Veronica-Falls-LP-st-cover Veronica Falls – Veronica Falls

★★★★★

Every once in a while, one stumbles across a record that is totally unheralded and yet somehow hits all the listener’s sweet spots. With the caveat that those “sweet spots” are highly subjective, this is such an album. The 12 songs here have sprung forth so fully formed and self-assured that one could mistake them for a veteran act lost in the wrinkles of time and tinnitus. And yet, their approach is so meek, so unassuming, so effortlessly twee, yet brimming with hushed intensity, that it’s clear one could pass them on a Milwaukee street corner and not even bat an eye. What a shame that would be.

The record starts strong and only gets better.  Thankfully, New York’s Captured Tracks label didn’t pass them up on the cyber-street-corner, as they signed Veronica Falls to release their first single 10 minutes after the band launched their Myspace page. That first single, “Found Love in a Graveyard,” could in one sense serve as Veronica Falls’ manifesto and kicks off the London quartet’s first long-player. Given the opening notes, it would be easy to mistake them for retro-goth cellar-dwellers, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Rather, their winsome melodies sparkle and shine like a silver stream sparkling on a sunny, crisp autumn day. Sure, there’s a ghostly chill and a sense that winter is soon coming, but for now, all is lovely, if spooky.

Could “The Fountain” be a female-framed response to The Smiths’ “Reel Around The Fountain,” or is it an argument to refuse The Wedding Present’s Take Fountain? The plea to “Stephen” is girded by a Nirvana-like bassline, but it has Helium highs built upon it, whereas its successor, “Beachy Head,” sounds like Beat Happening’s  “Bad Seeds” on meth. Veronica Falls are bold, too—they don’t have to bring on Peter Buck as a contributor (like The Decemberists did) to borrow a page from R.E.M.’s “Talk About The Passion” on the track they name for themselves (although they end up sounding like a less-strident version of The Shangri-Las filtered through The Primitives). Nor do they apologize for sounding like Galaxie 500 doing R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” at the beginning of the next cut, the closer “Come On Over.” Once it gets going, they break into a jangly distort-gallop a la The Raveonettes with Beach Boys-like backing vocals. There could not be more perfect (and seasonally fitting) prequel to the lounging wintry cheesiness of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” than this, and throughout, it’s clear thematically that there could not be a better soundtrack to fall than Veronica Falls.

Simply put, the pace is sometimes shambling, the backbeats pulsate, the soprano vocals with tenor backing enunciate and swoon, and this is perfect power pop for today’s “now” indie-rock kid.

There are antecedents, without question. Imagine if the Cannanes had made the record everyone always hoped for, if Lush had done Spooky with acoustic guitars, or if The Pains of Being Pure At Heart did an MTV Unplugged, if Black Tambourine hadn’t been relegated to the “influence” bin, or if Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, Frankie Rose and the Outs all made their best records. What if The Pastels were still around, The Bangles were still on a tiny indie label, or if The Velvet Underground had decided to continue and had somehow magically morphed into Camera Obscura?

That such an unknown ensemble could assemble such a sweet relish tray of succulent delights with a traditional guitar-bass-drums lineup, using Beach Boys harmonies and the sonic structures first erected by auteurs such as Phil Spector, more than 10 years into the 21st century is a testament to the strength of their sterling songwriting and wholly remarkable, hook-laden melodies.

Veronica Falls – Veronica Falls tracklist:

  1. “Found Love in a Graveyard”
  2. “Right Side of My Brain”
  3. “The Fountain”
  4. “Misery”
  5. “Bad Feeling”
  6. “Stephen”
  7. “Beachy Head”
  8. “All Eyes on You”
  9. “The Box”
  10. “Wedding Day”
  11. “Veronica Falls”
  12. “Come on Over”
tha carter iv album cover Lil Wayne – Tha Carter IV

★★½☆☆

Before this review begins, the following point must be made: Lil Wayne is not the best rapper alive.

Somewhere between coining “Bling, Bling” on fellow Hot Boy B.G.’s smash hit and heading to Rikers for a little gun-aided vacation, Lil Wayne was thrown onto the short list of the best living MCs. His rabid fan base, tireless work ethic, knack for churning out radio smashes, and moving product off the shelves all have been contributing factors to his inclusion in the pantheon of rhyme spitters. But does he have the skills to be mentioned in the same breath as the greats?

No.

His flow’s decent, but the content is just not there; when listening to Tha Carter IV, it’s hard to separate that.

If he weren’t touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread, it might be possible to contextualize his music differently. If he were compared more to Jeezy than Jigga, one might have a more positive outlook on the long-awaited (and incarceration-delayed) album.

There are bright spots on the album, for sure. It starts off with horns and claps that let Wayne do what he does: spit a few bars of nonsensical metaphors in a cocky drawl. “Blunt Blowin,” “Six Foot, Seven Foot” and “Megaman” are more of the same with Wayne attacking the tracks and adding some catchy hooks certain to be heard blaring out of car windows for the foreseeable future.

Things are running pretty smoothly, until “Nightmares of the Bottom” happens, and things take a drastic turn to terrible and inconsistent. T-Pain returns from the land of Auto-Tune to add a regrettable hook to “She Will.” John Legend has a turn on “So Special,” but Wayne’s rhymes are so confusing that one might even start to wonder whether Legend knows where he’s going with this next line. “Abortion” is a forgettable, nondescript three-and-a-half-minute-long metaphor. “How to Love” is surprisingly touching but really awkward, so of course it became the No. 1 song in the country. Finally, the buzz track, “It’s Good,” features the infamous Jay-Z diss.

Ironically, the highlights of his own album are when Wayne steps away from the mic. Nas, Tech N9ne, a surprise appearance from former Bad Boy/inmate Shyne, Bun-B, Busta Rhymes and Possum Allawishes Jenkins himself, Outkast’s Andre 3000, all deliver bar after bar of perfection in their own individual styles. However, what makes their verses interesting is that they all make sure to give credit to the name on the album cover. It’s obvious that Wayne has the respect of his peers.

Does Tha Carter IV suck? Not really. Is Tha Carter IV good? Not really. Wayne fans are still going to bump it, while hip-hop heads are going to shoot down G.O.A.T. mentions. Tha Carter IV’s hype might have led the listener to believe that it would blur those lines. It didn’t and it will forever be confusing as to how the 14-year-old kid whose mom didn’t let him curse on records became the biggest enigma in rap. But, somehow the volume always seems to go up just a tad when that “Six Foot, Seven Foot’’ sample creeps through the speakers.

Lil Wayne – Tha Carter IV tracklist:

  1. “Intro”
  2. “Blunt Blowin”
  3. “MegaMan”
  4. “Six Foot, Seven Foot” (featuring Cory Gunz)
  5. “Nightmares of the Bottom”
  6. “She Will” (featuring Drake)
  7. “How to Hate” (featuring T-Pain)
  8. “Interlude” (featuring Tech N9ne and Andre 3000)
  9. “John” (featuring Rick Ross)
  10. “Abortion”
  11. “So Special” (featuring John Legend)
  12. “How to Love”
  13. “President Carter”
  14. “It’s Good” (featuring Drake and Jadakiss)
  15. “Outro” (featuring Bun B, Nas, Shyne and Busta Rhymes)
thumb DJ Shadow – The Less You Know, the Better

★★★½☆

Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow, might have alienated a large swath of his fan base when he dropped The Outsider in 2006, but he’s back working in the roots of his earlier works with his latest record, The Less You Know, the Better. When he abandoned the instrumental hip-hop that was his calling card on his earlier albums and switched to what he termed “hyphy” with The Outsider, it was a wonder whether he would ever get back to the likes of Endtroducing (1996) and The Private Press (2002). The Less You Know is reminiscent of a time when Shadow wasn’t wearing the producer hat and was a dedicated DJ.

The characteristic sound that DJ Shadow is most known for, the striking soundscapes combined with samples from places not known by the ordinary DJ, is resurrected in stunning bravura. Shadow spent time working and reworking his sound to give a pure solo record to his fans. Most of the tracks on the album feel as though they are giving the listener a hard hit in the face, starting with the awkward 1980s revitalization entry “Warning Call” with guest singer Tom Vek, a self-taught multi-instrumentalist from the UK.

“Sad And Lonely” conjures the affectionate sound of lowly folk music with a slow piano and whining violin. “Stay The Course” takes the listener back to early hip-hop and also features a guest appearance from De La Soul rapper Posdnuos. Songs such as “Enemy Lines” and “I’ve Been Trying” are a one-two combo of throwback tunes along with the repetitive “Let’s Get It (Bass, Bass, Bass)” that showcase the nonlinear talent of DJ Shadow.

A track called “I’m Excited,” co-starring the incredibly captivating Afrikan Boy, was released on an EP in July, but it was ultimately kept from The Less You Know because of a copyright dispute. As today’s music market begins to morph more and more, the legalities of it all can become a harrowing mess. Had the song made it to the album, it would have garnered success for the masterful DJ.

The album is 16 tracks long, and although it wiggles through a variety of tempos, styles and guest appearances, it manages to be a bridge between the latter days of DJ Shadow and a look into the future to the cut-and-paste man behind the turntables.

The song “I’ve Been Trying” is more along the lines of a Vietnam War hippie-protester song than a dedicated hip-hop anthem. With the acoustic strumming and Ben Harper-esque vocals, it takes a page out of the street performers book with the train in the background as the track fades off. It’s as though Shadow set up shop at a subway stop and commissioned a homeless guitar player to go in halvsies on a sub sandwich so long as he played along with him.

All things considered, The Less You Know is a stand-up album. With its ever-changing motif, it is an easy listen all the way through and shows Shadow’s desire to ride into the future with the rest of the electro hip-hop community.

DJ Shadow – The Less You Know, the Better tracklist:

  1. “Back to Front (Circular Logic)”
  2. “Border Crossing”
  3. “Stay the Course”
  4. “I’ve Been Trying”
  5. “Sad and Lonely”
  6. “Warning Call”
  7. “Tedium”
  8. “Enemy Lines”
  9. “Go Nowhere”
  10. “Redeemed”
  11. “Run for Your Life”
  12. “Give Me Back the Nights”
  13. “I Gotta Rokk”
  14. “Scale It Back”
  15. “Circular Logic (Front to Back)”
  16. “(Not So) Sad and Lonely”
Future-Islands-LP-On-the-Water-cover Future Islands – On the Water

★★★★☆

Hailing from the coastal town of Baltimore, the band Future Islands boasts a decidedly nautical mood on their latest album, the aptly titled On the Water. Utilizing whiny synthesizers and echoey drum sounds, this trio formulate a sound that can often times be quite challenging, in spite of the seeming simplicity of its structure.

The title track, for instance, starts the album with sounds of a blustering day banging wind chimes to and fro before a Flock of Seagulls-esque drum and bass pattern begins to fade in. Before long, lead singer Samuel T. Herring is crooning into the microphone, carrying a vocal style that sounds like the strange love child of Ian Curtis and Tom Waits.

Soon, those synths kick in before the whole thing builds to a wall of guitar fuzz, a la Jesus and Mary Chain. But Future Islands isn’t all about homage. They boast a unique sound that manages to sustain a number of different ideas without sounding too cluttered. On The Water is a quick 10 tracks, but despite its pithiness, there’s enough meat on the bone to ensure repeat listens.

Those listening to the band for the first time can instantly glean two things: Future Islands love 1980s music, and Herring isn’t afraid to put his unconventional vocal stylings on full display.

Nor should he be. While it certainly takes some getting used to, Herring has a unique presence as a frontman and a lyricist. He has a surprisingly deep perspective on life, which is evident on the song “Give Us the Wind” when he proclaims, “We set out to find something to hold/In seeking truth, the answer is the road.”

With its sweeping chorus and ethereal keyboard sounds, “Give Us the Wind” is both the album’s best track and a perfect summation of everything that makes On the Water a great record: introspective lyricism coupled with intriguingly subdued textures.

Occupying the space between yacht rock and ’80s new wave, songs such as “Before the Bridge,” “The Great Fire” and “Tybee Island” might sound indulgent in isolation, but in the context of the album, they stand out as concise and endearing songs that manage to build toward ideas of deconstruction.

Even “Close to None,” a six-minute tune that begins laconically, reaches a spirited conclusion as inspired as any album cut in the band’s entire catalog. The song bleeds into the next track, “Balance,” with the soothing sounds of ocean water before transitioning.

Although they might be few and far between, the album’s weaker moments tend to be glaring. Most notably, the running interludes of ocean sounds that bookmark a number of the songs tend to take away from an album that’s already enough of an experience on its own. For a band called Future Islands playing an album called On the Water, there’s no need to push the thematic elements any further.

But these are admittedly trivial disparities. In virtually every other facet, the album is a sonically advanced piece of pop, filled with bright ideas and endearing musicality.

Future Islands – On the Water tracklist:

  1.  ”On the Water”
  2. “Before the Bridge”
  3. “The Great Fire”
  4. “Open”
  5. “Where I Found You”
  6. “Give Us the Wind”
  7. “Close to None”
  8. “Balance”
  9. “Tybee Island”
  10. “Grease”
M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

★★★★½

If M83 (aka Anthony Gonzalez) hadn’t deliberately put together his forthcoming double album, slowly fusing styles and influences from his past efforts while carefully experimenting in newfound territory, it might have perfectly scored Spike Jonze’s fantasy film, Where The Wild Things Are. Even if Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming suits Maurice Sendak’s celebrated children’s classic better than Arcade Fire’s Funeral, M83’s efforts certainly don’t pass unnoticed. Every piece of the expansive 1.2 hour LP is quality and the French artist’s determination during the past few years shines in his sixth album. Gonzalez’s fresh offering is truly one worth taking hold because it is an accumulation of everything he’s done up to this point and, as a whole, it also demonstrates a significant direction for the artist’s future.

M83’s love for cinema, made apparent in Before the Dawn Heals Us, trades positive vibes for a darker innocence in Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, transcending the plot into imaginary, almost childish landscapes. “Raconte Moi une Histoire” is especially notable with its adorable discourse about tiny, magical frogs. Although its context is unusually scripted, its foolish ideas are sure to raise eyebrows and crack smiles. Additionally, “OK Pal” reminds us of the 1980s feel that was so prevalent in 2008′s Saturdays=Youth, with its bouncy synth waves and echoed lyrics, while “Midnight City” sounds different than anything M83 has contributed thus far.

The dual disc was produced by Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who is known for his work with Beck, Nine Inch Nails and The Mars Volta, among others. Although White Sea’s Morgan Kibby played an integral role in Saturdays=Youth, her influence is rather minimal in Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Other contributors include guitarist Brad Laner (Medicine) and guest vocalist Zola Jesus who whispers a few lines before stretching her chords in the opening “Intro” track. While a lack of Kibby’s vocals might trouble fans of M83, Gonzalez’s personal vocals take a much heavier persistence, and this tradeoff never compromises the album as a whole. Gonzalez establishes his range as a vocalist while he softly sings parts and steadily transitions into louder, higher-pitched tones.

Each glitzy synth, orchestrated harmony and playful interlude found in Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming feels weightless, yet immense, and invites a retrospective outlook on the intangible.

Gonzalez has achieved an aerial grasp on his music, the same way nature requires humans to breathe. In other words, for every inhalation or climatic track, such as “Midnight City” and “Claudia Lewis,” there is an equal exhale to center the listener’s observance. In lieu of brief interludes, tracks such as “Wait” and “Splendor” provide elongated relaxation thanks to their reserved piano tones and hushed harmonies.

If observed closely, the timeline of Gonzalez’s development as a musician and M83’s output seem to be somewhat reversed. While Saturdays=Youth aroused teenage dreams, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming reverts itself to childish fantasies. Nowadays, it is uncommon to hear a collective output urging people to take a trip down memory lane and relive childhood innocence. Rather, the music arena is flooded with material that draws on rebellion and alternative lifestyles (OFWGKTA a prime example). It is rather uplifting to hear such a carefully crafted double album that commemorates youth and playfulness.

M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming tracklist:

Disc 1

  1. “Intro”
  2. “Midnight City”
  3. “Reunion”
  4. “Where the Boats Go”
  5. “Wait”
  6. “Raconte Moi une Histoire”
  7. “Train to Pluton”
  8. “Claudia Lewis”
  9. “This Bright Flash”
  10. “When Will You Come Home?”
  11. “Soon, My Friend”
Disc 2
  1. “My Tears Are Becoming a Sea”
  2. “New Map”
  3. “OK Pal”
  4. “Another Wave From You”
  5. “Splendor”
  6. “Year One, One UFO”
  7. “Fountains”
  8. “Steve McQueen”
  9. “Echoes of Mine”
  10. “Klaus I Love You”
  11. “Outro”
Robag Wruhme Thora Vukk Album Cover Robag Wruhme – Thora Vukk

★★★★☆

In an ever-expanding field of conceptual electronic artists, Robag Wruhme throws his hat into the ring. A veteran of the German music scene, Thora Vukk is actually his first on DJ Koze’s and, for what it’s worth, is fairly auspicious. The German artist, who’s been branded minimalist techno, is something of a sound smith. With a very few elements he manages to create an ebullient sonic landscape.

As one might guess from the namesake, Robag Wruhme—pseudonym of Gabor Schablitzki—rips a page out of Aphex Twin. Well, quite a few pages. There are the boggled names for songs, that, rather than spell a word, suggest a meaning phonetically or by the appearance of the letters. There are time-stretched vocals (none of which form words), resonated hi-hats and a host of incomprehensible sounds sucked through familiar melodies. It all winds into a kind of soothing, ambient minimalism that glimmers and stings.

Thora Vukk carries with it that sort of glum sadness that suggests the wide, grey emptiness of modern day East Berlin. There’s enough two-and-four to keep it techno (a la the liquid bassline on “Bommsen Böff”), enough innovation to keep it German and enough space to fill a Soviet blockhouse quarter. But it’s a work that never quite loses touch with its sentimental side—from the warm, tape-delayed strings of opener “Wupp Dek” to the call-response piano balladry of “Ende.” The kinetic and often mysterious loops range from the everyday (muffled voices, doors slamming) to the alien and incomprehensible.

This is a collection of songs that appeal psychologically as much as they do viscerally.

Sometimes, they can be difficult—either because you’re trying to make sense of them or because they’re just that jarring (the old violin-bow-stroked-across-a-cymbal trick), and if you find yourself bobbing your head, you’re probably also stroking your mustache keenly trying to decipher each little turn. Listeners might catch themselves thinking of a melody in one way, before hearing it reinstated in a clearer, much different light. Often, it will disappear altogether. There is as much attention to details in the music as there is to the sounds.

Interesting to note is the structure of the record: There are seven songs divided by five unearthly “brüeckes (bridges), each one mostly noise, fusing distinctly different moods of songs, dissolving into the silence from which they came. Whether it’s deliberate or notit turns the piece into a kind of linked journey, with each island showcasing a different side of the artist. Standout “Pnom Gobal” glows between the second and third bridges; touting whispered chirpy drums, it manages to stay a step ahead of predictability with its tradeoff of sighing strings and solfége.

Robag Wruhme is an artist you’re more likely to see at SONAR festival, not your local club—and that’s to his credit. The subtleties, ambience and artfulness of Thora Vukk deserved to be met silently, loud and clear.

Robag Wruhme – Thora Vukk Tracklist:

  1. “Wupp Dek”
  2. “Thora Vukk”
  3. “Bruecke Eins”
  4. “Bommsen Boeff”
  5. “Bruecke Zwei”
  6. “Pnom Gobal”
  7. “Bruecke Drei”
  8. “Tulpa Ovi”
  9. “Bruecke Vier”
  10. “Prognosen Bomm”
  11. “Bruecke Fuenf”
  12. “Ende”
Birdy Nam Nam-Defiant Order-Album-Cover Birdy Nam Nam – Defiant Order

★★★★☆

If there is one thing the French are known for being extremely ruthless for, it is their passion for electronic music that goes across borders and languages. Birdy Nam Nam is no exception. From the get-go, there are a few things that separate Birdy from the seemingly endless supply of dubstep/techno/remix/anything electronic music these days.

The first being that they are a group of four guys; most electronic acts probably couldn’t conceive utilizing two or three DJs or a combination of DJ and another musician all at once. The way the four Birdies work so well together is the way they approach their instruments.

They do not simply toss a record onto a turntable and “scratch” (or as the French say it, faire du scratch) while juggling songs from time to time. Each member of the band has years of experience DJing without using the aid of computers or digital tools. They even won the DMC World DJ Championships in 2002. Each member present on stage is playing a different role of the traditional band.

In Birdy’s case, playing in a band without traditional instruments has freed them of typical song structure, melodies, and writing. Their newest album, Defiant Order, is no exception, and it’s not a record to be taken lightly.

Defiant Order sounds like a cohesive instrumental piece that flows seamlessly from one song to another. The opening track, “Jaded Future,” sounds like an intro. It starts with what sounds like a digitally altered sampled horn. One can hear where the scratching is, and one can tell it’s hand-crafted to hold down the energy of the song. A few bars later, the rest of the guys come through with the percussion, skewed vocal melodies and the hook, just like a normal band would.

The same format is applied to most of the other songs on the album. One can dissect it by listening to when certain instruments come in and out. Each song starts with one sample that is used as the building point. It isn’t a rhythmic sample or melodic sample: it’s between that, so each member can play with poly-rythms, alternate melodies and time signatures. This human approach is what makes their music so different. It isn’t locked into predictable and over-used time signatures or generic beats. However, this gets tired when trying to listen to the record in one sitting. It doesn’t get boring, but the concept does not get challenged or changed throughout the whole album.

Defiant Order, at the end of the day, is a giant wall of bass, drums, and anything and everything else being thrown at the listener at once. The songs that stick out the most are the ones with vocal samples because they ground the listener into the song, reminding them that there are humans using computers to make these sounds. That also gives them a more personal feel.

Whether the samples are glitched out and processed to sound shimmery and chopped up, or whether they are just lifted as-is, it works well. Defiant Order serves its purpose as music to dance and not pay attention to, and on that level, it’s great. However, listening to the album attentively gets repetitive and almost annoying, but you have to remember that these men are professional performers who bring life to electronic music. That human touch always connects with fans at a live show where their true talent, passion and energy for performing can be displayed full-blast.

Birdy Nam Nam – Defiant Order Tracklist:

  1. “Jaded Future”
  2. “Defiant Order”
  3. “Parache”
  4. “Written in the Sand”
  5. “Cadillac Dreams”
  6. “Big City Knights”
  7. “Goin’ In”
  8. “(The Golden Era) Of El Cobra Discoteca”
  9. “The Plan”
  10. “Melancholy at the Sports Bar”
  11. “Black Bird Cloud”
9th-Wonder-LP-The-Wonder-Years-cover 9th Wonder – The Wonder Years

★★☆☆☆

Patrick Douthit, known in the hip-hop world as 9th Wonder, has been producing throwback tracks for nearly a decade. His first foray into the rap game was with Little Brother, a group who made a splash with its 2003 debut, The Listening. After Little Brother went on hiatus, 9th Wonder continued producing songs for established acts such as Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Murs and countless others.

Recently, 9th Wonder was the subject of a feature-length documentary. Director Kenneth Price followed Douthit for a year, resulting in the in-depth “The Wonder Year.” In conjunction with the film, 9th Wonder released his fourth compilation album, The Wonder Years.

From the start of “Make It Big,” Douthit’s penchant for classic hip-hop is on display. 9th Wonder’s production recalls early-1990s East Coast style, with Khyrsis’ verses adding to the vintage feel. As The Wonder Years progresses, it effectively showcases the fact that 9th Wonder can transport listeners back to a time when hip-hop was somewhat simple, a time before tracks were—quite literally—orchestrated.

Each of the 16 tracks that 9th Wonder produces for The Wonder Years perfectly encapsulates Douthit’s ability to create near-perfect facsimiles of a long-lost production style. Unfortunately, this is also 9th Wonder’s undoing.

There is little doubt that 9th Wonder is capable of building a stellar track—“Enjoy (West Coastin’)” features stellar production and top-notch collaborations with Warren G, Murs and Kendrick Lamar—but after an hour, Douthit’s rudimentary approach to throwbacks wears thin. In many cases, tracks exceed the four-minute mark but never move away from the beat that 9th Wonder introduced at the track’s start.

Occasionally, 9th Wonder will subtly introduce a new idea into a track, but instead of creating a new tone, it merely happens, without much purpose or direction.

When effective, 9th Wonder’s throwbacks recall the very best of late-1980s and early-’90s hip-hop. Douthit finds ways to have the best traits from the East and West coasts coexist, but songs often lose steam well before they end. By the time The Wonder Years reaches its conclusion, it is akin to the sound of one concept being stretched entirely too thin for far too long a duration.

It’s easy to isolate Douthit’s faults when his production is all that is on display. If these tracks were to be presented on the albums of 9th Wonder’s, they could potentially be highlights. It’s obvious that 9th Wonder understands what makes this production style effective. It borders on nostalgia, but it adds enough polish and new-age studio tricks to keep it from feeling dated.

The Wonder Years is best in short spurts. It is a great reminder of how well classic hip-hop techniques have stood the test of time, but what is lacking is the sense of adventure. In dedicating himself to replicating the past, Douthit seems to have forgotten that all of those acts grew and progressed beyond those simplistic sounds. It would serve him well to not just replicate their style, but also their ambition.

9th Wonder – The Wonder Years tracklist:

  1.  ”Make It Big (Remix)” (featuring Big Remo)
  2. “Band Practice, Pt. 2″ (featuring Phonte and Median)
  3. “Enjoy (West Coastin’)” (featuring Warren G and Murs)
  4. “Streets of Music” (featuring Tanya Morgan and Enigma of Actual Proof)
  5. “Hearing the Melody” (featuring Skyzoo, Fashawn and King Mez)
  6. “Loyalty” (featuring Masta Killa and Halo)
  7. “Now I’m Being Cool” (featuring Mela Machinko and Median)
  8. “Never Stop Loving You” (featuring Terrace Martin and Talib Kweli)
  9. “Pirhanas” (featuring Sene and Sundown of Actual Proof)
  10. “Peanut Butter & Jelly” (featuring Marsha Ambrosius)
  11. “One Night” (featuring Terrace Martin, Phonte and Bird and The Midnight Falcons)
  12. “Your Smile” (featuring Holly Weerd and Thee Tom Hardy)
  13. “No Pretending” (featuring Raekwon and Big Remo)
  14. “20 Feet Tall (Remix)” (featuring Erykah Badu and Rapsody)
  15. “That’s Love” (featuring Mac Miller and Heather Victoria)
  16. “A Star U R” (featuring Terrace Martin, Problem and GQ)
808s and dark grapes II album cover Main Attrakionz – 808s & Dark Grapes II

★★★★☆

The Oakland rap collective of Squadda B and Mondre M.A.N., known to the world as Main Attrakionz, collaborate on their fourth full-length mixtape of the year with 808s & Dark Grapes II, thanks to a co-venture with clothing company Mishka. Representing the sub-genre of “cloud rap” (not the most well-known sub-genre), 808s lives up to its name by providing the listener with plenty of rattle for their trunk.

As they’ve risen to notoriety in the hip-hop world, Main Attrakionz has been lumped in with artists such as Cali brethren Lil B and Tyler, the Creator-led Odd Future (OFWGKTA). Possibly having more of a connection with the former, the comparison with the latter is hard to wrap one’s head around.

Where this release falls short is lyricism, but not for a lack of trying.

The duo should be commended for trying to tackle broader subjects than just Cadillacs, girls and money, but they just don’t seem to have the lyrical firepower that someone like Tyler possesses, not to mention lacking in the overall gimmicks and appeal. It might be easier to classify them if they didn’t try so hard, lyrically. If they left the work to the 808s themselves and left the substance out, the record might be viewed in a different light. It’s almost like they’re in the wrong genre.

808s gets off to a less than-stellar start with a few almost-unlistenable samples and an occasional breakthrough set of 16s. “Diamond of God” is a nice attempt at battling one’s inner demons with the longing to follow the moral code that is obviously there. “Chuch” follows along the same path with a slow, quiet instrumental, but leans more toward the confliction of money and women that conquers many a rapper’s conscience. They’re fit in the aforementioned category of a nice try, but there’s not much underneath the surface. “Perfect Sounds” is less than perfect, finding another confliction.

“Nothin’ Gonna Change” at least starts to point the album’s compass in the right direction. A melodic sample with tempo-pushing drums finds Squadda and Mondre attacking their lyrics like never before. It’s an ode to some of the same topics they tackled before, but in a much more articulate and entertaining way. “Rap Junkies” and “Vegetables” keep things moving forward in a positive way with catchy beats that find the duo laying down flows that fit them nicely.

“Take 1” is probably the highlight of the tape. Starting with a movie clip that sets the mood, the group goes through a list of things they have a distaste for, and hipsters are one of them. It’s their strongest song lyrically, fluidly and musically. They lyrics creep over the claps and voice samples perfectly.

“Regrets” ends 808s on a high note as the duo stresses that they’re not sorry for anything they’ve gone through at their young age.

808s & Dark Grapes II is an honest depiction of a promising rap group who haven’t quite found their voice yet, but they are well on their way. There are always going to be bumps along the way. Luckily, most of them will be coming from speakers.

Main Attrakionz – 808s & Dark Grapes II tracklist:

  1. “Bossalinis and Fooliyones Pt. 2″
  2. “Diamond of God”
  3. “Chuch”
  4. “Incredible”
  5. “Perfect Sounds”
  6. “Nothin’ Gonna Change”
  7. “Rap Junkies”
  8. “Vegetables”
  9. “Take 1″
  10. “Mondre Mo Murda”
  11. “Chosen”
  12. “That’s Life”
  13. “Paperwork”
  14. “Perfect Skies”
  15. “Regrets”
Thrice - Major/Minor Thrice – Major/Minor

★★★☆☆

When it comes to transition and morphing of music, Thrice is cornering the market in a change in trademark sound. They’ve made an eight-course meal out of their record releases and have kept their fans guessing at almost every turn. In something of a less bold note, Thrice turned out their latest record, Major/Minor as more of a b-side release of their last album, Beggars (2009), than a complete shift in direction.

Their move throughout the musical world can be paralleled with the all-too-famous grunge act Pearl Jam. They also transitioned from album to album with shifts in sound, delivery and message over a 20-year journey around the multilayered depths of the music industry. With all they have in common, there is something Thrice isn’t bringing to the table that Pearl Jam can do, even today—add depth to their sound.

As Major/Minor chugs along, its sound is canned installments of pre-processed rock ‘n’ roll, sounding nothing short of just plain normal. They’ve shifted from skater-punk thrash on a lot of their earlier work, to an ambient and progressive middle base. Then rounding out with something of a blues-rock heard on Beggars. What makes this latest record so canned? There is no real identifiable sound, nothing that reaches out and grabs the listener.

Lead singer and guitarist Dustin Kensrue’s voice rumbles outward like a bar band vocalist’s. He’s supported with a pounding drum and bass backing that doesn’t sound anything different than the rock radio-station crap motorists commute home to on their “drive at five” rush-hour rock block. Case in point, “Treading Paper” and “Promises” are just two examples of how this album could fit easily into a block of radio tunes, and no one would be the wiser as to who it is.

There is more to this album than just what hits the ear immediately. Kensrue takes his Christian background and creates an air of fellowship through his lyricism.

Although his music is intertwined with the world of The Good Book, it doesn’t come off too preachy, and as a saving grace might be the only thing truly wholesome about the album. This key element has been a reoccurring theme throughout the almost decade and a half they’ve been putting out music and is a cornerstone for their sound and message.

Album opener “Yellow Belly” echoes with some moments of good ol’-fashioned rock, but there is nothing incredibly notable about it. It has a guitar backing that reeks of that heard from the guys in Filter, and the vocals hold true to the same suit. It speeds and slows and comes and goes like the pointless one-hit-wonder music that polluted the airwaves in the late 1990s.

As a rule of thumb, Thrice kept this album as close to their last as they could. It doesn’t keep to their recipe of bounding over music genres to get their point across, but it holds on like it should be part two of an anthology. With that in mind, if their fan base was expecting something different this go around, they were sorely disappointed and will have to wait for the next release to see what happens next. Changing it up can be fruitful for some bands. For example, look at the wide swath of fans Pearl Jam has picked up during the years. There’s still plenty of time to keep the seas of change going, unless you believe the world will end in 2012.

Thrice – Major/Minor tracklist:

  1. “Yellow Belly”
  2. “Promises”
  3. “Blinded”
  4. “Cataracts”
  5. “Call It in the Air”
  6. “Treading Paper”
  7. “Blur”
  8. “Words in the Water”
  9. “Listen Through Me”
  10. “Anthology”
  11. “Disarmed”
Jens Lekman An Argument With Myself EP Jens Lekman – An Argument with Myself

★★★★☆

After a four-year hiatus, Swedish pop-folk heartthrob Jens Lekman has released An Argument with Myself, an EP of concert favorites and new songs, chock-full of quirky one-liners and intricate storytelling.

After “quitting” music a few times, Lekman couldn’t help but share his stories with the world again. Tales about waiting for Kirsten Dunst outside her hotel, Google directions and a sick friend have proved that this lustful Swede just can’t get away, and we’re OK with that.

Lekman’s style of poppy beats smothered with ukulele and horns began with his first full-length album, 2004’s When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog, and it hasn’t changed since. He uses a formula of bubbly melodies and beautifully witty renditions of everyday activities that goes unmatched. Lekman’s literal songwriting is his staple. He doesn’t mask his struggles, happiness or daily deeds with layers of metaphors.

Die-hard fans often wish for their all-time favorite band never to change what they fell in love with, and Lekman’s dreamy tone, straightforward lyricism and heartfelt stories have remained mostly untouched.

This EP is influenced by Lekman’s time spent in Melbourne, Australia, and it is most obvious in the title song, “An Argument with Myself,” where he questions his move during a walk home at night.  He continuously battles with himself: “Can we just try to figure this out? Can we just talk about this please? Nah, I don’t want to talk to you. OK, you want to keep fighting? Yeah, I wanna keep on fighting. Alright, fair enough.”

Lekman finds the perfect orchestration to accompany his soulful banter. His rendition of reggae blends into the pop-backbone very subtly, allowing the tropical influences from his time in Melbourne to sit tightly next to the whimsical folk beats from the use of horns, flute and various string instruments.

The album closer has a very tropical melody. Light-hearted comedic tune “So This Guy at My Office” is a witty bit of sarcasm. A perfect note to end the EP on, this tune is an enchanting take on an annoying co-worker—a topic that all can relate to, but no one can relay quite as perfectly.

Lekman’s undeniably feel-good tunes are so toe-tapping, head-bobbing delicious. Spitting out catchy-as-hell banter, he puts himself into a category with no other comparisons. An Argument with Myself is frankly, too short, and gets better and better with every listen.

Jens Lekman – An Argument with Myself tracklist:

  1. “An Argument With Myself”
  2. “Waiting for Kirsten”
  3. “A Promise”
  4. “New Directions”
  5. “So This Guy at My Office”
LMH-LP-The-Tape-Hiss-Hooligan-cover .L.W.H. – The Tape Hiss Hooligan

★★★½☆

The new album from hip-hop producer and filmmaker L.W. Hodge (of the Oakland collective Green Ova Undergrounds) begins with Max von Sydow’s narration from Lars von Trier’s 1990 film Europa, an expressionistic and politically amorphous movie that doesn’t have much to say about the state of pop music. Needless to say, the sample stands out as incongruous as the rest of the album unfolds.

L.W.H. might be a cinephile, but von Sydow isn’t all that hip-hop. As his brooding voice begins to count down the beginning of the album, it’s uncertain in what kind of direction The Tape Hiss Hooligan is going.

But before long, the first proper track, “Bobblehead,” featuring rappers Main Attrakionz, is a synthed-out, indie-rap jam, with L.W.H. taking cues from the likes of Flying Lotus and Madlib to craft a spacey beat. For the first time, the producer is making clear his intentions: left-of-center hip-hop, fitted with obscure and often unnecessary references, that results in album that varies in listenability.

The production style on The Tape Hiss Hooligan largely is a mixture of sonic components, with L.W.H. democratically ensuring each sound is given its due diligence. It works best on tracks such as “Oakland State of Mind,” which incorporates a straightforward but effective drum pattern and gingerly used woodwinds. Green Ova Undergrounds MC Squadda B handles the vocals, riding the languid beat with an effortless dexterity.

The rappers that compose Green Ova Undergrounds are far less subdued than their hyphy peers. With a larger focus on lyrics and cadence as opposed to swagger and presence, rappers such as Western Tink, Mondre M.A.N. and Shady Blaze all posses admirable skills (and are each featured on the albums lead single, “Bitin’ and Shakin’”).

As a duo, Mondre M.A.N. and Squadda B make up the duo Main Attrakionz, and together, they make for some of The Tape Hiss Hooligan’s best moments. Not only do they accompany von Sydow on his running commentary, but also on tracks such as “Surround Pound” and “All In Your Hands.” Their vivacious personalities and skills on the mic make already entertaining tracks even better.

As skilled as his collaborators are, L.W.H.’s production still leaves a little to be desired. As a purveyor of the rising “cloud rap” sound—which usually is seen as a leisurely, lo-fi version of the form—too many of his tracks are simply uninteresting.

“Mondo Bizness,” for instance, with its rolling snares and lack of bass sounds hollow and unfinished, while Mondre M.A.N., a charismatic MC who shines on other tracks, sounds lazy on the mic, devoid of direction or purpose.

Even when he pairs up with Squadda B for Main Attrakionz, they can’t save “Zoney’s Island,” a song with a quasi-Eastern influence with what sounds like a sample from Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” The track would benefit from some added muscle. Considering L.W.H.’s ability to marry a number of seemingly incompatible sounds on a single track, it doesn’t seem like such a thing is beyond his capabilities.

Chock it up to inexperience or simply staying a little too committed to an aesthetic—either way, L.W.H. can’t avoid stepping on his own toes. But the bright spots on The Tape Hiss Hooligan are indicative of a burgeoning style that, once harnessed, could garner much acclaim for the up-and-coming Green Ova Undergrounds.

L.W.H. – The Tape Hiss Hooligan tracklist:

  1. “At the Count of Ten” (featuring Max von Sydow, Main Attrakionz and Shady Blaze)
  2. “Bobblehead” (featuring Main Attrakionz)
  3. “Bitin’ and Shakin’” (featuring Western Tink, Mondre M.A.N. and Shady Blaze)
  4. “Sound Uv Murda” (featuring Shady Blaze)
  5. “On My Shit” (featuring Shady Blaze and Western Tink)
  6. “I’m on One Pt. II” (featuring Main Attrakionz and Max von Sydow)
  7. “Just a Thought” (featuring Western Tink)
  8. “Spinning 87″ (featuring Squadda B, Western Tink and Astronomy)
  9. “All in Your Hands” (featuring Main Attrakionz, Shady Blaze and Friendzone)
  10. “A Place Far Away”
  11. “Mondo Bizness” (featuring Mondre M.A.N.)
  12. “Zoney’s Island” (featuring Main Attrakionz and Shady Blaze)
  13. “Surround Pound” (featuring Main Attrakionz)
  14. “Oakland State of Mind” (featuring Squadda B)
  15. “Eternal Mono” (featuring Main Attrakionz and Max von Sydow)