Los-Campesinos-LP-Hello-Sadness-cover Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness

★★★½☆

The nearly two year period between Welsh post-twee indie-rockers Los Campesinos’ third record, the magnificent Romance Is Boring, and their newest record, Hello Sadness, is the longest period between LC! LPs in the band’s existence. In that time lead singer Gareth has further deepened his vocal register, another Campesino has fallen victim to the cruel mistress that is real life (this time violin player Harriet) and the “tweexcore underground” LC were birthed from has swiftly blown up. The world is different now, but not so different as to affect major change in the Campesino formula. Hello Sadness is at once a comment on aging and a reaction to the dearth of messy punk that is flooding the blogosphere: a quieter, zipper up version of the band, for better and worse.

But first, the surprise: is that confidence Gareth is spewing on the record’s boisterous second track, “Songs About Your Girlfriend?” The verses are all cocky bluster, the pudgy frontman practically waving his genitals – “I’ve got my hot hands over her soft spots soon, you will see.” – at a fellow buck. But the puffy chest doesn’t last long, as the chorus blankly states the double-blind in play: “I’ve never made her smile like that, although I always made her purr like a cat.”  Thus is Sadness’ contradiction: Gareth is still sad, and the band follows his wallow. But more often than not, that sadness isn’t physical; (mostly) gone is carnal Gareth, the man who complained about listening to too much Explosions in the Sky instead of doing the nasty.

In his place is a twentysomething unsure of his point, of the directions he chose to take at various forks in the road. This Gareth makes heavy-handed metaphors about black birds as his songwriting guilt, or comments that he and his beloved are only perfect in the light.  It’s not the typical brutal specificity that we’ve come to expect from a brilliant (yep) lyricist such as Gareth, but his maturity had to happen at a certain point, even if he’s still ear-wormingly co-dependent (the opening track and it’s “die with me” handclaps). Hello Sadness is, then, a Gareth mid-point, a mark between high and low tide of youthful obsessiveness giving way to defeated adult complexity. He’s not all the way there yet, and some of the duller moments of Sadness are strong evidence (“Life Is a Long Time,” which… duh) but that such a pigeonhole-able narrative can evolve is a heartening fact indeed. Plus, he can still turn a wicked phrase – “In the frost I drew a dick for every girl who wouldn’t fuck me/ woke up the next morning to find the frost had bit me,” from the excellent “Baby I Got the Death Rattle.”

It’s obviously not all Gareth, though. The loss of Campesinos staple violin is immediately quantifiable, but there’s enough meat on these bones elsewhere. The problem may lay in the same ballpark as Gareth’s “growth;” these Campesinos were given two years to think about how these songs sound, beyond just the feelings they elicit. And while they still elicit those big emotional moments (album standout “Death Rattle” is insanely complex, but simple in its carnal sweetness), about half of Hello Sadness feels overcooked. Good ideas are tapered down to incompleteness – “Hate for the Island” is so over-edited that it could actually be read as a narrative in the “Lost” universe – and every tempo seems to be driven down to a little bit less than cacophony, which is where Los Campesinos are at their best. They’re still magnificent melodists, and some of the guitar and synth lines caterwauling around the back and foreground of Hello Sadness’ best moments are a reassurance that this isn’t a step backward for the poppers.

But at the same time Hello Sadness can’t be called a step forward either. It feels, instead, like a half-step, an unsure twitch forward into the realm of post-youth indie-pop songwriting while still keep a foot firmly planted in wasted teenagerdom (there is, of course, a reference to vomiting). After the brilliance of Romance is Boring, it seemed like Los Campesinos were ready to move from underdog champions to full indie heroes. Turns out Gareth and company aren’t there yet, but if they commit, Hello Sadness is certainly the precursor to a brilliant future.

Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness tracklist:

  1. “By Your Hand”
  2. “Songs About Your Girlfriend”
  3. “Hello Sadness”
  4. “Life Is a Long Time”
  5. “Every Defeat a Divorce (Three Lions)”
  6. “Hate for the Island”
  7. “The Black Bird, The Dark Slope”
  8. “To Tundra”
  9. “Baby I Got the Death Rattle”
  10. “Light Leaves, Dark Sees Pt. 2″
phantogram-nightlife Phantogram – Nightlife

★★★★☆

Bursting onto the scene less than two years ago with their debut album Eyelid Movies, Phantogram has established a highly-reputable form of airy electronic rock. On their second studio release, guitarist Josh Carter and keyboardist Sarah Barthel experiment in defining texture in their already multifaceted sound.

This New York duo has toured with the likes of Beach House, Yeasayer and Minus the Bear, and played major festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza and SXSW—a pretty impressive resume for an act with only one full-length album. The self-proclaimed “street beat” of songs like “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “Running from the Cops” on Eyelid Movies has translated well onto their newest mini-album, Nightlife, on Barsuk Records.

In a world where genres are undefined, Barthel and Carter further their need for non-categorization by mixing fundamentals of shoegaze, pop, indie-rock, jazz, electronica and hip-hop.

The airy, dream-like tendencies splattered throughout Nightlife and mixture of organic and tech beats are tantalizing. Barthel howls while Carter follows closely along with an underlying guitar lick creating a dynamic atmosphere.

Previously pulling inspiration from ‘90s hip-hop, first single “Don’t Move” demonstrates a much more modern flavor accompanied by their street-beat style. The continuous looping of sampled beats, poppy horn and percussion texture is highly infectious, while Barthel’s vocals float through the skipping synth and pulsing bass. The chorus ends with “keep your body still,” an impossible demand with such danceable riffs.

The dark melodies of its predecessor have been granted light and diverse functionality this time around. The catchy, yet matured beats of Nightlife are layered thick with even more raw sounds from Carter and synthetic collages from Barthel. This album is a progression in the right direction for the small-town duo from Saratoga Springs, NY.

To prove it, they pack a powerful punch with engulfing sounds and a multitude of textures. It’s hard to believe only two people can create such diverse layers, but Phantogram’s 3-dimensional style embraces the format ofsongs like “Mouthful of Diamonds” while drifting away from not-so-awesome structures like “You are the Ocean” off Eyelid Movies.

Beginning with an acoustic intro, title track “Nightlife” is a dreamy lullaby. The instrumentals are less abrasive and Barthel’s vocals are more stunning than ever. An ode to a 1980s love ballad, this song stands out from the rest of the up-tempo tracks. It’s bright and whimsical, and gracefully exits on a repeated loop of the line: “Love is the only thing I ever needed.”

Where Phantogram fell short last time, they made up for it this time. Even though it’s a mini-album, Nightlife has outdone Eyelid Movies with diverse textures, countless layers and a more mature sound. If these New Yorkers keep going in the right direction, we have a lot to look forward to in their next release.

Phantogram – Nightlife tracklist:

  1. “16 Years”
  2. “Don’t Move”
  3. “Turning into Stone”
  4. “Make a Fist”
  5. “Nightlife”
  6. “A Dark Tunnel”
The Juan Maclean Everybody Get Close Album Art The Juan Maclean – Everybody Get Close

★★★★☆

On the digitally released compilation Everybody Get Close, DFA labelmate The Juan MacLean once again proves the brand’s remarkable vitality— even in our post-LCD Soundsystem era. James Murphy may have come and gone, but The Juan MacLean (his real name is John MacLean) is here to ease our anxiousness.

Since debuting with Less Than Human some five years ago, MacLean has quietly released two solo efforts (2009′s The Future Will Come and 2010′s DJ-Kicks) in addition to remixing artists such as Chairlift, Matthew Dear, and the Tough Alliance. MacLean, like his DFA peers, expertly blends live instrumentation and calculated electro-magnetism. It’s infectious, and enough to make you want to bring out your dancing shoes. Well, your disco-house shoes.

How does the (digital) compilation stack up? Despite its jumbled assortment of singles and remixes, Everybody Get Close is confident and dancefloor ready; enticing with just-enough studio polish to stand on its own.

Not only do MacLean and his army of swelling synths and slick bass pick up right where James Murphy left off, they also pick up Mr. Murphy’s former players: former LCD Soundsystem vocalist Nancy Whang appears on two tracks. She fits like a glove inside the Latin piano of “Find A Way” and turns otherwise abstract “Feels So Good” into an exhilarating dance routine.

The album’s two remixes belongs to Cut Copy and Holmes Prince, who reinterpret previous MacLean tracks into club-ready bumpers. As all remixes go, these efforts are hit and miss. The Cut Copy track “Happy House” is very, well, Cut Copy, while the Holmes Price-crafted “Human Disaster” stems a bit deeper into musical abyss, recalling Joy Division at their bleakest (and least enticing).

Overall, Everybody Get Close cements The Juan MacLean’s sound, providing an accessible entry-point for newcomers. Warm, down-to-earth and oddly rejuvenating, this small collection of material makes a solid case for one of DFA’s most criminally overlooked artists.

The Juan Maclean – Everybody Get Close tracklist:

  1. “Find A Way”
  2. “Let’s Talk About Me”
  3. “Human Disaster” (Holmes Price Ver.)
  4. “When I Am With You”
  5. “Feel So Good”
  6. “Happy House” (Cut Copy Remix)
  7. “X2″
  8. “The Robot”
  9. “Human Disaster” (Jee Day Remix)
  10. “Everybody Get Close”
wolfroy goes to town Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Wolfroy Goes to Town

★★★☆☆

Throughout his vast career, Will Oldham has recorded under the names Palace Brothers, Palace Songs and Palace Music. He has been in multiple films, including Jackass 3D, released an extensive amount of LPs and EPs, and collaborated with dozens of musicians. This down-home, bearded singer-songwriter can gain no comparisons because he has continued to be a standout artist in true Americana folk.

Oldham’s newest melancholy release, Wolfroy Goes to Town, is the 11th album under his current and most frequented moniker Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Rooting traditional country and infusing modern alternative folk, Oldham sings a soft whisper accompanied mostly by a soothing string melody.

Recorded in Oldham’s home state of Kentucky, this album is pure and raw. Featuring a huge list of collaborators such as Ben Boye, Van Campbell, Emmitt Kelly, Shahzad Ismaily, Danny Keily and Angel Olsen, Wolfroy Goes to Town is intimate and warm.

This album is a perfect seasonal treat. From the whimsical vocals to the carefully scatted acoustic guitar, Wolfroy Goes to Town can easily be translated into a soundtrack to a quaint bonfire. It’s the calming vocals and the minimal instrumentation, though, that makes this album a little sleepy.

His simplicity is soothing, like a cool breeze through rattling leaves—it could even be therapeutic. In songs such as “New Tibet” and “We Are Unhappy” the tempo is barely moving, a true country sentiment. For Bonnie “Prince” Billy, there is no need for synthesizers, computers or even percussion for the most part.

Opening track, “No Match” is an Elvis Presley-like ballad. It’s a beautiful rendition of true Americana. With howling vocals and steady humming guitar, Oldham transports his listeners to an old Western saloon. It’s his simple storytelling and slow singing that translates this 21st century troubadour into a modern-day classic.

In the most upbeat track, “Quail and Dumplings,” a crying Olsen adds an abrasive texture. Her gritty, deep howl is enchanting. Followed by a heavy bassline, this song resembles a 1950s rockabilly tune.

“Night Noises” is a stunningly sparse, yet optimistic, final track. The harmonized vocals between Oldham, Kelly and Olsen make this song delicate and careful: “Weakness, we should celebrate. Not let others drag you under.”

Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s traditional folk is thoughtful and petite, and Wolfroy Goes to Town is another beautiful piece of his seemingly never-ending collection. Oldham has a distinct way of turning ’50s-inspired country into modern Americana without encompassing modern technologies. This album is reminiscent of simple times, and sometimes it’s comforting to hear that.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Wolfroy Goes to Town tracklist:

  1. “No Match”
  2. “New Whaling”
  3. “Time to Be Clear”
  4. “New Tibet”
  5. “Black Captain”
  6. “Cows”
  7. “There Will Be Spring”
  8. “Quail and Dumplings”
  9. “We Are Unhappy”
  10. “Night Noises”
David Lynch - Crazy Clown Time David Lynch – Crazy Clown Time

★★½☆☆

“Strange and unproductive thinking,” film director David Lynch repeats like a mantra on one of the “songs” on his recording debut, and that sums up his charm and the ultimate downfall of Crazy Clown Time. It’s strange, but it’s ultimately unproductive, and it’s telling that the track is a highlight on this otherwise desultory and generally uncompelling collection. One of 14 forays into various levels of strangeness, it’s a a seven-minute-plus diatribe that takes the style that Neil Young employed on Trans (a la Peter Frampton) and the spoken-word approach of Laurie Anderson, beginning as a meditation on bliss and somehow turning into a dissertation on the value of dental hygiene. And that’s not even the strangest track here.

Although “Pinky’s Dream,” the entertaining and propulsive kick-off cut, features prominent vocals from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O., there’s no doubt that Lynch is the brains behind this operation, for better or for worse, and regrettably it’s usually for the worse. The album vacillates wildly in the narrow range between electronic treadmill running (“Good Day Today” and “So Glad”) and ambient, ethereal excursions (“Noah’s Ark” and “I Know”), but it’s dominated by his skewed world view. He crafts an atmospheric and disturbing vibe, hardly a surprise for fans of his films. But it’s telling that where his music succeeds best is when he collaborates with those who have musical gifts like Karen O. (as with Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise in the past).

Of course, to those familiar with Lynch’s directorial work, or who have ever seen him interviewed, it most likely comes as no surprise that his strength is not his singing voice. Indeed, his high-pitched tenor is his biggest liability, and he doesn’t so much sing as speak on- and off-key throughout. For example, “Football Game” brings the vocals of Butthole Surfers’ Gibby Haynes into the era of “Friday Night Lights” and could be their white-boy blues on downers. “Good Day Today” steals a page from 1980s obscurities Real Life’s “Send Me An Angel” and merges Brazilian Girls’ “Don’t Stop” with the machine gun etiquette espoused on the most recent Portishead release. “These Are My Friends” sounds like an anthem to Lynch’s real “Freaks and Greeks” homies.

The whole record is sort of a mish-mash of conceptual experiments, and while it’s an intriguing first listen, it’s hard to imagine the average listener sitting through Crazy Clown Time more than once, unless it’s for a particularly freaky Halloween or while taking a late-night drive down a lost highway.

As any director should know, some ideas are best left on the cutting room floor, and despite a few highlights, Crazy Clown Time overall is a prime example of just such an idea.

David Lynch – Crazy Clown Time tracklist:

  1. “Pinky’s Dream”
  2. “Good Day Today”
  3. “So Glad”
  4. “Noah’s Ark”
  5. “Football Game”
  6. “I Know”
  7. “Strange and Unproductive Thinking”
  8. “The Night Bell with Lightning”
  9. “Stone’s Gone Up”
  10. “Crazy Clown Time”
  11. “These Are My Friends”
  12. “Speed Roadster”
  13. “Movin’ On”
  14. “She Rise Up”
spank rock everything is boring and everyone is a f-----g-liar Spank Rock – Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a Fucking Liar

★★★★☆

Baltimore native Naeem Juwan was born in the wrong decade. This is not to say that his music doesn’t translate on iPods the same way it would have on cassette; it’s just to say that he would have fit seamlessly into the 1980s. After working with artists as diverse as Mos Def, Theophilus London, Santigold, Kylie Minogue and The Chemical Brothers during the years, Juwan and producer Alex “XXXchange” Epton have come up with the most conflicted, beautiful work of art from 1987—in 2011. Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a Fucking Liar is the best kind of guilty pleasure. It’s an album that can move swiftly from the club to the car stereo and find an appreciative fan in even the most non-hip-hop head.

Spank Rock spurns from the bass movement of Baltimore and focuses every bit of that influence in most every track. The exceptional blend of 808s, claps and horns that most hip-hop artists take for granted make the perfect backdrop for Juwan’s surprisingly aggressive rhymes.

“Ta Da” opens the record by adding a heavy guitar riff to those aforementioned claps. Juwan does his best to entice beef from other MCs by calmly cautioning them to write their own bars and get their hustle on, while the chorus asks them to shine a light on themselves. “Nasty” follows it up by hyping up the beat and letting Juwan share what’s really on his mind: ladies’ private parts. It’s the record 2 Live Crew would’ve made today if they were still making music and not funding the U’s football team.

“I took New York like Cloverfield,” he announces on “Car Song,” which features an electronic landscape with the Santigold-aided chorus that somehow works. This track almost seems like it belongs in the 1990s, an escape of sorts for the group. “Birfday” is a vindictive shot at an ex-lover disguised as a celebratory anthem mixed with a dance floor version of Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day.” “The Dance” is not a Garth Brooks cover, for those wondering. It’s Nintendo/Beastie Boys-infused two-minute alarm.

“#1 Hit” is the song LMFAO would make if they had artistic integrity and more talent. That and if they used a lot of fart noises in their songs. “Turn It Off” is Spank Rock’s attempt at a march song where Juwan proclaims that he’s “too black for B.E.T.” and follows it up with saying he’s going to “shake it ’til my dick turns racist” in “Race Riot.”

The standout track might be “Baby,” where Juwan does his best Prince impression that doesn’t turn out half-bad. Spy For Hire’s Ryan Rulon would approve. Before they end it by jacking LL Cool J’s swag on “Cool Shit” and channeling Hendrix on “Engergy,” Spank Rock turns out an album fit for another decade that should make waves in this one.

Spank Rock – Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is a Fucking Liar tracklist:

  1. “Ta Da”
  2. “Nasty” (featuring Big Freedia)
  3. “Car Song” (featuring Santigold)
  4. “Birfday”
  5. “The Dance”
  6. “#1 Hit”
  7. “Turn It Off”
  8. “Hennessey Youngman” (Skit)
  9. “Race Riot”
  10. “Baby”
  11. “Hot Potato”
  12. “Cool Shit”
  13. “DTF DADT”
  14. “Energy”
J Cole Cole World The Sideline Story J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story

★★★★☆

There were no high expectations for Nas before Illmatic was released. Biggie didn’t have numerous mixtapes circulating on the Internet before he told the world he was Ready to Die. Reasonable Doubt wasn’t appreciated until Jay-Z’s second album came out. Artists today are laid out on the examination table of the hip-hop world well before simply dropping a debut album. There may be no more glaring an example of this than Jermaine Cole. Ever since “Lights Please” was introduced to his ears, Cole has been anointed as the next great. The next Jay-Z, the next Biggie and, more appropriately, the next Pac. But after mixtapes dropped one after the other, the audience began to grow weary.

Cole traveled the globe playing sold-out shows, opening for Jay-Z and building his fan base. During that time, he also saw his Roc Nation debut pushed back multiple times. Thinking he was close, “Who Dat?” was released to radio stations around the nation. Despite its infectious chorus and rhyme-slinging, the label still didn’t see it as a lead single, so it pushed back the release. After the Internet almost exploded with the release of Cole’s Friday Night Lights, the world thought it was close, but it got pushed back again. Finally, after around three years, the world has been blessed with Cole World: The Sideline Story. With all the delays, the question was: Could Cole back up the expectations that had built up in his fan base and the world of hip-hop and deliver a classic, or would he go the way of Harold Minor, the “next Jordan,” and be relegated to an afterthought?

The result was somewhere, not in the middle, but slightly underneath the “classic” label. If this had been put out with no buildup or expectations, Cole World might have been viewed as such. Maybe Cole is a victim of his own talent in that regard, but this is a phenomenal album, the best display of complex lyricism and overall artistic expression the game has seen in quite some time. It’s just not Illmatic.

The standout track is still “Lights Please.” The song that got him a deal is the same one that will find new listeners as its tale of fornication and conviction shed light on Cole’s ability to make people think while nodding their heads to the beats he crafts. Maybe he hit his high note early, or maybe this is just one of the best hip-hop songs ever.

The Drake-aided cut “In the Morning” is another familiar track that found its way onto the album. This holdover from Friday is a jam that the ladies love where Cole and Aubrey trade off verses, asking for a little snooze-button loving. “Dollar and a Dream III” is somewhat of a continuation from the mixtapes (Cole loves to keep things connected, like the sports themes of his album titles.) where he pops off four minutes worth of rhymes with no need for a hook.

Along with Drake, Missy Elliot, Trey Songz and the boss, Jay-Z, all make appearances. The latter shines on the brilliant “Mr. Nice Watch” where Cole uses his newfound ability to buy extravagant jewelry as a metaphor for how valuable time is. He’s crazy good with the pen.

The beauty of Cole is his aforementioned ability to not only paint a picture with words, but also tackle complex subject matter.

This is where the Pac comparison is most prevalent. Cole is the new Pac, but with more talent. Cole’s flow and knack for production put him a couple notches above his idol, (Cole consistently names Pac as his favorite of all time.) but he also rivals him as a writer. Songs such as “God’s Gift,” “Lost Ones,” “Cole World,” and “Never Told” bring back images of Brenda struggling with a pregnancy she wasn’t ready to handle.

Cole World: The Sideline Story is today’s hip-hop at its best. Where the differentiation between album and mixtape is almost indistinguishable, it’s hard to ask for more than what Cole gives us: lyricism, story telling, pin-point production and a few club bangers. It’s not a classic album, but it’s not far from it.

J. Cole – Cole World: The Sideline Story tracklist:

  1. “Intro”
  2. “Dolla and a Dream III”
  3. “Can’t Get Enough”
  4. “Lights Please”
  5. “Interlude”
  6. “Sideline Story”
  7. “Mr. Nice Watch” (featuring Jay-Z)
  8. “Cole World”
  9. “In the Morning” (featuring Drake)
  10. “Lost Ones”
  11. “Nobody’s Perfect” (featuring Missy Elliott)
  12. “Never Told” (produced by No I.D.)
  13. “Rise and Shine”
  14. “God’s Gift”
  15. “Breakdown”
  16. “Cheer Up”
FIELD LOOPING STATE OF MIND The Field – Looping State of Mind

★★★☆☆

The Field’s Looping State of Mind is exactly what it sounds like: continuous loops layered atop one another, creating a soundscape that’s engulfing. Axel Willner goes under the moniker The Field as a minimalist techno DJ integrating shoegaze, indie rock and electronica to manipulate the senses. Adding a touch of disco and a Daft Punk vibe, Looping State of Mind is a multifaceted synchronization of ambient beats and swift tempos.

In his 2007 debut release, From Here We Go Sublime, The Field created dense trance-style techno with minimal layers and simplistic beats. And in 2009, Yesterday and Today dabbled in textured melodies and more complex blocks of sound. The Field’s sound progressively and subtly grew deeper and deeper.

Looping State of Mind is even more aesthetically pleasing to the average ear, proving that his musical evolution continues.

Willner’s modern disco loops coated with high-powered synth, deep kick drum and poppy dance beats are tauntingly flavorful, even hypnotic. This album has so many peaks and valleys, but the constant battle lends itself well.

“Is This Power” is not for the rhythmically challenged. The poignant beats weave in and out creating a pattern that’s utterly engaging; just try to stay seated. Loud battles soft in a fight to the end. It’s a near-never-ending repetition going almost five minutes into the eight-minute track. As the calm, soothing thumps begin to set in, it blows right back up. Ahh, the perfect formula of a dance DJ mastered.

Sliding the overpowering rings of twitching beats into the backdrop, “It’s Up There” is an atmospherical hodgepodge of ambient drags and layered melodies. This tune is spacious and warped, cymbals crash down, and bass riffs orbit around one another. It’s a tantalizing example of the power of The Field.

Opening with hip-hop seasoned loops and fast twirls, title track “Looping State of Mind” slowly blends deeper into a style reminiscent of The Knife. The eerie drops swallow you whole, but the bright tech-savvy waves are peaceful.

There are highs and lows, peaks and valleys, crashes and disconnects. The Field’s subtle ties to pop trends allow this album to be accepted across the board. From lullabylike “Then It’s White” to the hauntingly tinged “Burned Out,” Willner is a soundscapist if there were such a thing. Echoed vocals and reverberating loops are the framework to Looping State of Mind; it’s one which uncoils into a colorful daydream.

The Field – Looping State of Mind tracklist:

  1. “Is This Power”
  2. “It’s Up There”
  3. “Burned Out”
  4. “Arpeggiated Love”
  5. “Looping State of Mind”
  6. “Then It’s White”
  7. “Sweet Slow Baby”
Surfer Blood - Tarot Classics Surfer Blood – Tarot Classics

★★★★☆

Remarkably simple and uncluttered with frills, Surfer Blood makes creating good music seem easy. The group picked up right where it left off on Astro Coast with its new EP, Tarot Classics.

Well, for awhile, that is.

No song on Tarot quite reaches the energetic zenith set by the band’s 2009 hit single “Swim,” and instead, for the first few tracks, it hints toward sonically dipping into a distancing (but not angsty) downheartedness without ever quite making the jump. And Surfer Blood does this loudly, confidently, as if to reassure you that the band’s emotional instability is nothing to worry about. The rock is supposed to bring the listener up, not down.

Great tracks composed of uncomplicated guitar riffs inject life into the sounds of early 1990s alt-rock. Tarot stands alone but feels led to where it stands by Weezer’s Blue Album and Pinkerton.

At least for the first few tracks.

In the latter half of the album, the group assuredly strides into a sampled and drum-machined overhaul, two songs of which are remixes of earlier tracks: “Drinking Problem” and “Voyager Reprise.” These three later tracks, compared with the buffed, glossy rawness of the first three tracks, split the album into two distinctive, if not brow-furrowing halves.

“Drinking Problem” tries to bridge the gap between the two halves of the album as the song’s added synthesizer and texturing samples give the track a Kraut-rock vibe. Then, unexpectedly, the levee holding the synthesizer back to a trickle in the “Drinking Problem” gives way, and Tarot begins gushing dance-pop in “Voyager Reprise (Summer of Love Remix)” with a steady drumbeat behind sparkling synthesizer carrying the song.

While following the psychological trajectory of a group like Surfer Blood, if we were only to judge them based on its musical output, bouncing from frat house barnburners to dance club ambiance doesn’t seem like a terribly far leap. In fact, it probably narrates the night for the majority of early-20-somethings. But audibly, it feels unnatural, contrived, if only because of the juxtaposition between the first three tracks.

But then again, it doesn’t sound bad. This is an EP, so rules about proper mixing and continuity really don’t apply here anyhow.

The last track on the album, “Voyager (Spectacular Remix),” has Surfer Blood heading back in its (still-being-defined) signature direction. This remix adds distortion, a guttural bassline and piercing feedback to the original “Voyager” and takes away the sunny samples, giving the track an entirely new dynamic.

If this EP is just a teaser of what’s to come, then there’s reason to be excited, as long as Surfer Blood sticks to indie-rock. If it’s prophetic of a genre-jump, be wary.

 Surfer Blood – Tarot Classics tracklist:

  1. “I’m Not Ready”
  2. “Miranda”
  3. “Voyager Reprise”
  4. “Drinking Problem”
  5. “Voyager Reprise (Summer of Love Remix)”
  6. “Drinking Problem (Speculator Remix)”
Kimbra-Vows Kimbra – Vows

★★★★☆

Kimbra is one of the few of her time to attempt an experimental jazz-pop sound and achieve success. Most contemporary efforts are disconnected and clashy. Here, she manages to find some middle ground where she’s just weird enough to be socially accepted but also original enough to stand out from other females in her field. Watch out for this woman because she’s just waiting to become big.

Kimbra is young and full of life. Let’s hope she stays around for a while. Her sound with the new Vows is much like Florence + the Machine, but even that comparison doesn’t do her justice. She’s truly one of a kind.

When she touches down onto the track, it’s a storm of bold action in an instant. “Settle Down” immediately represents Kimbra’s edgy style with a clapping sound, tambourines and fascinating vocal combinations both in the foreground and background. The rhythm doesn’t stall on its way to “Cameo Lover,” either. A twinkly charm adds warmth to the quick, fierce beats brought here by the young talent.

Expect to plead guilty when you find yourself buying three more pairs of shoes at Aldo just because this song was brainwashing you with its sexiness through the store’s speakers.

After the lyrical depth of “Two Way Street,” the mood is darkened significantly. It’s gradual but also highly noticeable. The beats slow and the sass is amped. The R&B emotion is totally embraced just as her indie-pop, if not deemed as second best.

Whatever Kimbra’s going for, she claims as her own. All is achieved that has been attempted, and we’ll take it.

“Good Intent” is old-fashioned and mysterious. The playful rhythm is imaginative and innovative, but this is the only flavor of its kind on the album. Why isn’t there more of it? It’s a shame because from here until the end, as the pounding dwindles, the songs all start to blend together.

If you miss Amy Winehouse and you’re sick of Janelle Monae, this is your artist. Kimbra brings it. Her New Zealand swagger is fearless and soulful. The energy she brings is incredibly positive. She’s spreading love and gathering inspiration from greatly infectious resources.

The metamorphasis of character Kimbra undergoes along Vows is something exciting to watch. It’s fun to listen to her evolve from innocent, lightweight songstress to passionate, soulful woman in a matter of minutes. Beats smooth themselves from quick and fast to slow and sexy from start to finish, and it ensures that there’s never a dull moment in the whole process.

Although the power remains strong throughout, this woman should remember that her greatest highs happen only in her most upbeat moments. When Vows slows down, such as during “Limbo” or “Withdraw,” Kimbra still delivers sultry steam. But comparing it with her fiery start, these all sound like they’re fizzled.

With the strength of a musical newborn, there’s also the inevitable vulnerability. Kimbra throws her all onto these tracks, and it’s overwhelming to realize how much she put onto the table. Can she ever top herself, making an exciting debut such as Vows? She’s going to have to out-do herself for any sort of follow-up. But for now, she’s on the right track.

Kimbra – Vows tracklist:

  1. “Settle Down”
  2. “Cameo Lover”
  3. “Two Way Street”
  4. “Old Flame”
  5. “Good Intent”
  6. “Plain Gold Ring”
  7. “Call Me”
  8. “Limbo”
  9. “Wandering Limbs”
  10. “Withdraw”
  11. “The Build Up”

 

 

RootsManuva4everevolution600Gb210911 Roots Manuva – 4everevolution

★★★☆☆

In the 13 years since Roots Manuva’s debut album Brand New Secondhand, the British hip-hop scene has warped and wobbled toward an ever more uncertain gentrification. The two most famous modern examples, Mike Skinner aka The Streets (although he’s technically classified as “garage”) and Lady Sovereign both made the coastal jump, concurrently falling apart under a weight that neither knew what to do with. Manuva, along with Dizzee Rascal, represents the old guard, the Talib Kweli or Common of the Brit-rap scene, fending off promising upstarts such as Giggs or the decidedly Manuva-like Wretch 32. And while Manuva has maintained a much lower profile than his American parallel, his newest record, 4everevolution, recalls Common in both good and bad ways, leading to a product that, like most, pales in comparison to his own older work and the contemporary work of his challengers.

The album is foremost an unfortunately confounding beast to dive into. Considering its almost-too-abhorrent-to-mention album title, the record is a monstrous 17 tracks, with nary a contrived skit to break up the mass. Only slightly more than an hour, 4everevolution isn’t impossible to absorb, but its lack of center or cohesion gives the unneeded impression of heft, something that could be simply remedied with some timely editing. While none of the songs are abject failures or missed opportunities, a large middle section containing five songs shorter than or just at three minutes never gets time to gel together. Instead, it functions as a discomforting grab bag of sounds Manuva was trying to complete but never got the chance to. Roots’ best efforts bubble up when he’s allowed to let a sound develop, like the dark-rap “Revelation” or the (yes) slightly chiptune-y “In the Throes of It.” Roots’ verse typically falls under the realm of philosophizing about real life, and his metered approach pays off when the tracks last longer. He’s also remained adept at blending dancehall and funk into the mix, primarily on the slightly-too-coy “Wha Mek” or the Michael Jackson ripping “Watch Me Dance.”

Roots is still on his game lyrically, even if his style can seem a little archaic now that many Brit-hop artists have taken notes and improved on the formula.

His deliveries still trend positively toward the slow-roll, letting his wordplay unfurl slowly, revealing moderate levels of cleverness that most of his younger peers can’t match yet. Even if he does roll out dud bars while doing a convincing 50 Cent impression (the bit conflating his girlfriend and his internet habits on “Too Much Plush” feels particularly uninspired), Roots still possesses the lyrical dexterity to mold himself to whatever dark Brit beat comes his way. The overall theme of the beats on the record trends too disjointing, struggling under the massive track weight to bring together chiptune, brit-hop, dancehall and straight rap together into something whole. When he does hit, the results are immediately satisfying. Examples include “The Path,” a midtempo pop tune with a Kate Nash soundalike for a chorus, or a riders slow burn with “Revelation.”

Roots Manuva’s Common affliction may be the disease that does him in, albeit on a much smaller scale considering the Brit audience. While he still has meaningful things to say, his struggle to adapt his style to a modern audience, exemplified here by his inability to make a compelling short-playing LP or short-playing singles, are making him feel dated. While that date doesn’t necessarily have to breed cantankerousness in a way akin to Nas’ poor aging process, Roots Manuva and his “Keep Calm, Carry On” rap persona on 4everevolution feel tried, if relatively appeasing.

Roots Manuva – 4everevolution tracklist:

  1. “First Growth”
  2. “Here We Go Again”
  3. “Skid Valley”
  4. “Who Goes There?”
  5. “Watch Me Dance”
  6. “Revelation”
  7. “Wha’ Mek?”
  8. “Takes Time To”
  9. “Beyond This World”
  10. “Go Champ”
  11. “Get the Get”
  12. “Crow Bars”
  13. “In the Throes of It”
  14. “Noddy”
  15. “Much Too Plush”
  16. “The Path”
  17. “Banana Skank”

 

Phonte - Charity Starts at Home Phonte – Charity Starts at Home

★★★★☆

Not even a minute into Phonte’s debut album Charity Starts at Home, he’s already flipping rap clichés on their ear: “And I do this all for hip-hop/I’m lyin’ like shit/I do this shit for my goddamn mortgage.” Subtle lyrical devices such as this one in “Dance in the Reign” help make Phonte’s solo debut such a compelling piece of hip-hop.

It’s no secret that Phonte is gifted—something his work with groups Little Brother and The Foreign Exchange displays—but when striking it out on his own for this the first time, there was a question of whether or not he’d be able to offer something as powerful as his previous acts. Thankfully, Phonte has enlisted a solid line-up of producers, one of which is 9th Wonder, Little Brother’s famed producer. The four 9th Wonder-produced tracks recall why these two worked so well together in the first place. 9th Wonder is known for orchestrating throwback-style hip-hop, something that Phonte can expertly help bring to a new level.

Charity Starts at Home sees Phonte avoid the pitfalls that have been becoming all too common in modern hip-hop. At 12 tracks, the album doesn’t stretch on for too long, but it still moves in distinct directions. “Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” produced by Symbolyc One, has an R&B backbeat that lends itself to Carlitta Durand’s soul singing. It’s moments such as this that show Phonte knows when to lay back and let his presence stay understated. Phonte doesn’t need to be the focal point of each track, and it is this understanding that allows songs to be truly effective.

With carefully selected producers behind him, Phonte is able to make his sharp lyrics shine.

Phonte is often introspective without over inflating his ego or coming down too hard on himself. It’s this delicate balance and pragmatic outlook that allow for Phonte to create verses that are totally genuine. “Sendin My Love” looks at relationships from a gendered perspective (“Man, I don’t fear much/But the thought of losin’ her hits me in the tear ducts/Too much honesty in here/Get earplugs”) as well as the influence of societal constructs (“Somethin’ in the way society rears us/Commitment weirds us out/It tears us apart”).

There are slight instances where Charity Starts at Home doesn’t hit as hard, but there is enough here to show that Phonte can stand on his own skills. It helps to have a solid team of producers and collaborators at one’s side, but Phonte is showing that he’s found ways to step out from a group dynamic and put himself out there. It’s a solid solo debut from a hip-hop veteran that shows he’s not lost an ounce of his honesty—even if the dynamics around him have changed.

Phonte – Charity Starts at Home tracklist:

  1. “Dance in the Reign”
  2. “The Good Fight”
  3. “Everything Is Falling Down”
  4. “Not Here Anymore”
  5. “Eternally”
  6. “Sendin My Love”
  7. “Ball and Chain”
  8. “To Be Yours”
  9. “Gonna Be a Beautiful Night”
  10. “We Go Off”
  11. “The Life of Kings”
  12. “Who Loves You More”