Journey”
  6. “Pocket Full of Thirst”
  7. “Into the Light”
  8. “The Fool”
  9. “Eastern Wind”
  10. “Tristessa”
Album-art-for-Songs-To-Make-Up-To-by-Ta-ku Ta-ku – Songs To Make Up To

★★★☆☆

After the break up comes the make up. Songs To Make Up To is the follow-up to 2013’s Songs To Break Up To by electronic artist Ta-ku (aka Regan Mathews). Two years ago Ta-ku was categorized as a producer that made hip-hop-esque beats, that then dipped into R&B and experimental territory. STMUT moves away from the bass and kick drums to include more strings and sentimental vocals. Perhaps the title sways perception of the album, but it sounds more careful, tender, and romantic than Ta-ku’s previous releases, which erred stronger on the hip-hop side, and were more successful endeavors.

Comparison aside, STMUT is engaging and different because of how the album is constructed. The tracks are often delicate, rarely dropping the beat. There is a very conscious control that comes with how each track shifts and changes. Ta-ku’s production style has mellowed, holding back from over-stimulating eardrums. This new album includes strings, creating a sensitive vibe. Even on the more upbeat tracks, the production is kept low-key, like with “Long Time No See,” which breaks with heavy bass overlaid by melodic piano and accented with strings.

Of the album’s seven tracks, three have featured vocals, “Love Again (featuring JMSN and Sango),” “Fall4U” (featuring Sunni Colón),” and “Sunrise/Beautiful (featuring Jordan Rakei).” The lyrics are all very literal, which takes away from the production somewhat—the album’s vocalists do add something, but their content is flimsy. Simple lyrics can indeed be powerful, but there could’ve been more complexity.

The EP is about making up, a very real emotional process, but it feels the stale lyrics crave more meaning and depth, to mirror that intention.

On “Love Again,” the lines, “I don’t want to do this again/This ain’t the time to pretend/You know I make it better if I can/Because I don’t want to do this ish again,” are exemplary of the lackluster lyrics.

“Sunrise/Beautiful” features the lyrics, “Beautiful, I just want you to know/You’re my favorite girl,” which are repeated on the latter half of the track, and sound like a lyrical sample from Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful.” The sample is recognizable, making the track a bit more interesting, but still, it isn’t enough to wow listeners.

The album ends on an odd yet metaphoric note. The last track, “Work In Progress,” is a piano track that sounds like an incomplete recording. The recording is muffled, background noises and voices can be heard as the passionate piano plays. The track is casual and while it’s built on a concrete idea, it isn’t fully formed and polished. Since these are songs to make up to, the relationship, too, isn’t polished—a work in progress.

Songs To Make Up To isn’t as innovative or evoking as Ta-ku’s previous original tracks or his remixes. Perhaps he held back too much; the tracks sound over-thought, especially because the EP addresses something most of us have been through. It falls short when trying to be relatable and capture the same feeling.

Ta-ku – Songs To Make Up To tracklist:

  1. “Hopeful”
  2. “Love Again (feat. JMSN & Sango)”
  3. “Trust Me”
  4. “Long Time No See (feat. Atu)”
  5. “Sunrise/Beautiful (feat. Jordan Rakei)”
  6. “Fall4You (feat. Sunni Colón)”
  7. “Work In Progress”
Of-Monsters-and-Men-Beneath-the-Skin-album-cover Of Monsters and Men – Beneath the Skin

★★★★☆

When chamber-pop outfit Of Monsters and Men’s debut album, My Head is an Animal, was released in 2012, the album’s catchy melodies and upbeat, folk-inspired songs garnered international popularity. The band’s latest album, Beneath the Skin, may follow in the first album’s footsteps, but not because it’s a duplicate of the band’s former sound.

Formed in 2010, the Icelandic group is made up of singer/guitarist Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir, co-singer/guitarist Ragnar Þórhallsson, guitarist Brynjar Leifsson, bassist Kristján Páll Kristjánsson, and drummer Arnar Rósenkranz Hilmarsson. Beneath the Skin has the same addictive quality as My Head is an Animal, but in a different way: its soaring guitars and upbeat rhythms have a good hook, while its discerning, poetic lyrics about emotional exposure and acceptance give the music a raw, honest edge.

Here, listeners still get a taste of My Head Is An Animal-era Of Monsters and Men, but Beneath the Skin has an altogether different tone.

The band’s debut album had a prominent folk influence, with foot-stomping beats and group vocals. Although some of those characteristics exist in Beneath the Skin, the album has a darker feeling to it. The lyrics are more personal and intimate, as in the album’s soaring opening track, “Crystals,” a song about being open, acknowledging fear, and embracing the unknown. Cymbals clang, a guitar strums, and a rolling beat plays as Hilmarsdóttir sings, “I know I’ll wither, so pull away the bark/Because nothing grows when it is dark/In spite of all my fears, I see it all so clear.”

During the bridge in “Crystals,” against a singular, repeating guitar strum that’s almost ambient in sound, Hilmarsdóttir croons, “But I’m okay in see-through skin/I forgive what is within.” Hilmarsdóttir’s smoky voice is captivating and uplifting with its combination of softness and strength.

Similarly, “Black Water” isn’t upbeat in a happy sense, but it has a solid beat that will get heads bopping. The track explores the acceptance of getting lost in gloomier feelings. During the verses of the song, a steady beat and piano keep pace with Þórhallsson as he sings, “Strange silence surrounding me/Grows closer, feels colder/But I’m ready to suffer the sea/Blackwater, take over.” As the chorus comes in, more instrumentals are added to the song. Drums become louder, a tambourine rings out, and the electric guitar creates an atmospheric backdrop for it all. Backup singers and horns are added, heightening the sound. It all culminates in a near-complete drop off of music as Hilmarsdóttir sings “Swallowed by a vicious, vengeful sea/Darker days are reigning over me/In the deepest depths I lost myself/I see myself through someone else.”

Somber tones are explored elsewhere. An alarmingly droning guitar in “Thousand Eyes” adds drama to the album. “Organs” is stripped bare, featuring an acoustic guitar and piano alongside Hilmarsdóttir’s emotional vocals. With references to storms, ghosts, and shadows, darkness is everywhere—but it’s not all bleak. There’s still some hope in the album: in the freedom of being open, in the comfort of acceptance, and the building up of instrumentals that Of Monsters and Men does so well.

Of Monsters and Men – Beneath the Skin tracklist:

  1. “Crystals”
  2. “Human”
  3. “Hunger”
  4. “Wolves Without Teeth”
  5. “Empire”
  6. “Slow Life”
  7. “Organs”
  8. “Black Water”
  9. “Thousand Eyes”
  10. “I Of the Storm”
  11. “We Sink”
Album-art-for-More-Faithful-by-No-Joy No Joy – More Faithful

★★★½☆

No Joy decided to experiment a little with its new album, More Faithful. The band split recording into two sessions: half the album at Brooklyn studio Gary’s Electric, and, surprisingly, the other half at an old farmhouse in Costa Rica. No Joy worked with producer Jorge Elbrecht to create More Faithful and make it the band’s most distinguishable and adventurous album to date. No Joy has officially departed from its usual style of lucid, fuzzy pop, and in this case, it’s a good thing.

No Joy slightly abandons its dreamy, amorphous sound for keyboard-heavy (including definite R&B-influenced) beats in “Burial in Twos.” Every component of the song is defined, verse-chorus-verse, and the vocals, while still hard to dissect, are quite melodic given No Joy’s musical history of muffled singing.

It’s too bad No Joy didn’t figure out that its singers are the strongest and prettiest aspects of its music until this album.

The stunning vocal tracks, performed by singer/guitarist Jasamine White-Gluz and guitarist Laura Lloyd, make More Faithful the, well, dreamiest dream-pop that could ever exist. Previous No Joy records bury vocals into oblivion, never giving listeners the chance to clearly hear Gluz’s feathery, light voice. It contrasts, but doesn’t clash, with heavily distorted guitars that are absolutely relentless. Sometimes singers’ voices just fit together for whatever (probably scientific) reason. Gluz and Lloyd are lucky their voices complement one another to create an enormous burst of ethereal energy, a glow in the midst of chaos.

Hardcore No Joy fans will be happy the heavy fuzz No Joy loves to use hasn’t gone away completely. “Corpo Dæmon” races to the very end in just under two and a half minutes, and heavy distortion is its prominent feature. Drummer Garland Hastings’ contribution downright makes the song. Every note he plays perfectly fits in with the washed out guitars and blemished vocals. His drumming is the clearest element in the song. Technicalities aside, the track as a whole is one of the album’s strongest. It’s definitely a “typical” No Joy song, quick and lurid, but it keeps listeners interested even in the middle of the album where enthusiasm can sometimes dwindle.

More Faithful is No Joy’s most accessible album. Let’s be real: shoegaze is not for everyone, and that’s okay. It’s certainly a defined genre, and extremely talented musicians with a knack for keeping things relatively formless, such as No Joy, wholly represent it. Perhaps more of the same seemed boring for No Joy; the band has been playing crunchy, low-fi music since 2010, after all. Taking a break and trying something new can musically, and personally, either hurt or help a band. It seemed to do the latter for No Joy.

Maybe the retreat to the Costa Rican farmhouse helped No Joy gain some clarity. A change of scenery is sometimes all we need to gain a new perspective on what we’re doing and how we do it. If No Joy is like any other band, it’s going to want to change things up at one point or another in its career.

No Joy – More Faithful tracklist:

  1. “Remember Nothing”
  2. “Everything New”
  3. “Hollywood Teeth”
  4. “Moon in my Mouth”
  5. “Burial in Twos”
  6. “Corpo Dæmon”
  7. “Bolas”
  8. “Chalk Snake”
  9. “Rude Films”
  10. “I am an Eye Machine”
  11. “Judith”
Album-art-for-I-Don't-Want-to-Let-You-Down-by-Sharon-Van-Etten Sharon Van Etten – I Don’t Want to Let You Down

★★★★☆

No one knows the struggles of the heart quite like Sharon Van Etten. With each new record, her emotionally-fueled songs are lauded for their honesty and sincerity. Four albums into her career, her folksy music is garnering more attention than ever (her last album was named one of the best albums of the year by Rolling Stone).

With her new EP, I Don’t Want to Let You Down, Van Etten travels through the confusions of life in five songs tinged with the heaviness of emotion. Conceding to feelings of disappointment, yearning, and acceptance, I Don’t Want to Let You Down is like an open diary, reminding listeners they’re not alone.

When Van Etten’s crooning voice starts up in the album’s eponymous track, “I Don’t Want to Let You Down,” it’s one of feeling and empathy. Van Etten’s signature emotive voice is one of her strengths, and it doesn’t disappoint throughout the album. Her voice supports her lyrics, carrying them to a place of honesty. As she repeats the words, “I don’t want to let you down,” we somehow understand the pain she’s going through, perhaps because she’s not the only one to have experienced defeat. Despite the melancholic undertones, the song is the most upbeat of the album, with a rollicking mid-tempo beat and an understated electric guitar solo at the end. Like the majority of her music, the tune has a rustic, folksy quality to it—a style that couldn’t be better suited for Van Etten’s husky voice.

These aren’t happy-go-lucky songs; they’re sullen, drinking-a-bottle-of-wine-by-yourself at night while it’s raining songs.

But that’s what Van Etten does so well—she knows how to make music that reaches out and touches listeners—music that speaks to them in a kind, comforting way. Like Cat Power and other moody crooners, Van Etten’s music assures listeners they’re not solo in their personal troubles.

That sensibility is felt in the track “I Always Fall Apart.” Set against a piano, moving violin, and subdued bass in the background, Van Etten sings about her flaws—or, rather, the facets that make her human. In the chorus, she sings, “You know it’s always been my heart/You know I always fall apart/It’s not my fault, it’s just my flaw/It’s who I am.” Although the title of the track refers to a mess of emotions, Van Etten seems to know herself well; she recognizes that darker emotions are difficult to feel, but it’s good to have them.

Pulsing with raw, open feelings, Van Etten’s voice and lyrics are the stars of her new EP, I Don’t Want to Let You Down. Encouraging and nurturing, it’s as if she wants listeners to know that it’s good to open up and feel.

Sharon Van Etten – I Don’t Want to Let You Down tracklist:

  1. “I Don’t Want to Let You Down”
  2. “Just Like Blood”
  3. “I Always Fall Apart”
  4. “Pay My Debts”
  5. “Tell Me [Live]”
Album-art-for-Teenage-Movie-Soundtrack-by-Heyrocco Heyrocco – Teenage Movie Soundtrack

★★★★☆

The members of Heyrocco have all just entered their 20s, but their music doesn’t show their age. The band is so tight that it sounds like it’s been around for years. Its debut LP Teenage Movie Soundtrack brims with feelings of adolescence, transporting listeners back to high school days when life was carefree and a full-time job wasn’t on the horizon. It’s confident, well-produced, and covers just about everything we’ve all felt and experienced during our teenage years—heartache, judgmental peers, and first sexual encounters—all the things we look back on equally fondly and with a cringe.

“Virgin” sounds like it could have been a contender for Nirvana’s classic album Nevermind. Singer Nathan Merli is clearly pissed off at some asshole from his high school years that thought Merli’s sex life was his personal concern. Merli tells him to, “mind your own fucking business,” better than anyone else ever could. The song builds to a hectic chorus that personifies Merli’s frustration.

Merli’s voice is uncannily similar to Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst’s tone—shaky, but distinct.

Just about anyone can record a decent sounding album out of their basement these days, but a singer with a recognizable vocal timbre can get a leg up. Vocals are arguably the most important element of a song, and that tone is something that just cannot be taught.

Heyrocco gets tender and sentimental with “What It’s Like (First Song),” which sounds like it belongs on a ’90s greatest hits compilation. A simple verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure makes up the song’s bones, but simplicity is often key in pop music, and Heyrocco is really good at writing pop songs. Merli sings about this one time when he was in love and how idyllic it was. He sings, “I built a wall to keep you out/But still somehow, you’re all that I write about/Do you remember what it’s like to be loved?/Cause everybody’s there and I’ve had enough.” Yeah, we’ve been there before.

Teenage Movie Soundtrack not only serves its purpose, but does it well. It feels like the album could have been released years ago when bands like Nada Surf were big, but it also borrows Teenage Fanclub’s jangly guitars, a band that peaked in the early ’90s. Heyrocco jumps from genre to genre, but its sound remains unique and fiercely identifiable.

Heyrocco has an intimate bond of friendship, which can help or hurt it in the long run. Nostalgia aside, really anyone can appreciate Teenage Movie Soundtrack because of the sheer amount of hard work and heart Heyrocco puts into its songs. The band just writes great songs, and it’s as simple as that. From the full sound of Teenage Movie Soundtrack and the slough of worldwide tour dates the band has played, Heyrocco has a very promising future.

Heyrocco – Teenage Movie Soundtrack tracklist:

  1. “Loser Denial”
  2. “Melt”
  3. “Virgin”
  4. “Elsewhere”
  5. “Mom Jeans”
  6. “What It’s Like (First Song)”
  7. “Alison”
  8. “Jake Miller’s House Party”
  9. “Santa Fe (Stupid Lovesong)”
  10. “Happy”
Album-art-for-Paranoid-Funk-by-Lil-Noid Lil NoiD – Paranoid Funk

★★★½☆

Lil NoiD hasn’t really made music in over 20 years. The Memphis native was growing in the local scene in the early ’90s and was discovered by Juicy J, a member of Three Six Mafia at the time. As a result of a limited release of cassette tapes, Lil NoiD’s debut, Paranoid Funk, became a rarity, until now.

More than 20 years later, Paranoid Funk is seeing a fresh circulation. While the album is not new, the bars and beats stand out in hip-hop’s current landscape as frenetic, weird, and enticing, fitting somewhere between Ratking and Danny Brown in style. Back in the day, Lil NoiD’s tape had an influential impact on the Memphis rap scene. Now, the style can be heard in many different contemporary rappers’ tracks.

The album is dark and loaded with teen angst—Lil NoiD recorded it before he was even 20 years old. Most of the tracks are about robbing, slinging dope, or women, and aren’t particularly revelatory. The bar play isn’t terribly complex or intricate, but the tracks are still catchy. On “Load My Clip,” he spits, “Frightful motherfucker from the Hamp I gotta take ’em out/P-I-M-P-N-O-I-D keep the nightmare punch ’em out/Time to kill another nigga, take his body to the trash/As long as y’all don’t need no hand-cuffs in them body bags.”

Lil NoiD’s spitting style is indicative of Tennessee rap—consistently rhythmic lyrics that don’t necessarily rhyme, and cadences consistent with one another regardless of beat speed.

Blackout produced the entire project with cynical beats, fitting the lyrics. Contrary to more contemporary popular hip-hop, the tracks aren’t as bass-heavy. “Hamptown” stands out as one of the more evil beats; the track is primarily instrumental and sounds like the soundtrack to a dated (by current standards) haunted house or spooky video game. The beats are intentionally rough, and bump à la classic hip-hop. Some strange, older electronic accent sounds are used melodically as well. With such strange production, overdone to the point of inaudible lyrics, “Hamptown” sticks out because of the way it has aged in the hip-hop world.

Part of the appeal of Paranoid Funk is the sound quality: grainy and in some ways antiquated. The lower grade audio is now replicated synthetically, with some trendiness, making the reissue particularly hip due to this authentic quality. The album is also loaded with effects on Lil NoiD’s voice, creating an illusion of multiple people rapping.

The mixtape was a cult classic within the Memphis scene. The obscurity of the album and artist is part of its present-day intrigue, but the album itself is a different kind of weird. It can flop or be trendy, and perhaps find a place among a younger generation of hip-hop heads. While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, Paranoid Funk is a minute and distinct part of hip-hop history.

Lil NoiD – Paranoid Funk tracklist:

  1. “Introlude”
  2. “Criminalistic Knowledge”
  3. “Hot Call”
  4. “Hamptown”
  5. “Try Me”
  6. “Deathrow”
  7. “Load My Clip”
  8. “In The Dark”
  9. “Binghampton Niggas”
VOWS-Soon-Enough-Love VOWS – Soon Enough Love

★★★½☆

Summer has finally come for most of the country after an arduous winter that seemed as if it would never end. If there was ever a need for an album to send us into the dream-like state that summer brings it’s now, and VOWS has delivered it with Soon Enough Love.

VOWS sounds like a mix between the Flaming Lips and The Beach Boys. Its easygoing vibe is paired nicely with distortion and a psychedelic sound. Soon Enough Love is the third project from the Vermont/New Jersey band of James Hencken and Jeff Pupa. The group utilizes its full arsenal of synths, guitars, samples, and distortion effects to induce a carefree feeling. This album is best enjoyed outside or played in a car with the windows down on the way to a beach house after a tough work week.

The synthesizer, distorted guitar, and muffled vocals on songs like “Sound Island” bring about an ethereal feel and propel listeners into a floating state with its varying tempos.

Other songs, such as “Shrinking Violet,” use a copious amount of distortion on the vocals and guitars, straying from an unearthly nature and showing off the band’s versatility—bringing the listener back down, acting as a reality check.”Come To Your Senses” is more formulaic with minimal effects, sounding more akin to a classic surf rock song with its guitar riffs,upbeat drums, and poppy vocals. Regardless of the level distortion, all the songs create a very feel-good, positive aura.

The instrumentation really carries this album while the lyrics fall by the wayside. When they are not incoherent due to distortion, they speak of vague topics. “Candy” could be construed as a love song, but the nondescript lyrics leave much of the track up to interpretation. While the instrumentation is excellent and does its best to keep up the energy, lyrics are of vital importance, and they lack in this album. James Hencken said in an interview, “We usually record in the winter. This is actually the first record we’ve worked on during a summer in years, and I think the result reflects that. It’s a total fuzzy summer jam.”

VOWS places its energy in conveying the summer feel through solely instrumentation, while the lyrics do not hold the same power. Soon Enough Love is poignant, but the band should’ve searched for more cohesion to create an album that doesn’t need to be released in a certain time frame to be well received.

VOWS – Soon Enough Love tracklist:

  1. “Futuis Eam”
  2. “Day To Day”
  3. “Candy”
  4. “Sound Island”
  5. “Snake”
  6. “Shrinking Violet”
  7. “Letters From The Sun”
  8. “Come To Your Sense”
  9. “Kemps Ridley”
  10. “Nothing To Prove”
Album-art-for-Multi-Love-by-Unknown-Mortal-Orchestra Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love

★★★★☆

Unknown Mortal Orchestra has a very off-putting band name. Is this band a group of metal dudes who love orchestral music and old video games? One could surmise this or whatever else comes to the imagination. The truth is, though, that Unknown Mortal Orchestra isn’t any of the things listed above.

The band’s newest effort, Multi-Love, is a combination of all the best parts of R&B, like melodic bass lines, pulling some very obvious hints from funk music, specifically repetitious, dance-provoking rhythms. Multi-Love is a definite departure from previous albums, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and II. Both of these albums resembled much of the same in terms of what’s popular in indie right now: low-fi recordings, fuzzy guitars, and barely distinguishable vocals. Multi-Love has a clear vision; Unknown Mortal Orchestra had to have known what it was going for starting at the very initial writing process all the way to the studio.

“Acid Rain” could pass for something Prince wrote and performed in the late ‘70s. The distinct, staccato rhythm in this song is reminiscent of the funkier aspects of Prince’s catalog, like “Kiss,” but a little less melodic, or “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” but more erratic. This decision is intentional and guides “Acid Rain” down an irregular path, strange and cheesy (in a good way) keyboards and all. It’s a refreshing spin on a sound that can be poorly recycled in the age of DJs and sampling. Singer Ruban Nielson even borrows some of Prince’s singing techniques. Nielson’s voice definitely isn’t as high, but similarly soulful.

“Necessary Evil” is the chill-out, think-about-it song of Multi-Love. Nielson sings, “We’re in love/But I don’t get what you see in me/Loving me could be your fatal flaw/Just hanging in here trying to be your necessary evil,” a particularly sad and universally relatable feeling, but an aspect of love that isn’t touched on so often, at least not this tenderly and poignantly. “Necessary Evil” features a rhythm section, from bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Riley Geare, that’s strong and proves itself as the backbone of the song. Geare keeps it simple but consistent and Portrait accents the song at just the right moments. No one is stepping over each other.

Nielson’s voice is finally able to come out and enjoy itself in Multi-Love. Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s previous albums hid the fact that Nielson is actually a fantastic singer, mostly because of the muddled production quality. He has a specific tone to his voice; it’s warm but soft and breathy. It’s clear Nielson puts a lot of effort into writing lyrics, which is a hard thing to accomplish, especially for young musicians at the near-beginning of their career.

From start to finish, Multi-Love feels like a whole, calculated (but not formulaic) piece of art.

Every bit of this album fits together, and doesn’t feel random or piecey like Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s previous albums. Though Unknown Mortal Orchestra and II have substantial tracks (“How Can You Luv Me” and “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark),” respectively) they don’t have the same fluidity in their homes as Multi-Love makes for its songs. It took Unknown Mortal Orchestra a few years to find its distinctive sound: funk with a twist of tawdry ‘80s pop (meant in the best way possible).

Unknown Mortal Orchestra is beyond what any other indie band is doing right now. All the kinks that once held it back have now been smoothed out. Now, it’ll be easy to tell an Unknown Mortal Orchestra song from the rest.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love tracklist:

  1. “Multi-Love”
  2. “Like Acid Rain”
  3. “Ur Life One Night”
  4. “Can’t Keep Checking My Phone”
  5. “Extreme Wealth and Casual Cruelty”
  6. “The World Is Crowded”
  7. “Stage or Screen”
  8. “Necessary Evil”
  9. “Puzzles”
Album-art-for-Expert-Alterations-by-Expert Alterations Expert Alterations – Expert Alterations

★★★☆☆

Expert Alterations’ self-titled EP became so popular when it was released in the summer of 2014 that it’s now been pressed as a cassette three batches over—an interesting and very old school choice. Though Expert Alterations is from Baltimore, Maryland, its music seems to be heavily influenced by UK pop music, similar to bands like The Fall, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Buzzcocks, a band Expert Alterations opened up for in April.

The band pulls things like fuzzy, noisy guitars and consistent drumming from its influences, thus bringing this once-popular UK sound into the present. Using these techniques, Expert Alterations crams everything it knows into five perfect, but unconventional, pop songs. But this doesn’t mean listeners should brush it off after a first listen—Expert Alterations is a band that would be quite hard to forget about.

One of Expert Alterations’ main influences is ‘70s pop band The Fall, and those influences run rampant throughout the EP, most notably in the vocals. Expert Alterations singer Patrick borrows a lot of techniques from The Fall’s vocalist Mark E. Smith, mumble and all. Patrick’s voice is monotone and soft, which can sometimes be overpowered by the music.

Perhaps it’s the word association, but “Midnight Garden” is extremely reminiscent of Siouxsie And The Banshees’ “Hong Kong Garden.” The guitars are happy and jangly, and the drums even push the song forward with a long drumroll that eventually ends the song. Expert Alterations somehow transported itself into the era of music it loves. “Midnight Garden” could have easily been an alternative hit in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s.

“A Bell” is the EP’s fan favorite, and understandably so. It has a surf rock element, especially in the guitar work: fast, loud, and driven. A catchy solo near the end of the song works its way up and down the fret board, and the reverb is heavy and welcomed. The drums are simple and fast; they’ll make people in a (goth or punk) bar get up and dance.

Regardless of Expert Alterations’ intentions as a band or song subject matter, its music is perfect to liven up a party.

Despite its hype aesthetic, the album seems to falter when it comes to dynamics. Sure, many of the bands that have influenced Expert Alterations have similar elements: fast drumming, loud guitars, murmured vocals. Still, Expert Alterations has plenty of space to make this genre its own.

“Venetian Blinds” explains this hindrance well with its long and repetitive nature. Expert Alterations has a lot of strengths as a band, but its music sometimes too easily blends in with bands that are striving for the same kind of sound.

Expert Alterations is bringing back a sound that originated on a completely different continent, a feat that is hard to argue with. It’s a young band with limited expectations and the promise of a long and successful career due to its clear vision and direction. Expert Alterations isn’t going anywhere.

Expert Alterations – Expert Alterations tracklist:

  1. “Venetian Blinds”
  2. “A Bell”
  3. “Midnight Garden”
  4. “Memory Glands”
  5. “Three Signs”