Category Archives: Album Reviews

Album Review: Caribou – Our Love

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Dan Snaith’s Caribou project has slowly progressed from an indie rock band to more electronic leanings with each release. Our Love is his most accessible album to date and features more dance floor anthems compared to previous releases. This could be a direct result of Snaith spending more time DJing in nightclubs under his Daphni moniker, or it could just be a natural progression and a result of his current musical fascinations. His close relationship with fellow electronic luminaries like James Holden, Four Tet, and Jeremy Greenspan (Junior Boys) may also have something to do with the transformation. Whatever the case may be, he has crafted a gorgeous, psychedelic record that is a equal parts eerie and sublime; the colorful album art manages to capture that sentiment as well.

Like James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, Snaith records his albums by himself but is joined live by other band members. It’s an uncompromising method but it certainly allows his artistic expression to flow and shine through. There is a melancholic feel to almost every track — Snaith explores love and the other side of the coin: heartbreak and loss. Nowhere is that more apparent then on the last two tracks. “Back Home” finds him asking the same post-breakup questions we’ve all faced before, while the album closer “Your Love Will Set You Free” offers some closure and acceptance to a failed relationship. Each track features simple yet powerful lyrics and are some of the most intense statements on an otherwise relaxed album. Each is equally hypnotic and are proper closing tracks for a very dense record.

By now most have heard the first two singles: “Our Love” and “Can’t Do Without You.” The title track repeats a simple phrase over and over on top of symphonic synthesizers, while drum machines and a thick bass line shift the tempo and add layers to the catchy dance number. “Can’t Do Without You” is an ode Snaith’s wife and easily the finest song on the entire album. As the lead track and first single, it creates a warm inviting declaration of hope and security. Like many of the tracks on this album it is simple yet complex, full of ideas explored by countless musicians that have come before him. But only the biggest cynics will rush to judgement on that fact. What Snaith has accomplished sonically and lyrically should not be downplayed here. Many fans of Swim will not be won over by the shift to a more accessible pop sound. However, haunting tracks like “Silver” and “Dive” might ease some of those trepidations.

“Second Chance” is the lone track to feature a guest vocalist and it comes courtesy of rising Canadian electronic songwriter Jessy Lanza. It’s one of the finest tracks on the album and offers a new wrinkle, adding more layers to the overall landscape. The whimsical flutes of “Mars” have the same effect. Overall, this a standout release and one that will certainly be talked about in both indie and rave circles alike. Snaith has captured many emotions and found a way to express them in an honest and humble way with subtle sincerity underlying each track.

Album Review: Aphex Twin – Syro

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[Words by Adrian Gurga]

How does one go about introducing Richard D. James? He’s a rebellious Cornish producer who began producing electronic music when he was only 14, back in 1985, or possibly even earlier according to some accounts. He’s an engineer at heart who amassed a fortune and built an empire simply by playing an inventive role in emerging industries, primarily electronic music. Back in 1995 he produced a track for Nine Inch Nails, the title of which, “At the Heart of It All” I think pretty much summarizes James’s role in electronic music. In 2001, the Guardian described him as “the most inventive and influential figure in contemporary electronic music”. Thom Yorke cites James as the key inspiration for the new direction Radiohead took on their album Kid A. You might think of James somewhat as the Godfather, but really he’s far too mysterious for that role… he’s more like the Big Boss. James began investing in decommissioned military hardware when he made his first million, purchasing a tank for personal use (technically it’s not a tank, but a British-made armored scout vehicle named after a weasel, but that’s just splitting hairs). He owns an abandoned bank in London, but currently resides in Scotland, which is convenient as it allows him to spend more time aboard his submarine. He’s the perfect role model for reclusive nerds everywhere.

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This month Richard D. James released Syro, his sixth studio album as Aphex Twin. The album announcement originated via the deep web, accessible only via the Tor browser — a free browser designed to protect anonymity online — all part of a clever ploy on James’s part to teach his fans about the browser and maintaining personal privacy on the net. The album announcement was followed by street art, advertising via a blimp in London, and numerous invite-only listening parties were held around the world where diehard fans were given a special sneak peak of James’s latest opus. A super limited special edition of the album is available by lottery only and costs a small fortune. The full album is now streaming on Spotify.

While Syro is Aphex’s first release since 2001’s Drukqs, James has not been idle in the meantime. He’s now a father of two sons and is on his second marriage. He’s also been releasing a ton of music, just not as Aphex Twin, with varying levels of secrecy. As AFX, his second most common pseudonym, he released the Analord series a growing collection of EPs which contains 62 tracks to date. He also anonymously released two EPs under the alias The Tuss, only to confirm the tracks as his own just prior to Syro’s release.

Upon a first listen, Syro sounds just like classic Richard D. James. It’s high paced and glitchy with lots of bubbly sounds and what may best be described as farty bass. There’s a liberal use of the vocoder effect and lots of otherwise manipulated vocal gibberish — all pretty signature Aphex stuff. Syro has more layers than his previous work and the melodies are short, but they’re catchy and beautifully woven into the mix.

The tracks on Syro have full on Aphex-style names which include not only the track title, but also the the specific mix which ended up on the album, even the BPM is included, all encoded in a combination of English, Cornish, and imaginary words which practically only Richard D. James could understand. For example, the track title “XMAS_EVET10 [120] [thanaton3 mix]” is one of the easier titles to decipher, but the titles become increasingly more cryptic from there.

Syro is more refined and easier on the ears than some of James’s earlier work. An advancement in audio engineering mastery and overall mixing and mastering prowess can also be heard compared to his previous albums. Old Aphex can sometimes sound like your TV got into a fight with an alien radio station, and some listeners may finding it to be fatiguing to listen to, but Syro does a good job of managing the balancing act between glitchy audio terror and beautiful tranquility. Even through the staggeringly chaotic electronic riffs, there is still space between the notes, room to rest, helping to maintain this delicate balance in a manner which only Richard D. James can deliver. One track begins with a pounding bass kick, one track is all piano with birds singing in the background, and all the others are somewhere in between.

Over a decade of preparation has certainly paid off. With a 13 year gap since Drukqs, James quite literally may have spent more time producing and polishing the tracks on Syro than any of his other albums, and you can hear that difference in the mix. Tracks begin as synthesized nightmares and transition into chillingly beautiful ambient soundscapes and then back and forth through several movements — a level of composition we have not previously heard in James’s work. It’s kind of like Simon Posford meets Burial.

The album ends on a down note, which is probably satisfying for most Aphex fans, as some of his more somber tunes are some of the best (“Avril 14th” and “Girl/Boy Song” come to mind). I fantasize of a world where Richard D. James gets bumped in the head, wakes up the next day, and announces a symphonic tour with full orchestra backing as he plays on acoustic instruments and analog synthesizers. Though to be honest I’d settle for any tour or festival dates at all, even if it is just to see a mad scientist make glitchy sounds with his toys.

Album Review: Umphrey’s McGee – Similar Skin

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This is what it sounds like when a band fully matures. Umphrey’s McGee‘s latest studio album, Similar Skin, is definitely their most polished & succinct effort to date. While it culls from myriad rock influences, at the end of the day this is their most purebred rock n roll record. While the concept-leaning Mantis might have been a small degree more cohesive, this one feels incredibly focused in its own way. But where it really shines is in the rawk department, with a high level of overall aggressiveness and a couple of brand new songs that are heavier than anything they’ve ever recorded.

While this is likely their most accomplished studio work, it’s not without its faults. The most obvious of which is “No Diablo,” it just doesn’t fit on this record. A square peg in a round hole, or a pop peg in a rock hole, if you will. This song definitely grows on you with a few listens but in the end, it stands out and not in a good way. This has caused an interesting feeling… After multiple listens from start to finish, it’s begun to seem like the album doesn’t really lift off until the fifth song, the title track “Similar Skin.” This prog monster, borne from two Stews mashed & rearranged, is catchy in the right ways while having that precise technicality they’re known for. It’s the perfect choice for the title track and a nutshell representation of Umphrey’s in 2014.

This leaves a few songs in the lerch. The opening track, “The Linear,” is an upbeat track with a jangly, The Police vibe. This song has been in the live rotation for a while now, and the true magic always lies in the ridiculous improv it contains. Sure, there’s a clear & appreciated difference between studio UM and live UM, but this song simply leaves something to be desired. As does “Cut The Cable.” This one’s also been around for a few years, and after hearing it as a repeated Stew, a 30db (Brendan Bayliss side project) song, and performed acoustically in a few forms, it’s quite shocking the direction this track took on in the studio. It’s got an unsettling prog edge that doesn’t quite seem to fit the mood of the lyrics. Then “Hourglass” is just a very vanilla song, even after hearing it multiple times it never really sticks. It’s not terrible, it’s just not much of anything at all.

So up through “No Diablo,” this album is a solid effort, but easily forgettable as well. Yet once “Similar Skin” unfolds, this album absolutely explodes. The latter two-thirds of the album is so damn good that even with four lukewarm songs Similar Skin is still their best ever. “Puppet String” has been a dangerous storm brewing for years. Since its debut in May of 2011 until now, this has arguably become their most gargantuan song, the very definition of a jam vehicle. There might be five (5) Umphrey’s fans total who don’t love this song live. But whereas “The Linear” felt a little empty without the standard improv section, “Puppet String” is such a robust & towering song that it more than stands on its own; it’s a clear standout track on the album.

Then the record rips through a pair of never-before-played songs. “Little Gift” is a brutish rock song with Jake Cinninger’s hoofprints all over it. This is almost as metal as Umphrey’s gets in the studio. The first time they drop this one at a live show there’s going to be a moshpit. Next, “Educated Guess” is a bouncy, lyrical-driven song that veers off into a dynamic curveball in the end with the rare string arrangement. The vocals swell with distortion and harmonize with the strings to create a throwback, psychedelic classic rock moment. This part is just begging for Joel Cummins to let loose on his Mellotron once they start playing this live… “Loose Ends” provides the most joyous & triumphant segment of the album — it’s all about the beauty of Bayliss and Cinninger’s guitar chemistry. This one has a distinct “Glory”-like energy about it, a short glimmer of uplifting rock bliss before the hammer drops…

And that hammer is “Hindsight,” by far the most intense, aggressive, and metal track Umphrey’s has ever recorded. It sounds like a throwback to the glory days of 90s rock, like some weird collision of Alice In Chains and Pantera. This is the kind of rock that makes you speed while you’re driving or flip your desk at work. Pure rage music. And the best part is: it feels like but a tease of what it can be in the live setting. If there’s a song on this album that screams ‘jam vehicle,’ it’s “Hindsight.” And holy shit what a savage beast that’s going to be.

Since they’d already set the Bar of Rawk so high, they had to go out in a blaze of glory with the long-awaited studio cut of “Bridgeless.” This song was debuted live over ten (10) years ago and is only now seeing the light of the studio. To go from a brand new bruiser of a song (“Hindsight”) to a song that’s been melting faces for over a decade is a great finishing touch for this album. And not only that, this version of “Bridgeless” is ‘woooo’ free! It’s amazing to hear this song — one that has been segued and split up and sandwiched every way you can imagine — as one cogent thought. It’s recorded absolutely flawlessly, honed to a fine & crisp edge like a Hattori Hanzo sword. And the final shred-fest coda of “Bridgeless” is one of the cornerstone moments of live Umphrey’s McGee, the perfect way to end their strongest album yet.

Buy the album here —> http://similarskin.com/

Album Review: Todd Terje “It’s Album Time”

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It’s been 2 years since the release of “Inspector Norse,” the closing track on Todd Terje’s debut LP It’s Album Time, and it shows no sign of losing its anthemic luster whatsoever. The track consistently slays dance floors across the planet, and will probably continue to do so until the end of time. It’s easily Terje’s defining track, but certainly not his only memorable one. Other familiar tracks are included on his debut long player, such as “Strandbar” and “Swing Star (Part 1 & 2).” We find Terje trying to find a balance between the dance floor and the living room, with much success.

The album’s opening trio of tracks lean toward the latter, but could easily be used in any club as well. “Preben Goes To Acapulco” is particularly mesmerizing, with its throbbing bass lines and hyperactive space-funk synthesizers. “Johnny and Mary feat. Bryan Ferry” is a welcome surprise in the middle of the record and shows off Terje’s ability to compose a gripping ballad — the cover of Robert Palmer shines as one of the album’s highlights. “Delorean Dynamite” screams Giorgio Moroder and all his Italo excess; it is the most intense, menacing track on the album. Terje previously mentioned  in an interview that it was unintentional and is really an “acoustic image of a car racing through Miami with flashing street lights passing by.”  And although some moments veer away from brilliant to borderline cheesy (see: “Svensk Sås” & “Alfonso Muskedunder”), they too can serve a time and a place.

There really are no weak moments on this record. By the time the album reaches its blazing hyperspace crescendo “Oh Joy,” the original fear would be that the only place to go is down. And that’s where “Inspector Norse” comes in handy, carrying the listener out on a perfect note, making sense of all the madness in the previous 11 tracks. The album, much like Terje himself, is a gem and is sure to receive universal acclaim. We’re now 10 years into Terje’s recording career and it appears he has settled into a very comfortable, relaxed space as an artist. It’s crazy to think, but his best could still be in front of him. Now the rest of the world gets to find out too.

Album Review: Thievery Corporation – Saudade

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[Words by Adrianj]

Thievery Corporation has hit the reset button with their seventh full length album, Saudade. Named after a Portuguese word with no direct English translation, “saudade” refers to a nostalgic longing for something which has been lost. (It sort of rhymes with protégé, but with less of an emphasis on the last syllable.) While both cheerful and whimsical at times, with warm classical guitar rhythms and pulsating Latin beats, Saudade conjures up images of beautiful women dancing with shadows and sunny beaches somehow out of reach, as if seen from a distant window sill.

The first thing you should know about Saudade is it’s a bossa nova album, which is a fusion of jazz and samba popularized in Brazil in the ‘50s and 60s. While known to combine a diversity of styles including bossa nova, reggae, indian classical, Middle Eastern music and many other styles, Thievery co-founders Rob Garza and Eric Hilton have mixed an emotive blend of warm acoustic rhythms that are sure to get your feet tapping. Yet there is a subtle sadness that lingers in each track, as if to remind us that every waltz must eventually come to an end. Once you hear it, you’ll probably realize that bossa nova is deeply ingrained in the roots of all of Thievery’s music, so you’ve probably more familiar with it than you realize, but their adoration of the Brazilian style has never been quite so apparent.

Admittedly, the album’s direction does come as a bit of a surprise, especially after Thievery’s previous two releases, Radio Retaliation and A Culture of Fear, both of which are just as much about making a political statement as they are great dance music. But the old school tribute Thievery offers with Saudade is really not so unexpected considering Thievery’s past. Take for example the 2002 release Sounds From The Verve Hi-Fi. This little known gem is a compilation of traditional jazz and samba tunes compiled by Thievery Corporation. Verve in the album title refers to Verve Records, an American jazz label formed in the ‘50s whose collection includes many bossa nova standards and provided the selections the album includes (the albums title is also a play off of Thievery’s own debut release Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi). Think of this compilation as the prequel to Saudade.

So when it gets down to it, Saudade is really a tribute Thievery’s roots, it’s seasoned producers paying homage to the music which brought them together in the first place. (Sort of like Daft Punk releasing a disco album, if you think about it.) While Saudade may lack some of the fire and revolutionary spirit which courses through their earlier work, it does provide an intimate setting for feelings we didn’t even know we had. It’s like music for pillow talk that’s soothing but also reminds one that the world can be a dangerous place. I haven’t heard dance music with so much melancholy and longing since Rob Dougan’s Furious Angels. In fact, Saudade is kind of like Furious Angels meets West Side Story, if that could actually happen.

Don’t be fooled by its simplicity. While warm and inviting at first, Saudade is timeless music that’s designed to leave you wanting more. It’s a soundtrack for longing. It’s haunting lyrics, sung in five different languages with all female vocalists, pass through you like a breeze, while Rob and Eric’s beats meander along like waves quietly crashing off in the distance. Resulting in a production that sounds something like UNKLE meets Massive Attack, but warmer, and every bit as chilling as it is comforting. Like all great music, Saudade transports you to another place each time you hear it. The last time I listened to this album, a mojito literally manifested itself right into my hand. My living room didn’t turn into a beach… but felt pretty damn close.

The album will officially release April 1st, in all the usual formats. If history is any indicator, I’d recommend picking up the vinyl since Thievery Corporation records have been known to retain value like gold bullion. The album is also a crossover of styles that’s likely to appeal to audiences much wider than Thievery Corporation’s usual fanbase — though admittedly it may alienate a few of them too. As an additional bonus for vinyl enthusiasts celebrating Record Store Day 2014, Thievery Corporation is offering an untitled 7” single pressed on clear green vinyl. The release is limited to 2,500 copies and contains two unreleased b-sides from Saudade: “Le Destin” and “Never is the Best Day.”

Album Review: Snarky Puppy – We Like It Here

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Ok, it’s official, there’s no ceiling when it comes to Snarky Puppy. With Tell Your Friends they wrote an album whose songs have lasted the test of time — they still play all of those songs regularly and they’re all beloved. With groundUP, they pushed the boundaries of album creation by taking it to a ‘live-studio’ setting and still producing next level music. But what they’ve done with We Like It Here is simply incredible. They took the blueprint they established with groundUP and found a way to take the next level to the next level.

There’s no point in belaboring each individual song on this album. All eight tracks are phenomenal and will assuredly be featured heavily in their live rotation. Yet, there are a few that really stand out. The seventh song, “Tio Macaco,” is a very different composition for Snarky Puppy. It focuses almost entirely on percussion and horns, starting off with a complex melange of rhythms before exploding in a multi-horn deluge of New Orleans-tinged funk, only to then break back down in a tribal percussion freak out. “Kite” is almost like an interlude on this album, it’s a soothing, dreamy respite between two heavy-hitters in “Jambone” and “Outlier.” Speaking of “Jambone,” this song unfolds into one of the best Snarky Puppy guitar solos to date, with Mark Lettieri channeling his inner Jimmy Page for a towering, pure rock n roll shred session. But the peak of the whole album comes with the very first song. In the canon of Snarky Puppy, “Shofukan” instantly vaults to the very top. This track is a microcosm of this band in one beautiful package; it’s groovy, moving, and downright filthy. And that moment right at the 5:43 mark — following the rare vocal section that makes your little hairs stand — when the whole arrangement collides with itself and crescendos… Chills. But rage-style chills. And that’s what Snarky Puppy is all about.

It would be easy to call this a perfect album — because for all purposes it is. But that would be ignoring the fact that Snarky Puppy is likely to top this one with whatever they do next. Every step of their career seems like some sort of peak, yet they’re still rapidly ascending after every move. There is no ceiling on what this band is capable of accomplishing; all awards and critical acclaim aside, Snarky Puppy is simply doing things that no other band can even imitate. In the live setting, in the studio, Snarky Puppy makes you feel all the feels in a musical package that is unbound by any Earthly genres. When the aliens finally arrive we should play them some Snarky Puppy so they feel a little more at home.

Frazier’s Top 25 Albums of 2013

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25. Umphrey’s McGee – 2012 Hall of Fame

It was a battle whether or not to include this “album” on the list since it’s neither an actual album, nor a true live album. This is a compilation of the best live songs Umphrey’s played over the course of 2012… as voted on by the fans. It’s an incredible concept that not even one other band has even approached. Since these songs are all from different shows, Umphrey’s sound engineer Kevin Browning caresses them together using precise fading and deft use of audience cheering/sound to make this thing flow beautifully. And if nothing else this “album” needs to be mentioned because of the version of “Puppet String” it features. This was the first time they ever jammed “Puppet String” out, and the jam ended up being a mind-screwing double bounceback variety with as good of an improvisational rock peak as exists… It’s just fuckin’ ridiculous.

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24. The Floozies – Tell Your Mother

There’s nothing earth-shattering going on here. The Floozies certainly aren’t trying to impress anyone with technical prowess on Tell Your Mother — they’re trying to make you dance like a crazed animal. Their raunchy sense of humor pervades this whole record, it seems like the Hill brothers had their tongues in their cheeks during the entire recording process. One of the best parts of the album is their hilarious use of samples, most notably Will Ferrell’s voice from Anchorman in “Indubitably.” This is the kind of filthy, dirty, grimy electro-funk that will light a fire at any dance party.

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23. Sage Francis – Sick To D(EAT)H

Any new material from Sage Francis is a good thing, even if some of it is older stuff re-packaged in new ways. The differentiation between an “album” and a “mixtape” is blurry and remains a phenomenon confined to the world of hip hop. Nonetheless, this (like the other mixtapes on this list) is a full-length, complete work worthy of being examined like a proper record. The raw, unpackaged nature of this mixtape is actually quite refreshing — it’s great to hear so many different sides of Sage and such a strong focus on him rapping with guests. His last couple of studio albums have felt so polished that this Sick To D(EAT)H feels almost as if it’s something we shouldn’t even be hearing. If you’re a fan of Sage Francis at all, you will love this release — it’s a side of this enigmatic lyricist we don’t often see.

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22. Cut Copy – Free Your Mind

Cut Copy really nailed this album cover. It might look simple but the colorful aesthetic speaks directly to the bubbly & gregarious nature of Free Your Mind. This is one seriously fun dance rock album, an up-and-down ride that stays light throughout but often veers into dirtier moods. “Footsteps” is just a pure dance track with a lighthearted energy thanks to well-timed loon call samples and kitschy cowbell percussion, all backed by a deep house tempo and synth lines. The gem of this album is “Let Me Show You Love,” a slower, funky track led by a big beat and a filthy synth line. Although there are some tracks that feel like filler, including some odd interludes that don’t really add much to the album, overall this is a great album, one of Cut Copy’s best.

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21. Snarky Puppy – Family Dinner Vol. 1

Leave it to Snarky Puppy to think way, way outside the box with their latest “studio” album. We’ve seen this production before: recorded live in front of a small audience, with each song’s final version being recorded in one complete take. It’s an ambitious approach to album recording with very few contemporaries. This album is different from what they’ve done in the past due to its focus on guest vocalists — a different one for each of the eight tracks. This causes a sense of discontinuity in the album and creates a lack of cohesiveness that Snarky Puppy albums are typically known for. Nonetheless, there are some phenomenal songs on this album; namely “Amour T’es La” featuring Magda Giannikou, a joyful romance song sung all in French, and “Something” featuring jazz vocals from Lalah Hathaway, a prototypically ‘Snarky’ song with the added bonus of Hathaway doing things with her voice — like singing in chords — that aren’t really possible. It’s not their best album, but Family Dinner Vol. 1 is certainly brilliant in its own way.

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20. Foals – Holy Fire

Holy Fire is one of the strongest rock albums of 2013, establishing Foals among the harder rocking of the current crop of “indie” bands. Songs like “Inhaler” and “Providence” make you feel like Foals could be the best rock band on Earth, but this feeling is fleeting and ultimately inconsistent throughout the album. They seem to have a slight identity crisis in terms of how they can best use vocals — sometimes the vocals blend into their sound well, other times they seem discordant and out of place. Nonetheless, the overall attitude & aura of this album places it among the year’s best… and seriously, listen to “Inhaler,” it will kick your ass.

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19. Run The Jewels – s/t

Talk about the perfect meeting of artistic minds. El-P has made a name for himself for being one of the most aggressive hip hop producers in the game and Killer Mike is known for being a lyrical technician who drops nothing but harsh truths & wake up calls. Their respective styles match perfectly with each other, and with El-P being one hell of a lyricist himself, Run The Jewels is a violent storm of rap. It just doesn’t get any harder than RTJ, it’s an all-too-short record but every song is a sledgehammer to your ears; there’s an insane amount of energy on this album and not one drop of it is wasted. Obviously the track featuring Big Boi, “Banana Clipper,” is a high point of the album. Mike and El-P trade short verses — skipping over any hooks or choruses — and set the table for Big Boi to end the song with a quick & potent verse. But if you wanna cut to the heart of this project, it’s “Sea Legs,” a gritty, unsettling track with one full verse from El-P, the hook, then a classic malevolently smooth verse from Killer Mike. Run The Jewels is the raw shit.

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18. Talib Kweli – Gravitas

Sneaking in just before the finish line of 2013 was Talib Kweli with Gravitas. And it’s a good thing he did because it’s instantly one of the finest hip hop records of the year; given more time to really digest the material it would probably be much higher on this list. Nonetheless here it is because it’s a monolith of hip hop greatness. From start to finish this record is high energy, with huge, bold beats and Kweli’s trademark flow on it’s A-game. Collaborations with Raekwon and The Underachievers are high points of the album, and it’s pretty amazing that we’re still hearing unreleased J Dilla beats with the closing track on the album “Colors Of You” produced by the late hip hop legend. Gravitas is Kweli at his finest.

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17. White Denim – Corsican Lemonade

Wait, this is a new album? Are you sure this isn’t from the 70s? Throw everything you thought you knew about ‘classic’ rock out the window, because White Denim is doing that shit in 2013. In an era where rockers seemingly avoid the easy-going, easy-to-digest, accessible wonder that is the rock music you hear on your dad’s FM radio, White Denim is embracing the hell out of it. These guys are all about solid riffs, a steady drum beat, and some of the most perfect rock vocals you’ll find. Aside from the opening song “At Night In Dreams,” which leans a bit more aggressive, this is a strikingly consistent album. It gets slightly psychedelic at times, especially when they kick in the vocal effects, but overall this is a wholesome, throwback classic rock album that will make you feel nostalgic in a hurry.

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16. AlunaGeorge – Body Music

While unquestionably a huge beneficiary of Disclosure’s UK garage wave, AlunaGeorge produced a fantastic album in 2013 that deserves plenty of recognition on its own. Sure, they got a huge boost with their guest spotted on Disclosure’s track “White Noise,” but Body Music came out shortly after and established AlunaGeorge as one of the best acts of this genre. Tracks like “You Know You Like It” and “Your Drums, Your Love” are perfect examples of how perfect Aluna’s voice is for this type of smooth but bass heavy music. Their remix of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” is fairly brilliant in how much they altered the original to something all their own. But the gem on this album is “Lost & Found,” a perfect example of the apex of a UK garage-pop banger and one of the best dance tracks of 2013.

Album Review: rjd2 – More Is Than Isn’t

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It’s rare for an artist who’s been around for over a decade to release a new album that throws directly back to their roots. Progression is a natural part of getting older as a musician and often times that means losing some of that thing that made people love your music ‘back in the day.’ This is especially true with electronic musicians, who seem more susceptible than others to ‘progression’ by buying in on some cheap fad and abandoning their roots completely & forever.

What rjd2 has done with More Is Than Isn’t is remarkable. The album most people know from RJ is Deadringer — and for good reason, it’s basically a perfect album. It’s hard to say that anything he ever produces again is better than Deadringer, but for MITI to be right there in the same neighborhood is a quite an accomplishment. In many ways, this is a more well-rounded album than Deadringer, with various guest vocalists and rappers lending a good bit of diversity to the overall landscape of the album.

rjd2 is one of those producers who has an unmistakable sound. His skill in incorporating classic hip hip beats with obscure samples and multiple strata of horn & string loops is all his own; when someone puts on rjd2 you know who it is immediately. A couple tracks on MITI sound like they could have been on Deadringer — that trademark rjd2 instrumental good shit. “Behold, Numbers” is probably the most obviously rjd2 song on this whole album, it oozes everything you love about this guy’s production style. It starts with a ‘verse’ with a juicy violin sample/loop, which builds to a guitar & hand drum bridge, only to explode in a massive orgy of distorted electric guitar loops and a huge clapping beat. It comes full circle with a reprise of the violin sound and one more peak, but this with that violin loop at full emphasis. The juxtaposition of instrument sounds, accompanied with the shift in intensity of the rhythmic layers is phenomenal. This is a perfect track.

Some other standout instrumental tracks include the rollercoaster ride “Milk Tooth” and the throwback funk ripper “Got There, Sugar?” “Milk Tooth” is an exercise in varied electronic textures and it begins with this effervescent & smooth tune that sounds like the theme music to a 70s family sitcom. But then it takes a dark turn to the bass side with this female vocal-sounding loop that is rough & oddly haunting. The track’s path winds back and forth from these two textural poles in a completely seamless way that makes you wonder how these two segments came together in RJ’s head. Then “Got There, Sugar?” feels like something else out of the 70s, but more like a cop chase scene in a low budget action movie. After a classy jazz intro it’s horns & hand drums with a funk vocal loop, funk organ riffs, guitar chord loops, a layer of violin, and a funky bassline under the whole thing. It pushes the tempo a little bit higher than the rest of the album until it hits a ‘remixed’ segment with the vocal sample scratched and somehow faded back to the jazzy energy of the intro. It’s a three part song that weaves all of the elements together in a beautiful way.

The instrumental tracks are impressive to be certain, but it’s the suite of tracks with guest vocalist/rappers that really sets this album apart in RJ’s catalogue. There are the three more R&B leaning songs with male vocalists — “Temperamental” featuring Phonte Coleman, “See You Leave” featuring STS and Khari Mateen, “Love and Go” featuring Aaron Livingston — and the pair of straight up hip hop tracks, “Bathwater” featuring P. Blackk, and “It All Came To Me In A Dream” featuring Blueprint. “Love and Go” sounds like it’s another track from RJ and Livingston’s collaborative album The Abandoned Lullaby under the moniker Icebird. It’s a darker, experimental electro style of R&B that is quite unique to these two guys. The highlight of the whole album is the track “Bathwater” with P. Blackk making this the most genuine hip hop track rjd2 has ever put on an album. It’s a straight-up aggressive beat, with a huge bassline, that classic MPC-style vocal sample chopping, and a skittish hi-hat that drives the tempo. This is the kind of song that feels just tailor made to be in any type of action sports video – it flows, it’s engaging, it connects with the lyrics, and, most of all, it just kicks ass.

More Is Than Isn’t sounds as classically rjd2 as possible, right at a time when many electronic producers are tempted by the fad du jour. It’s impossible not to be impressed with this guy’s trip back to his roots, bringing his classic & beloved sound in all sorts of new ways. It’s tough choosing highlights from this album because every song feels like it could be a single. rjd2 is unquestionably one of the best electronic producers on Earth right now and this album is as good as it gets. Number ratings/grades aren’t in the playbook here at Soundfuse, but this is just about as perfect an an album can be, undoubtedly one of 2013’s best.

Album Review: Snarky Puppy – Family Dinner Vol. 1

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Of course Snarky Puppy would put a new spin on a concept that’s already completely out of the box. This is their third album in a row created in the live/in-studio CD/DVD format, where the CD is essentially the ‘soundtrack’ for the DVD, which has interview segments and various other pieces of footage. But on Family Dinner Vol. 1 they take things a step further creatively and have written eight songs seemingly tailor-made for eight different guest vocalists. This album intersects a number of genres, with each singer guiding the tone of each song with their particular vocal talents. There are multiple permutations of funk, rock, jazz, blues, gospel, even some bossa nova; Family Dinner Vol. 1 is all over the place in the best possible way.

Every song has it’s own individual identity, yet somehow the common thread of the guest vocalists is more than enough of a binding agent to make this album feel oddly cohesive. It’s undefinably complete in the same way that Snarky Puppy has an undefinable sound. It doesn’t make much sense but it’s so brilliant it suddenly makes all the sense in the world. Only these guys are able to shape eight completely different songs into one complete work like this.

This album is certainly worth listening to from front to back but since it is so varied, different tracks play to different moods and it’s easy to skip around. But there are two songs which are impossible to skip, two songs which don’t stand out as much as they’re just impossible to overlook. “Amour T’es La” featuring Magda Giannikou comes way out of left field with a bossa nova-inspired track that sounds nothing like Snarky Puppy has ever done. It’s like the score to a montage scene of a ridiculously happy couple skipping through Paris, slightly cheesy but in the cute & impossible to resist kind of way. Giannikou’s voice is unbelievably sexy as she sings in French what feels like a tale of beautiful love. “Amour T’es La” is extremely romantic but it’s tempo’d up so it feels like a dance song as well — an uncanny blend but it absolutely works.

The unquestioned gem of Family Dinner Vol. 1 is the fifth track: “Something” featuring Lalah Hathaway. It’s the most traditionally Snarky-sounding song on the whole album; it would definitely fit in amongst their entire catalogue of instrumental material. In fact, it would probably stand out, it’s got that viscerally dirty, synth bass thing going on that gives you goosebumps & makes your humours start to bubble. But this song is taken next level by a truly virtuosic vocal performance from Hathaway, who does things with her voice that don’t even sound humanly possible. Michael League mentioned something about her jazz vocals being “in three keys at once,” which sounds about right and is obviously some sort of superhuman ability. At the point in this song when Hathaway finishes a particularly baffling display, the back-up singers and synth bass come together in a massive burst to create about as close to a ‘drop’ as you’ll ever hear in a jazz song. Everything about this song is absolutely brilliant, virtuoso-level stuff, maybe one of the most incredible things Snarky Puppy has done yet.

Family Dinner Vol. 1 only begs one question… how are they going to play these songs live? Each track is so focused on a guest vocalist, they’re basically the core of every song, each of which just wouldn’t be the same if someone else sang them. They aren’t exactly going to tour with eight different vocalists to each sing only one song, so it’s a mystery how they’re going to incorporate this stuff into their rotation. Or maybe not. Progression, creativity, and brilliance run through Snarky Puppy’s veins, so it seems foolish to think that anything is impossible for this band.

Album Review: Vic Mensa – INNANETAPE

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The whole dang innanet has been a buzz for months, waiting for the solo release from former Kids These Days front man Vic Mensa.

The Save Money soldier has been on a heck of a journey these past couple of months. From finding his own voice in a post-Kids These Days world, to being dropped into J.Cole’s “What Dreams May Come” tour last week, the hype leading up to this mixtape is very real and well deserved.

Vic Mensa may be one of the most talented lyricists out there: part of a new breed of young bucks that aren’t tied to any particular system, who aren’t afraid to say exactly what they think, who aren’t afraid to change the conversation about hip hop. It doesn’t hurt that he is one of our own homegrown Chicago boys either. Oh yeah, he also spits hot fire. In case you didn’t know.

Vic has been leveraging this hype to the benefit of INNANETAPE. He has beats from some of the most current producers in the game; hell he has Thundercat and Om’mas Keith (the genius behind Frank Ocean’s Grammy winning Channel Orange) on a track together.

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I have been hearing a lot of comparisons made to Save Money compatriot, Chance the Rapper. In truth, it is a little unfair to compare the two. Acid Rap was an insta-classic. I don’t know how many of those records we get, ever. It is nearly impossible not to compare the Save Money bredren; the two of them are tied together forever through mutual shared experience. They have been in each others music videos, they have played each others shows, they have featured on each others mixtapes, they have grown together, they are both from Chicago and both in the Save Money crew. On this piece, INNANETAPE, Vic sounds a lot like Chance.

I’m going to chalk that up to Save Money being responsible for the new Chicago sound.

INNANETAPE is not an insta-classic like Acid Rap. That’s okay. Vic Mensa is going to be just fine. Vic Mensa is not Chance the Rapper.

Vic Mensa is the strangest of the up and coming Chicago rap scene. He isn’t afraid to disrupt everything. He isn’t afraid to challenge his listener. He references everything from the illuminati (not sure why) to famed Canadian interviewer Nardwuar, from Chicago violence to Kenan & Kel. He isn’t afraid to use his vocabulary and he isn’t afraid to pit his voice against his beats and production. This internal competition often makes INNANETAPE sound a little frantic. At times, this record sounds like you are taking a journey through the Save Money Carnival Fun House — distortion mirrors, bearded ladies and everything.

Don’t let that discourage you. Just know that Vic Mensa is for sure going to make sure shit gets real weird.

Take any one of the brilliant tracks on that mixtape (“Orange Soda”, “Lovely Day”, “Time is Money”, “YNSP”),  hold em close… and watch as Vic Mensa takes the world by storm.

Here is the download at the jump c/o the good people over at IllRoots.

Album Review: EarthCry – Hear the Earth, Heal Yourself ∞ Heal the Earth, Hear Yourself

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With electronic music marketed as “EDM” ad nauseum these days, it’s always refreshing to see artists take a wild leap of faith in the opposite direction. Papadosio’s Anthony Thogmartin has done so recently under the moniker EarthCry, releasing his debut solo album titled Hear the Earth, Heal Yourself ∞ Heal the Earth, Hear Yourself. The album is wildly conceptual, containing six tracks each tuned to their own ancient solfeggio frequency. These tones, resonating at 396,  417, 528 , 639, 741, and 852 Hz, respectively, are derived from centuries old Gregorian chant and have been known to naturally aide and inspire those who hear them.

The lengthy tracks, the shortest clocking in at just under eight minutes, do get stuck in neutral during a few spots, but for the majority of the listen, the songs flow well, displaying enough range from song to song to make each stand out on its own. Beginning with a simple rhythm or melody, they build beautifully onward, never in a hurry to grow and morph into the spicy magic that awaits. This type of escalation within tracks is prevalent throughout, especially on “417 ∞ The Tone of Change” and “741 – Cultivating Intuition”, where, by the tracks’ fiery peak, the listener is experiencing something much different than what is heard at the tracks’ beginning. Never straying too far from the original themes, though, Thogmartin knows what each song’s strengths are and sticks with them, taking you on a unique journey that never forces you to lose the comforting thoughts of where you came from. As for the healing power of the tones, go into the listen with an open mind and you might be surprised by what happens. Whether it’s the solfeggio frequencies at work or simply stellar production by Thogmartin, Hear the Earth, Heal Yourself ∞ Heal the Earth, Hear Yourself clearly wins from start to finish.

Album Review: Drake – Nothing Was the Same

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I don’t know why Drake gets off so easy. Is it because he’s Canadian? Do we expect less from him because he is an actor-turned-rapper? I don’t know for sure, but I do know that the most interesting thing about his new album is the internet’s response to it.

Who are these folks lauding Drake as the new voice of hip hop? Who are these people calling this album a classic? Pshhh. Go listen to Voodoo by D’Angelo if you really want to hear a classic R&B album. Go listen to Ready to Die by Biggie to hear a classic hip hop record.

At best, Nothing Was the Same is a The Weeknd album with a couple good features. At worst it is the epitome of emo-hop (emo hip hop, get it?). The only reason we tolerate the existence of this album is because nobody really knows what to do with Drake. Take Care was different — even as a person who sports no affinity for the man, I can admit that. Different is important to music in this day and age.  Is Drake a soft rapper? Or a tough R&B singer?

If you are going to try and be a singer/rapper, you should probably make sure that you are correct on both sides of the coin. That is hard to do when cats like Frank Ocean out sing you, and Chance the Rapper out raps you.

That being said, let’s start at the beginning…

We have some powerful production on this record: ethereal, laid back, and we can thank Toronto native Noah “40” Shebib for the sound. It comes in remorseless on the first two tracks on the album “Tuscan Leather” and “Furthest Thing.” It is almost a shame that the production on this album is so strong. Feels like a waste.

Then we have the already widely discussed “Started From the Bottom.” As a fake native Torontonian relocated to Chicago, let me offer you a translation: Drake is from Forrest Hill (Evanston). He started at the “bottom” by having to get a part time job at Shoppers Drug Mart (oh no gotta get a job at CVS!) while attending Forrest Hill Collegiate Prep (Jones College Prep) until the age of 15 where he got cast in notoriously preachy Canadian after-school special tv show Degrassi (Saved By the Bell..with more drug usage and teen pregnancy). Not that all rappers need to come from the Ida B Wells housing projects, they don’t, but don’t tell me that having a Bar Mitzvah and working at a drug store until you get discovered as a teen is the “bottom.” That’s all I will say about that.

Then we have “Wu-Tang Forever,” a song that derives it’s name from the hook (It’s Yours) that is a reference to  “It’s Yourz,” produced by the RZA from 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever. Sure, throw props to the Wu, as you rightfully should as an artist within a genre that they helped to define. But at least have some conviction brahj, there has never been such a hilariously misplaced ode.

You know? This song by song breakdown of this album is almost too much for me to bear, so let’s get down to the important stuff.

We have Jay-z guest flowing on “Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2.” Jay once was the voice of the people, I suppose, but on this feature you almost wish that Kendrick Lamar was still ghostwriting for him. Glad you got Jay on the album Drizzy, just wish it was a better song/feature.

Drake proves that his rap skills have improved, he can rap if he wants too. The funny thing is, it doesn’t seem like he really wants to. Instead he would rather sing… kinda. This album is half “look where I am,”  half  “girl come back to my crib… please… I’m sensitive I swear.”

If you’re into The Weeknd? You might love this album. If you’ve never heard an actual classic rap record? You might love this album. If you just got your teenage ass dumped via text message, you might love this album.

If you were looking for a new voice in the game with something different, provocative, or interesting, you might not love this album.

Come on Drake, we’re listening, give us a reason to root for you home boy. If people are going to follow you blindly, the least you can do is give em’ something worth following.

Album Review: Lotus – Monks

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With their sixth studio work, Lotus has gone in a completely different direction for their sound as well as the entire concept of the album. Lotus is already traveling a particularly transformative career arc: an effervescent, downtempo sound in the beginning that metamorphosed to an aggressive & electrified energy in recent studio work. All the while they’ve also been playing about a hundred shows a year and becoming ensconced as headliners in the jam-electronic festival circuit. At this point they’ve earned the right to take some serious chances, musically speaking, and their latest album is a prototypical example of this. Lotus went and made a hip hop album, and it’s pretty damn good.

What really separates Monks from any other album in their catalogue is the mixture of hip hop songs with guest rappers and short instrumental, electro hip hop tracks. The 16 tracks are divided into two groups: seven instrumentals and nine songs with guests (eight MCs in total), highlighted by Mr. Lif, Gift of Gab, Lyrics Born, and Doodlebug. The two species of songs are thoroughly incorporated with each other, creating an engaging mix that never hovers at one altitude for too long. It feels like a lot of thought went into the order of the tracks — the album has a great flow.

As if all of the this isn’t unique enough already, Lotus took things one step further creatively. While the seven, quick-hitting instrumental tracks are all new material, the nine lyrical hip hop tracks are all remixes of existing Lotus songs. They found a new genre and new guests, might as well give us new versions of familiar material too, right? Most of the remixes are derived from their 2012 self-titled album, with “Molluskunk,” Dowrn,” and “Blacklight Sunflare” (among others) getting a new spin.

Two tracks in particular represent the opposite ends of the spectrum for the hip hop tracks on Monks.”Cloud 9″ featuring Doodlebug is a gorgeous song, a deconstructed remix of “The Surf” where the lyrics and deft production work together perfectly. The other is “Cannon In The Heavens” featuring Lyrics Born and his excitable style & flow on a slight tweak to “Golden Ghost,” a song with an already built-in hip hop attitude. This track came together so well that it almost seems too perfect, almost like it was meant to be that way, a truly revelatory moment in an album that is a revelation by its very existence.

At the end of the day, this isn’t the Lotus of yore. There will certainly be a section of Lotus fans who won’t like this album at all — it sounds nothing like they did when we all fell in love with them. But on the other hand, it’s a brilliant album in its own right that is a lot of fun to listen to, especially if you love hip hop. And not only that, nobody else has really done anything quite like this, both in terms of veering off their established genre and remixing a slew of their own songs to create something entirely new. If nothing else, you have to give these guys a ton of credit for taking such a massive leap and landing this smoothly.

Album Review: Akron / Family – Sub Verses

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No matter how many times I wind up listening to an Akron/Family album over the years, I try my best to take a zero-expectation approach every time. With these guys there’s no point in bringing along expectations. Once I ultimately think I’ve got my grips on ‘em, off again they go, leaving me grabbing at nothing as they break free from their recorded relics, and without ever looking back to see if I’m still following, flippin’ my wig in a completely different direction. Sub Verses (Dead Ocean Records) finds them on the move once more, again showing a knack for making some seriously incongruent sounds fit together. White noise? Yup. Spacy feedback? Thicker than ever. Brilliantly crafted songs? You betcha.

The penduluming rock opener “No Room”  sets the lo-fi mood, transitioning into the clashing, shimmering sounds of “Way Up”. It’s at this moment you realize this one’s is gonna be one helluva curvy ride. Not much is straightforward for the remainder, and that’s exactly what makes Sub Verses such a captivating listen. Even during the beautifully sparse, stripped-down ballad, “When I Was Young,” subtle drones creep into play unexpectedly, stretching and lingering in such a personal manner they make rueful remembrance impossible to avoid. The album’s loaded with interesting tonal experiments at every turn, and while some movements are more effective than others — it’s moodiness makes it a collection that’s probably not suitable for every occasion — when the ideas do hit their mark, you’ll wind up in a place that’s pretty damn fascinating to explore.

Album Review: Chance The Rapper – “AcidRap”

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If you haven’t heard of Chance the Rapper yet, we clearly have never met. That, or you don’t know what the RedEye is, have never grabbed a copy of  the Chicago Reader, are blissfully unaware of blogs like Fake Shore Drive and Ruby Hornet — consider your living under a rock status confirmed.

I feel the kind of affinity  for Chance that I did with Joey Fatone when I was 12 years old. That is to say, I just can’t get enough of him.

This made me nervous to write a review of AcidRap, the long awaited follow up to 2012’s #10Day Mixtape by aforementioned Chance Bennett.

Why nervous? I was worried that my review might be skewed by my bias. I might tell you the tape is better than it is because Chance the Rapper is so damned charming and talented. Don’t believe me? Watch this video of Chance on Michigan Avenue:

I had the good fortune of listening  to the entirety of AcidRap on Friday at the Foundation Room c/o my friends at Red Bull (thanks guys!) with the Chancellor himself.

Good news everyone, AcidRap truly is a tab of acid for your ear. This album is going to be the thing that everyone is talking about for the foreseeable future in Chicago, and hopefully within the hip hop community at large. Why? Because it is that good.

I feel like hip hop is going in two distinct directions. Eclectic, accepting and inclusive of  other genres, and straight late nineties Geto Boys style thug (see; The Chicago Drill scene). Leading the troops in the former category, we have the likes of Robert Glasper, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and now, Chicago’s own, Chicago’s finest,  Chance the Rapper.

He has always showed an affection for a jazzy, rich, melodic meandering sounds. We know that from listening to the very impressive and artful #10Day mixtape. Now, on the sophomore AcidRap, that signature sound of his has matured. He never sacrifices his energy for that deep, lush production. Instead they work in perfect harmony on tracks like “Juice” and “Favorite Song.” He has an uncanny ability to maintain the energy on his slower, and often more intricate tracks as well, “Everybody’s Something” and “Coco Butter Kisses.” Beyond the talent of the man himself, the production is near immaculate, and the features, Childish Gambino and the fastest spitter this side of the Mississippi, Twista, seem perfectly placed.

This album may be an anomaly in that it is a complete work. There is not a weak moment on the 13 song EP.

 

Cop the album for free today at:

www.chanceraps.com

or —> HERE

Album Review: Digital Tape Machine – Be Here Now

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When most bands release a debut album it comes from a relatively short burst of creative inspiration. It’s usually something made before a band starts touring, something for people to get hooked on before ever playing for them live. Two of the best debut albums of 2012 — alt-J’s An Awesome Wave and Django Django’s s/t — were those bands’ introduction to the world, they never toured much before the album, then following the album they played sold out concerts across the country. This is the blueprint.

Digital Tape Machine did things much differently. They began as a Chicago supergroup of sorts, a band seemingly made for festival sets, or whenever the worlds of Umphrey’s McGee and Strange Arrangement happened to overlap. They debuted at Wuhnurth Festival in Spencer, IN in late 2010 with no recorded release of any type. They went on to play more shows in 2011 and 2012 but never really toured extensively due to the fact that Umphrey’s is kind of a big deal. So when they started talking about an album in late 2012, it was a revelation from a band that seemingly might never have recorded anything and it wouldn’t even matter.

It wouldn’t have mattered because Digital Tape Machine had made a serious name for themselves as a live band. Over the course of their nearly three years as a group, they transformed into one of the most powerful & technical live electronic bands on the planet — a seven-piece electro-rock orchestra of sorts, capable of explosion at the drop of a hat. They started with a collection of material and it just naturally grew over the years, with new songs popping up at almost every show. So Digital Tape Machine’s debut album Be Here Now is really like an anthology of their first three years — the antithesis of the blueprint debut album. Everyone has already fallen in love with their live show and now they’re releasing recorded material for the first time ever. It’s not necessarily a strategy many bands would choose but it’s the way it happened.

Be Here Now is constructed of five tracks from the very beginning and five tracks that were born in the time since then. “Technology,” “Great Dane,”  “Hop On Scotch,” “GRP,” and “Extasty” are all road-worn & beloved songs. Fans might not know the names, but they go apeshit when these songs get played live. And it’s with these tracks where the difference between live DTM and studio DTM comes through. If there’s one thing that stands out in DTM’s live shows it’s a certain grittyness, this snarling energy that always seems to bubble below the surface, ready to burst at any moment. But the studio versions of these songs are so polished & clean. Not necessarily lacking grit, but definitely feeling more sanitized.

Yet, this is decidedly not a bad thing at all because the other five tracks have an innately cleaner sound. “White Light,” “Be Here Now,” “Beep Bot,” Ibiza,” and “I Am You Are Me” have all been written relatively recently and sound like they were created with much more electronic production in mind. So the fact that the old tracks are clean makes the whole album feel extremely cohesive, despite the long timeframe from which the songs come. In the end, Be Here Now is just a fun album to hear. It’s electronic music, it’s rock n roll, it’s flawless production, and it’s a glimpse into the inner workings of the live music monster that is Digital Tape Machine.

Album Review: Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II

[Words by Joey Clay]

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Unknown Mortal Orchestra was almost a band that never was. Starting off as a small experiment for then punk rocker Ruban Nielson, Unknown Mortal Orchestra has blossomed into a wondrous, psychedelic, lo-fi, murky gem of a band. Their newest album II is almost indulgent in all the right places and demonstrates the guitar workings of Nielson who lays it down in a layered, lo-fi garage band sort of way. The compositions are complex but also leave impressionable melodies in your head.

Coming off of their debut album from 2011, Unknown Mortal Orchestra pursues the same sound but leaves a lot more room to stretch out the inner workings of their songs and instrumentation. The opening track “From the Sun” opens with lush yet raw acoustic guitar finger picked chords. The lyrics and singing are very Lennon-esque , even beating out Tame Impala (my opinion!) at channeling the spirit of John Lennon. I can see Lennon hunched over acoustic his guitar singing:

“Isolation can put a gun in your hand

Can put a gun in your hand

Can put a gun in your hand

Isolation can put a gun in your hand.”

The impression left upon me was that “From the Sun” should be seen as a tactful nod to Mr Lennon, not a full blown impersonation and it really works as a UKO song. When the electric guitar comes in, I am reminded of White Album era Beatles; the chord is struck on the downbeat and lets that 60s tinged chord ring out briefly before killing it with the palm.

Nielson is a vocalist who exhibits many different moods and feelings. Loneliness is a major theme of this album, which is strange because the songs are upbeat or at least more neutral than the void of loneliness usually leaves us feeling. The soulful vibes of “So Good at Being in Trouble” is the probably the sparsest track on the album. The only constants being the steady drum beats and the wistful vocals of Neilson. Subtle synthy effects are thrown in the background leaving Neilson’s singing as the main attraction.

A strong run of songs starts the album off but as the album draws towards the middle, we come to a lull in the form of the longest songs on the album. It’s not even that they are bad songs; it’s just that they don’t quite hit the high water mark that the first couple of songs took us too. “Monki” taps in at over 7 minutes and even though Neilson shows what he’s made of on the guitar, it’s just not as memorable to me. That’s ok though, because the album finishes strong. The not quite anthem-like “Faded in the Morning” takes me right back to the smart psyche- pop music that made me fall in love with this band. The falsetto vocals and fuzzed out bass really drive the album to a close

II is undeniably an improvement from the self-titled debut by the band. The sound is fuller yet doesn’t compromise the lo-fi, compressed mission statement of the band. Guitar freak-outs and smart psychedelia abound, any lover of neo-psychedelic music would be a fool to miss out on this band and their unique stylings.

Album Review: Atoms For Peace – Amok

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It seemed as if Thom Yorke was using Atoms For Peace to exorcise an even more twisted artistic vision than Radiohead. The Eraser was about these loose-ended ideas that sprung away from Radiohead patterns in spastic tangents. It made Radiohead seem like the more grounded entity. But all of a sudden those roles have reversed. Radiohead’s newest album, King of Limbs, is a powerfully weird record that feels like the black sheep cousin of even their weirdest music to date. While the new Atoms For Peace album, Amok, is possibly the most approachable & comfortable project Yorke has produced in years.

Well, its not as if Yorke is doing this all alone. In fact, Atoms For Peace is without question a super group when you put Yorke and Flea on the same project. It’s rounded out with all-world producer Nigel Godfrey and percussionists Mauro Refosco and Joey Waronker, the result is a technical and unique package that’s in the rare neighborhood of, well, Radiohead. It’s not like Atoms For Peace’s history comes anywhere close to Radiohead’s, but at album number two, Atoms For Peace is much farther along than Radiohead was.

The odd thing about this album is that there really aren’t any songs that leap away from the rest of the piece; this is an intricately connected album from track to track. It emits this incandescent glow, an orb of warm energy with an uncanny sense of calm considering its use of splintered polyrhythms. If there’s one thing that Atoms For Peace possibly does even better than Radiohead, it’s the percussion element. Every beat on this album feels like it’s about five layers deep, with the peak of this sensation on “Dropped.” While this track doesn’t necessarily feel like the ‘best’ song — because there isn’t one — it might be the closest thing to putting Atoms For Peace into a microcosm.

Amok is a focused Atoms For Peace. Unlike The Eraser, which has a couple of great songs but is ultimately a scattershot collection of songs, Amok is a carefully confined ball of sound, a single-minded statement refined to a surprising degree. Though at this point, nothing should really come as a surprise coming from Thom Yorke, who is musically about ten steps ahead of everyone else on the planet.

Album Review: Lotus – Build

4PAN1T

Part of me still doesn’t wanna like Lotus‘ new material. The Lotus I fell in love with was such a gentle & calming presence and their early, more atmospheric material is still my favorite (Escaping Sargasso Sea is one of my favorite albums of all-time). But as much as I or anyone else wants to hear them write another “Umbilical Moonrise” or “Sunrain,” it just isn’t gonna happen. Yet, at the same time, I find myself more & more into Lotus’ recent studio work. Unlike their jamband counterparts, their studio work is actually really fun to listen to in headphones. It’s not just some base level for the live performance to jump from, it’s a music experience that stands on its own merit.

Build continues in the same direction as their previous self-titled album but pushes the envelope even more. What’s funny about this album is that while there are a handful of tracks that aren’t outstanding and really blend together, the album as a whole unit is fantastic. A ‘sum is greater than its parts’ situation. This is a cohesive collection of tracks that stays on the theme and hammers it home. This is by far their most bold, energetic, and aggressive studio work — a dance-upon-prog-rock work of art. It feels like many of the songs are almost an offshoot of the track “Blacklight Sunflare” from the previous album, so if you liked that song, you will love this album.

While a number of the songs somewhat muddle together, this album never finds a dull area, it’s always in a dance/rage zone as opposed to some sort of mindspace. From start to finish, this is an entertaining album that grows on me with each listen. But after all these spins, there are three tracks that leap over the rest. “Neon Tubes I” has a little taste of those old school atmospherics but with a funky bent & accelerated pace. The second part of this song goes off the electro deep end, yet that doesn’t take away from the comfort of the first. Then there’s “What Did I Do Wrong?” which is Mike Rempel’s unquestioned bustout song. It builds through funky organs and some slick horn samples on its way to finding the guitar peak of the album when Rempel goes ape on a huge solo. Then there’s the true gem, the song that stands out above even the standouts: “Middle Road,” a.k.a. my new favorite ‘new generation’ Lotus track. Talk about funky, this song finds a groove deeper than any song they’ve written in years. It uses vocal sample as well as any Lotus song ever has, plus it’s got phenomenal hand-drum work from Chuck Morris, bright funk chords from Rempel, and a filthy bass guitar line from Jesse Miller. This track goes out to all the old school Lotus heads, it’s pure throwback material.

Lotus’ studio work has continued to demonstrate a top shelf level of production that is often times lacking in the jam-festival circuit. Studio work often seems like ‘something we have to do’ from many bands of this ilk, but with Lotus it just doesn’t feel that way at all. Their studio efforts — especially the last two — have been extremely polished works with listening rotation staying power. It’s not often I find myself with a craving for a jamband’s studio work, but Lotus has introduced this feeling to me and I love it.