Friday, February 7, 2020

Have We Met by Destroyer

There is something admirable about longevity in a musicians' career. Especially when it is accompanied by a discography as vast and ever-evolving as that of Destroyer's. The Vancouver based project, formed in the mid 90s by singer-songwriter Dan Bejar has never truly settled on one distinctive approach, with each album varying enough from its predecessor to feel unique. On their latest project Have We Met, Bejar provides some of his best songwriting since 2011's Kaputt and blends it with smooth synthpop instrumentals, creating one of his most intrinsic projects since the mid 2000s.

Bejar, renowned most for his stream of consciousness lyricism and poetic songwriting is in fine form throughout the 10 tracks found on Have We Met. Twirling stories that seem to ride the line of abstract and tangible thought. It is not about what Bejar is saying, rather it is the way he which he says it that stands out. It will not come as a surprise to those familiar with Destroyer that the songwriting is the driving force behind this record. What will please fans of the band's previous work though is the beauty of the instrumentation they are delivered over and the atmospheric nature of the album as a whole.

Clouded in the sort of smoky veil that provokes the imagery of walking down a dimly lit street late at night, Have We Met is vividly atmospheric throughout. From Crimson Tide, the uptempo mood setting opener that prepares you for what is to come, down to the final cut on the album foolssong, a much more tepid and reserved addition to the album that rolls by at a snails pace, giving way to a guitar driven interlude and a very loud, visceral drum passage. There is a lot to digest here in terms of what each track has to offer. Cuts like It Just Doesn't Happen take on a more confined approach, as Bejar rambles into the microphone about our protagonist in the kind of up for interpretation poetry you will find all over this record. Yet even with the lack of clarity, his words remain poignant, which lends the track to being one of the true stand outs. Cue Synthesizer is another impressive, albeit ambiguous addition to the LP. The jazzy, guitar laden production provokes immediate thoughts of the late David Bowie's final album Blackstar, and whether or not Bejar and producer John Collins drew from that album in the conception of this track, it certainly scratches a very similar itch sonically.

The weakest point of the album come in the form of The Television Music Supervisor, a frustratingly empty cut that offers nothing more than a 4 minute break-up in the track listing. It is painfully inactive, ambient in its soundscapes, which leads me to believe it could possibly work as a 1 or 2 minute intro to the album, but ultimately the length and lack of real substance makes it unworthy of the time it occupies. Once concluded, however, it gives way to yet another stand out in The Raven, a track that offers one of the most notable vocal passages to be found here, as Bejar exclaims:

"Come out, come out, wherever you are
But you don't, the dead don't come out
The dead twist and shout in an invisible world
The Grand Ole Opry of Death is breathless."

Have We Met faces a lot of tough competition in terms of its rightful place in the hierarchy of Destroyer's discography. That is part of the magic with Dan Bejar's songwriting though. Each record lives amongst itself, and while some most definitely shine brighter than others, they all have a lot to offer. This is certainly the case again on the band's latest effort, and for that reason I highly recommend lending it your ear.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

January 2020 Wrap-Up

A mix of free time and inspiring music projects released recently has given me the ambition to attempt to resuscitate this ol' word box of mine, even if it functions as nothing more than an unused portfolio. So let this serve as a welcome, or a welcome back, if you will. 

There is not a singular album or artist review that seems timely or appropriate to return with in of itself, so I figured a look back at January releases collectively might be a little more suitable. I would say that 2020 is off to a promising debut, and while some artists have already blown me away, others have left me sorely disappointed. With that being said, let us take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from the last month.

The Good

Mac Miller - Circles

While there are a few albums that fall into the good category, there is only one that truly left me a mark on me and will undoubtedly show up on my (and many others) year end list. Circles, the most recent and presumably final release from the late Mac Miller who passed away unexpectedly in 2018, was a beautiful tribute to the young musician's career. As someone who has been critical of Miller at periods throughout his career, I can finally say that he was able to find the perfect blend of neo-soul and pop rap he seemed to be so desperately seeking over his previous releases. While 2016's Divine Feminine and 2018's Swimming missed the mark in this same vein, Circles sees Miller fully tuned in to his artistic direction. He's as confident as ever in his voice, yet lonely and introspective in his words. This leads to a beautifully produced melancholic mash-up of vivid sounds, with some of the best lyrical material I feel he has ever produced. From the timid, introspective, self-titled album opener, to the equally thoughtful lead single Good News, Miller never shy's away from appearing vulnerable or weak.

"Well, it ain't that bad
It could always be worse
I'm running out of gas, hardly anything left
Hope I make it home from work
Well, so tired of being so tired"
Miller writes on Good News.

There is a lot more that can be said in regards to the final product delivered, but to avoid making my reflection on this as long as a usual review, I'll finish with this.  I think it is fair to say that Miller's final release, was also his most complete. It is a tragedy to not only lose him as an artist, but of course also as a person. In saying that, Circles serves as perhaps the most beautiful final act he could have given us.

Rating: 4/5

Floral Tattoo - You Can Never Have a Long Enough Head Start

One of the biggest surprises I found last month came in the form of Seattle based band Floral Tattoo and their newest release You Can Never Have a Long Enough Head Start. If you could not tell by the long winded album title, it is indeed ripe with influences from the early 2000s emo scene. It is not inherently your standard emo release however, and it set apart by it's booming, noisy, shoegaze inspired soundscapes. Crushingly beautiful at times, with the shared voices of vocalists Alex Anderson and Gwen Power, it's a moving project that had me hooked from the first listen. It is not exactly an innovative combination of genres, but treading new ground does not appear to be what the band set out to do on this record. Instead they are looking to capture you with the explosiveness of their sound. There are moments where the album does come to a bit of a lull, and not each track brings the same energy as She or Danny, Be Well. Collectively, however, it is a positive release that brings some well deserved attention to the group. A step forward that can hopefully lead to even more powerful material as they move forward.

Rating: 3/5

Pinegrove - Marigold

Another solid release from the group who blend modern country inspired instrumentals with heart-on-my-sleeve midwest emo lyrics. Much like their previous two releases Cardinal and Skylight, I feel this album shows some very high highs. For example, the title track Marigold and the album opener Dotted Line are two brilliant pieces that warrant giving the record a listen on their own. Yet ultimately , it can feel a little too same-y when consuming it all at once. Much like my previous criticisms of Pinegrove, I feel they struggle to make the most of every track and quite quickly a project can turn into 3-4 memorable songs that you will take with you for awhile, and a handful of others that will quickly become forgettable. 

In saying this, I still feel the album was a positive addition to their discography, and further proof they have it in them to write some incredibly enjoyable songs. Whether or not they're able to build off of the momentum that came off of the positive reception to Cardinal is yet to really be seen. Here is hoping they can continue to grow with their next project. 

Rating: 3/5

The Bad

I might be better off naming this section as the "indifferent," because for the most part that is my exact feelings towards these releases. As is usually the case early in the year, we get a few releases by artists who are either looking to capitalize on an early start at a time where not a ton of big releases are scheduled, or are being held up due to delays that prevented releases later in the previous year. Perhaps this is why there were so many forgettable records to be found. Either way, let us take a look at some of the more... shall we say, lukewarm, projects from January.

Stormzy - Heavy Is the Head

Anyone who knows me personally would be aware I have a bit of an infatuation with UK grime. There is nothing quite as powerful as the booming bass and energetic deliveries found on classic grime releases from the likes of Dizzee Rascal or Wiley. Stormzy has been a bit of a prodigy in the grime scene, appearing on tracks from the likes of the aforementioned Wiley in the past and building up quite an exorbitant amount of hype surrounding him in the process. His first attempt to harness this hype into a full length studio release came back in 2017 with the release of Gang Signs and Prayers. To the disappointment of many, however, Stormzy strayed from the grime influence on that project and instead laid most of his focus on moving into a more accessible and easily digested pop rap direction. Dabbling his influences in the realm of a more traditional hip-hop and R&B sound led to a fairly forgettable project and had me hoping to see the Manchester based emcee return to his roots on his sophomore follow-up. 

What we received in Heavy Is the Head, unfortunately, is very similar to the disappointment of Stormzy's previous LP. It is better, I will begin by stating that emphatically. There are some tracks that do show the grimier side of the emcee and even when he blends them with a little more pop essence they pack enough of a punch to feel true to his sound. One listen to Big Michael, Audacity, or Vossibop will show you just how much talent Stormzy does have in his delivery. He comes into these tracks aggressive, focused, and ruthless in his approach. A project containing nothing but songs cut from this ilk could rank high in the halls of UK hip-hop and grime releases. And yet, he appears indifferent to this material. Just like on Gang Signs and Prayers, Stormzy seems insistent on burying these tracks between the blander poppy R&B styling of Do Better and the uninspired lyricism on a track like Superheroes. It isn't so much that these songs are outright bad, they just seem to serve as nothing more than what I would call vibe killers. After building you up with the energetic flows and speaker busting production of the grime cuts, Stormzy swoops back in and breaks the immersion with these uneventful filler tracks. 

A project with one lackluster cut to match every enjoyable one. Stromzy is back with yet another failure to consistently capture that same sound that made his early singles so impactful. 

Rating: 2.5/5

Algiers - There Is No Year

This one is painful to type out. I mean it when I say that. Over the last decade the Algiers released two albums that would probably end up fairly high on my top 50 list (a list that I might get around to making at a later date.) So to say I was excited by the prospect of a new Algiers project is no stretch. If you were to ask me what I expected them to deliver on it, though, I never would have guessed it would be such a disappointment. 

It is not so much that they put out a bad project. In reality, it is quite far from that. It is actually perfectly okay. Maybe that is the issue though. This is an album that is just... okay. The loud, industrial influenced elements that made their previous two records stand out so much seem to be gone. We still have the soaring soul inspired vocals of Franklin James Fisher and the chugging high tempo riffs still feature prominently throughout. There just seems to be a lack of that same substance, that pizzazz if you will, that made them such an alluring outfit to begin with. A quick flip through the track listing will give you all you need to hear. Nothing offensive, nothing really worth spending all that much time commenting on. In effect, it feels like a collection of songs that just failed to stand out enough to make the track list of their previous efforts. Perhaps not a record that deserves to be regarded as the bad, but more so as the disappointing. 

Rating: 2.5/5

The Ugly

AJJ - Good Luck Everybody 

If it pains me to dismiss Algiers in such a fashion that I previously did, then it kills me to say what I am about to say about AJJ. For those who are perhaps unfamiliar with the ragtag folk punk posse formerly known as Andrew Jackson Jihad who are responsible for some of my personal favourite albums of all-time (see Knife Man and People Who Can Eat People for such projects), let this please not serve as your introduction. A band renowned for their clever, abrasive, over the top political commentary and satire during the mid 2000s to early 2010s, AJJ seem to have lost all touch with that side of their music on Good Luck Everybody. If their last release The Bible 2 was disappointing (it was) then this is a straight up punch to the gut. While front man Sean Bonnette is still delivering the same quippy political commentary we have come to expect, it is being done at a much more tepid pace. Instrumentally the project fails to excite, with some of the blandest musicianship the band has given us to date. The only real deviation we get from that is on Normalization Blues, a track that plays very much to it's name as an up tempo blues tune but lyrically does not offer anything more than a mediocre commentary on the state of the average American person. We get similar takes on tracks like No Justice, No Peace, No Hope, that while presenting an important topic, seems to lack the same abrasiveness AJJ would approach such topics with in the past.

It all just falls a bit flat in the end. There is no question that the band are true to their beliefs and stick with it in their song writing. It just seems like that intensity you would find on their older projects has gone away, and in it's place all that remains is a subpar indie folk act bringing forward room temperature political takes in a client chalked full of more than enough of them already. 

Rating: 2/5

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Crow Looked At Me by Mount Eerie

Mount Eerie

A Crow Looked At Me

Emotional torture. Tragedy through sound. Musical devastation. While all of these ring true to what Phil Elverum is putting forward on his newest full-length record under the Mount Eerie alias, none of these descriptions are able to truly encapsulate the impact of the music. The album details the passing of the singer-songwriter's wife Genieve, and while released over half a year after her death, seems to have been recorded only mere weeks after his loss.

The raw, lo-fi, delivery has become a trademark of Phil's music, whether under the Mount Eerie name or his previous project the Microphones. Never before, however, has it felt so real. With minimal musical accompaniment, Phil embarks on a quest without a destination. We may follow the story from the singer's perspective, but there is no definitive start or finish to his experience.

 From the opening track Real Death, which opens with the gut-wrenchingly powerful

"Death is real, someone's there and then they're not,
and it's not for singing about, it's not for making into art"

to the closing track Crow, which finishes with the powerful final line of

"And there she [Genieve] was."

In a lot of ways it's hard for me to put myself in Phil's shoes, being that I have been forced to deal with death very few times in my life, and never have I had to see a loved one suffer in the way that he was forced to watch his wife struggle in her fight with cancer. Yet because of the waves of crushing lyricism, the sombre guitar work, and the always feeble presence of Phil's voice, I feel myself momentarily put into his position. Left alone with his daughter, his wife's passing still constantly on his brain and with every thing he does, be it entering a specific room in his house, or driving down a dirt road, being reminded of the woman he loved.

I am just as perplexed as I am sad when I listen to this album though, because it is truly remarkable how Phil manages to paint this image of his wife as such a strong and wonderful soul, while contrasting that with his fear of mortality and the ugliness of death. Take for example the lyrics of the track Swims, one of the more emotionally heavy cuts from the album.

I can't get the image out of my head
Of when I held you right there
And watched you die
Upstairs in the back bedroom of our house
Where we have lived for many years
Your last gasping breaths
I see it again and again

Powerful, right? Yet this is powerful in its representation of weakness, her last breath, her dying state, her last moments. As the song comes to a close though, we see her presented in an entirely different light.

Today our daughter asked me if mama swims
I told her, "Yes, she does
And that's probably all she does
What was you is now borne across waves

As you can see, Phil's description of his wife after her passing is much more abstract, and poetic in a sense, than her final days. While it is clear that he was devastated by the loss, it seems that what really hit him the hardest was seeing her in this position of weakness, unable to fight against the cancer.

Again, this is shown in Emptiness Pt.2

Her absence is a scream
Saying nothing
Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about
Back before I knew my way around these hospitals
I would like to forget and go back into imagining

I have no doubts that this album will not only go down as one of the best of the year and one of the best Phil has ever released, but this album also has potential to go down as one of the most devastating musical experiences. Whether you are a fan of Phil's catalogue or not, it is most definitely worthwhile checking this release out, if for no other reason than to experience loss through someone else's perspective. It will make you uncomfortable, sad, and fearing your own mortality, and I think that's exactly what makes it such a unique experience.

Check out one of the album's singles Ravens here, and get your kleenex ready.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

You Will Never Be One Of Us by Nails

Grindcore/power-violence act Nails have established themselves as one of the premier groups in the genre with their first two releases, both of which have garnered a rather impressive amount of acclaim. They have a sound that is hard to explain to those who have yet to hear them, as their frantic, chaotic, straight to the point tracks normally fail to even exceed the one minute mark. Their punchy guitars, roaring drum beats, and nasty, guttural vocals all come in with such ferocity that they're over before you even have time to click play.

On You Will Never Be One Of Us, Nails do branch out in some ways, with Violence Is Forever coming in at a modest three and a half minutes, and the closer They Come Crawling Back taking up eight minutes of the 22 that the album runs for. Even on the longer cuts however, the band deliver the same kind of music you would find on their previous two efforts, and with Converge's Kurt Ballou behind the scenes producing yet again, you're all but guaranteed to find some of the ugliest sounding guitar riffs around. Frontman Todd Jones, who provides both the guitar work and the vocals for the band, doesn't shy away from experimenting with the same hardcore/metalcore territory that many of the bands Ballou has worked with in the past have, especially on tracks like the aforementioned They Come Crawling Back, which features some mathcore influenced, headbang worthy breakdowns and slow-paced drum beats that in turn build up into multiple chaotic interludes before the track comes chugging to a halt.

While the rest of the album isn't as patience testing as the 8 minute epic, it still delivers in plenty of other ways. The title track, which was released as the album's first single is another highlight, as the band kick off the album with monstrous blast beats that are delivered with such attitude and flair that you can't help but feel the music. They take a groovier approach on Made To Make You Fall, with an intro that in some ways is reminiscent of groove-metal pioneers Pantera, that is before the track descends into hell once again and the groovy instrumentation is swept away in favour of more bone-rattling guitar riffing and drumming.

When it comes to what sets this album apart and it makes such a great inclusion in their discography, I think it's simply just how well they manage the pacing of their songs. Not only does the band manage to make the most of even the shortest tracks, but they also seem to include everything imaginable within these tight timeframes. There are plenty of short, Converge-esque breakdowns and guitar passages, and just as many moments where the band create such an enveloping wall of sound that you truly become beat down by the brutality they are presenting you with.

In the time you've spent reading this review, you probably could have listened to this album in it's entirety, so that's where I'll leave this. Nails have yet to disappoint thus far into their career, and if you found yourself enjoying either of their last two full-lengths, this truly is a must hear. They aren't changing up their style, and they aren't looking to make any new fans, they're just taking the same style they've perfected with their last two efforts, and this time they're cranking it up even louder.

Rating: 4/5

Check out the title track You Will Never Be One Of Us below:

Monday, June 6, 2016

iiiDrops by Joey Purp

Over the past few years, the SAVEMONEY collective has been one of, if not the, most exciting things to come out of the diverse, ever thriving Chicago hip-hop scene. Spearheaded by the rise of emcees Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa, the lesser known members of the group have also quietly managed to put together a pretty solid body of work. Now, it's member Joey Purp's turn to step up to the plate, and on iiiDrops he proves that it is him who is next to step into the limelight.

From the bright organ keys and horns on the opening track Morning Sex, into the Pharell-esque dance beat of Girls, Joey Purp stretches his sound far beyond what's popular in Chicago right now. While you might go into this thing expecting the rattling hi-hats, blaring 808s, and bumping bass, you're instead presented with the same kind of varied, flamboyant production you might find on a project from the likes of Vic or Chance. Speaking of those two, they both pop up on the track listing, Chance on the aforementioned track Girls, and Vic on the album's victory lap Winners Circle, a track that's elevated by a wonderful piano melody and shining synthesizers. Fellow Chicagoans Mick Jenkins, Saba, and theMind also lend a helping hand on the project, with all three delivering solid contributions when given the chance.

It is, however, Joey Purp who truly shines on this 11 track collection, as the 20-something year old artist comes through sounding like a true veteran of his craft, swinging his pen like a dagger of sorts as he delivers lyrics that don't aim to impress, but instead aim to provoke feeling and resonate with the listener, something that is accomplished on nearly every track. His swaggering confidence is evident, while also digging into his tough upbringing with lines like "I sold crack/I'd be damned if I can't sell a rap" on the closing track Escape.

Cornerstore, the sixth track on the mixtape is the real showcase here though, as the jazzy, street rap instrumental features a prominent use of horns and is one of the finer beats that producer Thelonious Martin has given us up to this point in his young career. Purp is joined by Saba and theMind, and the three work together to paint a picture of their childhood in Chicago, a city which has constantly been identified as one of the most violent and dangerous places in the US. On this track however, Joey isn't looking to give a PSA on the dangers of his hometown, and instead is simply presenting you with an idea of where he came from, and how it's impacted him to this day. The song presents perhaps the strongest lyrical display on the album, and is highlighted with the lines like "and white kids deal with problems that we never knew to bother/arguing with they dads, we pray we ever knew our fathers" a line which allows Purp to again put an emphasis on his upbringing while also touching on rather personal and emotional topics without coming off as soft.

Going into iiiDrops, I was quite far from being a fan of Joey Purp, but I can't deny his abilities after giving this release multiple listens. From his brash delivery to his rugged voice, the young emcee exudes Chicago, while having the charisma and lyrical strength to separate himself from the rest of the crowded pack looking to find their sound in the streets of city. 


Check out the track Cornerstore below: