Review: Martin McFly, Junior by Junior

Martin McFly Junior

OK, yeah, so maybe you missed this one. Underground hip-hop mixtapes are a dime a dozen these days, all too easy to gloss over, not take seriously. But with his latest tape effort, Martin McFly Junior, local Austin MC Lindsey West, aka Junior, might not stay underground for long.

I’ve followed Junior for years now, watching each new release progress from candidly corny to calculatingly cool, all while fostering a thoroughly unique sound rooted in Houston chopped ‘n’ screwed, trap, Midwest soul, and straight-up feel-good Southern rap. Now his third mixtape finally brings it all together — and in style. Punchlines roll smoother, beats sound crisper, hooks hit harder. “Man I’m outchea grindin’, say it like that, I’m ’bout to make it all, spend it all, and make it right back,” West pronounces emphatically, like the lyrical equivalent of a van door slamming shut. There’s points on this record where you sense this is an old pro who knows his way round the game better than most his age. In fact, most of MMJR is above & beyond your typical street fare: a signature sound, an “album” feel bolstered by well-placed film dialogue samples, and absolutely KILLER guest features, if I do say so myself. Local fan favorite Kydd Jones (who produced several tracks for the tape) drops in for a spitfire verse on “The Rental”, and Eric White delivers a spirited stanza that brings out the harsh undertones of the hate-bash “Cut Me Down”.

What I will say is that Junior himself sometimes falls short when it comes to flow & emotion. His rapping has improved by leaps & bounds since debut Fresh Produce, especially with wordplay & rhyme. He’s got a sharper wit & broader vocabulary than the average MC, as well as a great command of theme & rhyme. But it’s not without the occasional slip-up. Empty filler lines like “Christian’s my religion so my denim’s looking very true / Do I spend cheese on the steez? Yes I very do”, while rare, are pretty cringe-inducing. West is a talented young gun with a brilliant mind, but not without a tendency to skirt his obvious intellect for lazier or more dumbed-down backseat flows. Riding the new wave of socially-conscious, abstract rap today, it might do him good to step out of his comfort zone. His easygoing, friendly flow is monochrome, safe, never harsh or abrasive — but that’s not always a good thing. He just comes off as a regular guy dealing with sort-of regular day-to-day “rapper issues”. It works fine for a mixtape, but I’d like to see “the McFly kid” mature, expand, delve into deeper emotions & a more varied palette of physical — and lyrical — voices. If he can do that, I’d say he’s got the makings of a future star if there ever was one.

However, regardless of what comes on the heels of this effort, Martin McFly Junior is still one solid mixtape. Out of the 14 tracks here, I’d recommend almost all of them highly. These are tracks you can vibe your life around & roll your windows down to, especially “Perfect Day”, which very well could become your clock-radio alarm wakeup jam of the summer. West’s flow here is syrupy-smooth & self-assured as he raps about driving down the open road & hanging out with friends, and complemented by singer Jonathas Ojeda’s soft-as-silk chorus, you get the feeling that this really might be a perfect day after all. In any case, it’s a perfect day for Junior.

“Caesar had Brutus, Jesus had Judas / So I already know they gon’ hate cuz I do this,” he spits elsewhere on the album, maybe jumping the gun on the fickle feuds characteristic of the cutthroat music industry. But right now he’s still young, fresh, unscarred by all the hate & internal drama. “If I make it, I’m hoping that my team comes too,” he states on heartfelt closer “Need One Too”. “When you’re young, you’re just hoping your dreams come true.” Moments later, a well-placed Christopher Lloyd sound bite exclaims, “This is my latest experiment, it’s a big one, the one I’ve been waiting for all my life!!!” It’s a humorous juxtaposition, but a thought-provoking one. This guy’s doing it for the love of the game. He raps cause it’s in his blood, his life. And really, at the end of the day, that’s all you need. In the coming months, I’m eager to see where this road takes him. Is he “headed to the top” like he says he is? Time will tell.

4 out of 5 stars

4 out of 5 stars

RELEASED: May 24, 2013 on In My Sight

MUST-HEARS: “Perfect Day” (ft. Jonathas), “McFly Nigga”, “The Rental” (ft. Kydd Jones), “Need One Too”, “B.O.M.S.” (ft. Carrtel & Kassanova Kelz), “The Top”, “Toast” (ft. JCarr)

DON’T FEEL BAD IF YOU SKIP: “Aisle 10”

SOUNDS LIKE: The ambitions of a young Ye meets the verbs of a young Jay. Really, you can’t complain, now can you?

PERFECT FOR: Rolling through the city, windows down, bass turned up, not a care in the world.

IN A WORD: Determined.

Download/listen to the whole thing for free on Bandcamp!

And remember – you heard it here!

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Review: Overgrown by James Blake

Overgrown, by James Blake

“When things are thrown away like they are daily, time passes in the constant state,” begins the title track & opener of the new James Blake album, Overgrown. “So if that is how it is, I don’t wanna be a star, but a stone on the shore…”

It’s a line that’s instantly resonant, and backed by his trademark muffled jazz-chord piano, it introduces the LP perfectly, willingly lowering James into an element-swept otherworld all his own, singing his plaintive post-songs to the steady thrum & grind of deep-bass sonic erosion.

James Blake absolutely oozes talent, even if he doesn’t look the part. The unassuming lanky Brit prefers to play the shy schoolboy as far as cameras & interviews are concerned. But for one who doesn’t want to be a star, he clearly has star potential — his brooding, dark-yet-jaunty eponymous debut two years ago proved it, serving up a tasty tracklist of thoroughly unique… what is he calling it now? “Melodic bass music.” Whatever THAT is.

Ranging from tightly-wound post-dubstep wobble to cavernous ambient techno sprawl, the tracks on the self-titled were more notable for the terrific, trailblazing new sound they suggested than for things like lyrical content (zilch) or cohesiveness (zero). Focusing on production values above all else, the overall vibe of the album was a skitterish one at best. Fortunately for us & our listening enjoyment, Mr. James Blake here takes all these necessary qualities to heart, and, in turn, takes his beautiful music to the next level.

Where the debut scattered in several different directions at once, frequently maintaining a sort of freshly-unboxed, “bedroom” quality to the music, Overgrown feels like leaves on a world-weary, weatherbeaten tree, definitively rooted in a solid, if not solitary, sound. Tracks break from plasticine molds to flow fluid beneath James’ superb vocal runs, left relatively unprocessed here — which is good, because it allows the poignant beauty of the lyrics to shine through. “I’ll wait,” he declares softly on lead single “Retrograde”, “so show me why you’re strong / ignore everybody else, we’re alone now.” Whether or not he means it, hearing it sung in that mellow lilting baritenor of his, you begin to wonder if there could be any other truth in the world at all. When the song spirals upwards over a single droning frequency, it’s a jarring effect, but adds even more power & punch to the climactic chorus exclamation: “Suddenly I’m hit!”

Many tracks on the album, like my personal favorite “Life Round Here”, showcase an improved touch as both producer & songwriter. Less is more, so Blake uses ambient white noise & masterfully reserved beatwork to wring every last drop of emotion from the fabric of the sparse (yet magnetizing) lyrics. Free-associative abstractions (“Everything feels like touchdown on a rainy day”) ride a quiet, narcotic wave of background hiss & samba-influenced synth arpeggiation, recalling the cooling sizzle of a fresh downpour on asphalt, the foreboding in the back of your mind as you try to bring your single-engine plane to a safe landing. That furrowed, worrisome fret is omnipresent in Blake’s music, as if nothing good in life could ever be pure & bright without some sort of shadow, some minor chord resolution to tether it down. It’s only now that he really manages to pull us into the sordid storybook with him, a surprisingly familiar innerverse that most of us might realize lurked within us all along.

Overall, everything about this album is superior to the debut, stellar as it was. The smoothed-out, slightly-tweaked production on Overgrown sits backseat to a deep-seeded vocal, lyrical, melodic, and harmonic soul, one that Blake was wise enough to harness & groom from the sometimes vapid “soul” of his early tracks. Sequencing & cohesion is better here, too — so much so that when RZA drops in for an uncanny guest feature on “Take A Fall For Me”, it feels completely natural, just another branch off the knotty tree of Blake’s multifaceted, yet organic musical dimension. “Sex shapes the body, truth shapes the mind,” muses the Wu-Tang father figure, in typical Shaolin wisdom, contemplating marital love as a steady river of dubstep courses beneath. And it couldn’t be more accurate. In James Blake’s overgrown world, the truth is in the sound & the sound is in that ever-evasive, transcendent, falling-star truth. But above all, all of it is in the mind — both his, and the listener’s. For the reclusive young producer, Overgrown provides a compelling look deep into the heart, where everything keeps sure time to the thump of a two-step bass.

5 out of 5 stars

RELEASED: April 5, 2013 on Atlas/A&M/Polydor

MUST-HEARS: “Life Round Here”, “I Am Sold”, “DLM”, “Retrograde”, “Digital Lion”, “To The Last”, “Our Love Comes Back”

DON’T FEEL BAD IF YOU SKIP: “Voyeur”

SOUNDS LIKE: A wintry riverbed of water-eroded stones singing about the girl who walked upon them that one summer night in the shallows of the creek.

PERFECT FOR: Introspection. And sex. Probably good for sex. That’s just a theory, though.

IN A WORD: Poignant.

Listen to “Retrograde” on YouTube!

Listen to “Life Round Here” on YouTube!

And remember, you heard it here! Or maybe you didn’t, because gosh, this sounded way too similar to The Needle Drop’s review of this album. Oh well, you can’t win ’em all.

Review: Comedown Machine by The Strokes

The-Strokes-Comedown-Machine1

I’m just gonna get this out of the way right up front here, because it’s been banging around in my head for a good month and a half now & I’ve only just now managed to partially formulate an answer to the question:

Why does everyone hate the new Strokes album?

Correction: why does everyone hate the new Strokes album but me?

Scrolling through irate YouTube comments & browsing Disqus boards across the music critic community, I find that the consensus concerning the Strokes’ newly-minted fifth LP, Comedown Machine, appears to be “I hate this album because this band had an established signature sound that I came to love over the course of past albums Is This It? and Room On Fire because it was languid & unintrusive & easy on my lazy ears, and even though they long since ditched that sound in favor of more experimental paths, for some reason I’ve picked this album to hate on, rather than Angles, which was equally experimental and for the most part contained far inferior songwriting & much more forced sonic textures, except for of course ‘Machu Picchu’, which is my all-time favorite Strokes song ever, disregarding the fact that I only got into the Strokes three years ago because I wanted to boost my credibility with the resident nostalgic hipster crowd & wasn’t old enough to hear Is This It? when it first dropped.”

First of all, if you’re listening to a band expecting to only hear the “classic” sound cultivated on their first couple albums, then I don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. There’s a reason Radiohead became one of the most universally popular & acclaimed musical groups of our time, and I’m gonna go out on a limb here saying it definitely has something to do with them NOT sticking to the sound of their god-awful debut record.

Experimentation is the word of the day here. When Radiohead does it, it’s considered “bold”, “daring”, and “groundbreaking”. But when the Strokes do it, people just get pissed off.

Personally, I don’t think that’s fair to the band, or to casual listeners who might already be polarized by hearing how bad all the self-professed Strokes diehards think the new LP sucks. Which is part of the reason why, with no due respect to anyone ever, I am giving this record 5 out of 5 stars. Best New Music, buy this album, bang it in your car, screw Pitchfork.

Comedown Machine is a very nice album. Now let me tell you why.

One particularly oft-repeated claim of the naysayers is that this LP sounded “too much” like jaunty frontman Julian Casablancas’ solo work. And I will concede that about half the tracks do veer closer to his New Wave-inflected Phrazes For The Young than to any existing Strokes release. But I also find the sound to gel very nicely here, specifically in the spot-on, best-part-of-the-80s melodies that populate tracks like “Slow Animals”, and the ripcord-tight disco funk cementing opener “Tap Out”. For what it’s worth, I think “Tap Out” makes a strong case for Best Strokes Song Since The Last Time Most People Genuinely Cared About The Strokes Back In Late 2003. Nick Valensi and Albert Hammond, Jr. trade pricklingly precise guitar licks over the sexiest of 70s-tinged grooves, swashing an ample backdrop for Julian to lay down an absolute earworm of a multi-hook melody— “Decide my past, define my life / Don’t ask questions cause I don’t know why” —spitfire lyrics practically aimed point-blank at the slew of modern critics who have been none too kind to the band’s more recent releases.

To reiterate: how can you really hate this album? There’s not a point on this record that lags for more than a minute. Various sources have panned songs like “All The Time” and the title track as “soulless”, “lazy”, and “boring” (though I found “All The Time” absolutely rip-roaring, and “80s Comedown Machine” to be a deftly-engineered carousel of a track) as well as Julian’s uncharacteristic high-register vocals. Which I’ll admit can be, at times, a weakness of the album, faltering just near the end of “Slow Animals”. It’s true that even the consciously cool Casablancas is just another human performer. But for the love of god, when that falsetto works, it WORKS. (See: the soaring chorus of flamenco-inspired “One Way Trigger”. Or was it A-ha inspired? Who knows. Kids these days just love to compare things to other things.)

I know that Anthony Fantano of theneedledrop.com, a solo critic like myself whom I highly respect, wrote off the experimental stylings of the album as being “lazy” and kitchen-sink-ish, but with that opinion I’m again forced to disagree. As a whole, I found this album to be the band’s most cohesive & listenable since, well, since Room On Fire. There’s a veritable bongload of freaked-out genre cross-pollination at play here, from ragged punk on “50/50” to sleek 80s power-ballad on “Chances” to the rainy-day jazz-era closing croon “Call It Fate Call It Karma”. Yet in the hands of such virtuoso musicians, I never felt any of it as sounding forced or weak. And all is delivered in a sort of vintage, offhand production style, almost as an homage to that killer garage-pop sound that made the Strokes a “classic” band in the first place. Even the haters got an idiotic grin on their face during “Welcome To Japan” upon hearing Jules slip in the street-smart no-he-didn’t zinger, “What kind of asshole drives a Lotus?” In fact, in a roundabout way, taking all the band’s past work into account, Comedown Machine somehow sounds more like the Strokes, or a better, more versatile version of them, than ever before.

But then, I’m not saying everybody’s going to like it, either. Nor do I put enough stock in this review that I actually think anyone will read it or change the tide of the already tomato-rotten stink being raised over Comedown Machine. In the end, all that really matters is that some people didn’t like the new Strokes album, but more importantly, some people did. Not that the band would care anyway. After all, as Julian puts it, “I take my chances alone.”

Who knows? Maybe in retrospect, people will change their mind. For now, I personally believe that Comedown Machine was a damn good album, and I will defend it to the death.

Whatever the case — you heard it here!

5 out of 5 stars

RELEASED: March 26, 2013 on RCA (the band’s last in fulfilling their longtime contract with the label — wuh-oh??)

MUST-HEARS: “Tap Out”, “Chances”, “Tap Out”, “One Way Trigger”, “Tap Out”, “Partners In Crime”, “Tap Out”, “All The Time”, “Tap Out”, “Welcome To Japan”, “T

DON’T FEEL BAD IF YOU SKIP: “50/50″

SOUNDS LIKE: A band from the past took a time trip into the future to make their record. Wait, that’s exactly how Julian described Is This It when it first came out. Son of a

PERFECT FOR: Hot summer days & nights on the big-city pavement, or just sitting in your apartment sweating like Michael Vick in a PetSmart trying to finish this review in a room that conveniently has no air conditioning.

IN A WORD: Distilled.

Listen to “Tap Out” on YouTube!

Listen to “Chances” on YouTube!

Listen to “One Way Trigger” on YouTube!

And please, for god’s sake, listen to “Tap Out”, again, on YouTube!

Sorry (again) for the wait on this review. It’s summer, I’ve been alternately working full-time and slacking off in my free time, and I just haven’t been in the mood to write reviews for about a month. I promise, there WILL be more reviews coming this week. (Including: new Vampire Weekend & new Daft Punk!! Stay tuned!!)

Review: Beta Love by Ra Ra Riot

Beta Love by Ra Ra Riot

Well hey there, music world & all who inhabit it. Long time no see.

So I realize it’s been a long time since I last posted. Like, a LONG time. Like, if I had waited any longer I might have been rumored as a potential guest artist on Detox. You know, the old old new old new old new new old new album by Dr. Dre.

Not that I’d given this blog up for dead, because I hadn’t– it was always there in the back of my mind, sitting stagnant & scummed over by layers of Real Life Things. I meant to get back to it, honest. Just got sidetracked by stuff. Stuff like, uh, dropping out of college, wasting time building my personal brand on Twitter, and capping off an even better week-long SXSW adventure than last year’s. The important stuff, y’know? Totally understandable. (On a completely unrelated note: wow, I just realized how dumb of a word “stuff” is.)

Anyway, forget all that. As far as anyone else is concerned, I just took a much-needed extended hiatus.

But now I’m back, fresher-than-evah, and it’s time to review some music, baby.

Ra Ra Riot. Beta Love. New album.

The landscape of modern music is an enigma. So many sounds, so many ways to use them. You can build on a sound, dissect & deconstruct a sound, slant & spin off a sound, even innovate & create an entirely new sound altogether. The very core principle of music itself is expression, expansion, experimentation. Total freedom of creativity to create whatever sound you want to convey whatever you want. Yet somehow, the vast majority of bands today choose to sound exactly… the… same.

Mumford & Sons (sigh)

“AHAHAHAHA OH MY GOD DUDE CHECK IT OUT THAT’S TOTALLY US!!!!”

(sigh.)

But even in the formulaic, soulless wasteland of today’s music industry, there remain some faint glimmers of hope. And perhaps none shine brighter than the lovable New York baroque-pop quartet, Ra Ra Riot.

Culled from the same Northeast Megalopolis indie mother lode as cousin acts Vampire Weekend & Dirty Projectors, the group first made a name for themselves tearing up the club strip in their hometown stomping ground of Syracuse University. It wasn’t long before word spread of their infectious brand of string-infused indie pop. The classically-trained chops of violinist Rebecca Zeller & cellist Alexandra Lawn, the deft fretwork of guitarist Milo Bonacci & bassist Mathieu Santos, and the crystalline croon of vocalist Wes Miles joined forces in a sort of superpowered collective of musicianship & inner chemistry. Riding the momentum of a loyal word-of-mouth fanbase, with singable singles like “Boy” and “Can You Tell” to bolster their catalog, the band saw their star rise considerably as purveyors of a truly unique sound on a pedestal of its own. A side project cropped up: the electrosoul-minded Discovery, a collaboration between Miles & Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij that’s likely the most popular indie band you’d swear you heard of somewhere before. (Go ahead, look ’em up.)

Chart-topping blockbusters they were not, the foursome were nevertheless every bit as much catalysts in the budding hybrid-indie movement of the late 2000s. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that several subsequently-formed bands incorporated classical instrumentation into their work as a direct result of being influenced by Ra Ra Riot.

Alright, you say, I’m sold. Ra Ra Riot, cool band, uses cellos, good for them, just tell me where I can buy the new album so this guy’ll shut up already.

And with that, allow me to introduce the third & latest full-length effort in Ra Ra Riot’s discography, Beta Love. And with it, the question weighing on everyone’s mind within minutes of cuing it up on their car stereo disc drive:

Where the fuck’s the strings?

Good question, dear hypothetical readers. The simple answer would be: “almost nowhere”. That’s right, on this newest LP, the violin/cello duet work that had become an RRR trademark is, well, somewhat sparse. There are two reasons for this. First, the recent departure of founding member Lawn dealt a blow to the band’s core chemistry, and rather than seeking out a full-time replacement cellist, the band felt it in their best interest to leave the honored position vacant. This happened before, in 2007, following the mysterious drowning death of original drummer John Pike– the band has not included an official full-time drummer since, employing different session artists on each album while crediting “Ra Ra Riot” in name as having no drummer. Speaking of which, someone really needs to fix that faulty Wikipedia page.

The second reason is that Miles, the group’s frontman & de facto leader, wanted to move in a different direction, something far more akin to his work with Discovery than to any existing Ra Ra Riot album. Just a quick glance at the tracklisting will affirm that. “Dance With Me”, “Binary Mind”, “What I Do For U”– those read like titles from, well, a new Lady Gaga record. Not exactly catering to the dapper collegiate intellectuals who make up Ra Ra Riot’s key demographic. It’s a change in gene for sure.

The shift in sound here is a marked one, tangible even from the opening notes of the title track. Notes from a synth. Synths? Hell, five years ago Ra Ra Riot didn’t even USE synths. Now they dish out an album chock full of them. Oh, I get it, they’re a “chillwave” band now, gone the way of every indie artist & their mother these days. Sacrificing creative integrity just to fit in with the crowd? For shame. Hey, come to think of it, that sounds exactly like something a seedy major label executive gets paid to do. Danger, Will Robinson, danger!

Fortunately, that’s not the case. What Ra Ra Riot have produced here is a record firmly rooted in synthpop, yet seen from the band’s own characteristic slant. Beta Love uses electronica as its pivot point, but it’s by no means a typical electronica record.

The melodies are clean & natural, able to stand on their own two feet better than a lot of the Top 40 tripe on the airwaves today. Wes Miles’ pitch-perfect voice radiates with energy, boasting an impressive range that benefits from little invasive post-treatment. Having seen the band perform at SXSW, I can attest that he really can hit the notes live. He’s got a set of pipes talented enough to command the music with their clarity without overpowering the rest of the band. It’s wonderful. His lyrics, too, are simple goodness, mixing terse free imagery with radio-ready choruses & refrains. On Ra Ra Riot’s eponymous debut EP, Miles borrowed a page from minimalist poet E.E. Cummings’ book for “Dying Is Fine”. Now, it’s as if he’s brought Cummings to the club with him.

Beneath this driving duo of vocals & songwriting, the rest of the band skillfully creates a vibrant intuitive musical undertow. Santos holds it down through crisp flirty bass grooves, dropping out on the lighter tracks in lieu of producer Dennis Herring’s warm programming. Counterpoint to these, icy synths & electronic drums form a delicious tandem that feels almost like the Discovery follow-up we never got. Lead single “Dance With Me” steams with electrofunk heat, while downtempo cuts such as “Is It Too Much” and “When I Dream” are slow melts that thaw from wintry intros into blooming compositions flecked with cool sonic textures & understated orchestral accents. This is where you’ll find most of the “Ra Ra Riot-esque” strings missing from the rest of the album, packaged in lovely micro-arrangements on a select few tracks. On Beta Love, the violin & cello are used to add a backdrop of ambience and color to the song, lending a somewhat symphonic mentality to the music. Miles’ catchy melodies serve as the main focus here, functioning as the first violin, the soaring solo voice to this dancefloor concerto.

Even though the approach is decidedly different on this album, it manages to retain identifiable qualities from the band’s previous work. “Binary Mind” and “For Once” don’t necessarily sound “like Ra Ra Riot”, but it’s easy to pick up on traces of second LP The Orchard in these exuberant power-poppy tracks. Behind all the keyboards & processed rhythms is that same progressive baroque vibe, just viewed here through a filter lens of futuristic synthetica. Closer “I Shut Off” is the tangent, with uptempo acoustic drums underpinning warbling vocals, nostalgic strings, and a one-two-punch breakdown from first clean synth, then guitar. Even the most traditionalist fan will reluctantly admit that it’s a pretty damn good song. None of the band’s innocent magic is compromised here– merely augmented with the addition of electronic production.

Granted, there’s a couple tracks on the other end of the spectrum. “That Much” starts off as a safe, 80s-inspired indie-pop morsel before giving way to an offset, chopped-and-mangled guitar outro that sounds like something off the last Strokes album. (You know, the one nobody really “got”.) And on the quick interlude “What I Do For U”, the band drops any pretense of “indie” anything in favor of subwoofer-blowing, heart-pounding nightclub erotic-tronica. This one’s the black sheep on the album, sounding 100% like Discovery and 0% like early Ra Ra, yet it’s just so fucking GREAT that its pull proves hard to resist. Ironically, this is my personal favorite track– the one that happens to sound the least like Ra Ra Riot. What can I say? I like the new direction they’ve taken.

All in all, Beta Love is both a step forward & a step to the side. It’s both a Ra Ra Riot album and not a Ra Ra Riot album, depending on how you look at it. At first listen, many fans will be puzzled, divided, perhaps even alienated. But closer inspection reveals many of the band’s endearing qualities, simply served in a different package, as though being experienced in a parallel universe. People who dislike synthpop will have a harder time enjoying the album, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Hell, I’m tempted to give this thing 5 stars myself, as is probably anyone else who loved Wes’s Discovery material. It’s a very nicely-produced, nicely-arranged record from a group of incredibly talented musicians who aren’t “selling out” (to what, exactly?) or “dumbing down” for the mainstream crowd as other bands have done (we’re looking at you, fun.). If anything, Beta Love is just as lush & complex as any previous RRR release, and if the electronic influence marks a crossroads in the band’s stylistic journey, I would say they’re the better for it.

So what if there’s not as much cello?

4.5 out of 5 stars

4.5 out of 5 stars

RELEASED: January 22, 2013 on Barsuk Records

MUST-HEARS: “Dance With Me”, “Beta Love”, “Is It Too Much”, “For Once”, “What I Do For U”, “When I Dream”, “I Shut Off”

DON’T FEEL BAD IF YOU SKIP: “Wilderness”, “Angel, Please”

SOUNDS LIKE: Ra Ra Riot! No, Discovery! No, Ra Ra Riot! No, Discovery! No, Ra sdRa riOt dfIscoVERy ddsriotra bfxgjivy leaugae stynThpoop HIPshtrer DancE poST-elEctral ptirchFrork *asphyxiates*

PERFECT FOR: Going to the club, grinding on a hot college chick who may look unassuming with those wire-rimmed glasses but knows how to get CRAYYYYZZYYYY on the dancefloor. Uh, just kidding. Yeah, totally don’t do that. Wow. You animal.

IN A WORD: Intuitive.

You can find every track’s full audio on YouTube, but here’s four of my favorites to get you started:

Listen to “Beta Love” on YouTube!

Listen to “Is It Too Much” on YouTube!

Listen to “I Shut Off” on YouTube!

Listen to “What I Do For U” on YouTube!

Check out the album, and tell me what you think. Does my opinion totally suck? Let me know why. It’s been a while, so forgive me if the review’s a bit rusty. With luck, new posts & new music will soon follow. Hope you all enjoy this album as much as I did, as well as the review, but really, who cares what I have to say?

And remember– you heard it here!

Review: channel ORANGE by Frank Ocean

Gosh, it’s been so long since I wrote a bad album review that I almost forgot how to do it.

Well, you knew it had to happen SOMEtime, right?

Don’t get me wrong – Frank Ocean’s brand new debut channel ORANGE isn’t a BAD album, per se. It’s just that, given all the superlative-laced hype and hullabaloo leading up to its release date, coupled with the iconoclastic leaps and bounds being taken by Ocean’s R&B contemporaries, I expected much better.

Here’s the deal: when taken at face value as a straight-up showing of raw R&B vocal skill or beatcrafting prowess, this record isn’t too shabby. Ocean has his strengths, and laying down smooth, simmering cosmopolitan soul is undeniably one of them. But what he appears to be aiming for at times on this album – the avant-garde, the experimentation, the “art” – doesn’t really gel well. His voice is neither particularly jaw-dropping nor versatile, which means it requires a carefully-constructed foundation of fundamental musical substance to support it. He can’t just go traipsing off on bunny trails because his voice doesn’t have the range, the command of mood, or the stylistic adaptability necessary for such full-blown experimentation. He’s at his best and most compelling when he sticks to the clinical precision of the roots R&B he’s so perfectly suited for.

The problem is that Ocean approaches music with a traditionalist skill set but an antitraditionalist mindset. He’s the next Usher trying to be the next Weeknd. He’s more keen on tinkering with genre-pushing artistic style than building upon the tested strength of fundamental substance. And on the occasions when channel ORANGE brazenly attempts to subvert the substance for the style, Ocean just falls flat on his face.

The result is an album of highs and lows. At its peaks, channel ORANGE functions as a delectable musical offering, pairing Ocean’s smoky baritenor with tastefully poppy summer-afternoon grooves. Opener “Thinkin Bout You” is exactly the type of slow-burning track that should be Ocean’s forte, reinforcing his narcotic vocals with a soothing wash of synth, a slow-pulse beat, and just the right hint of orchestral strings. “Sweet Life” relies on a down-tempo funky rhythm section and sleek midtown brass to hold things down beautifully, in a sort of John Mayer-meets-Chicago-meets-R.Kelly type mashup. All critical ragging aside, I have to admit, when Frank Ocean is good, he’s pretty damn good.

But then we have the valleys. First, there’s all those pointless white-noise intros, outros and interludes sprinkled at random throughout the record. I’m not a fan of the interlude concept to begin with. I’d much rather see ten or eleven solid full-length songs than a subpar record padded by bloated instrumental-fests and thirty-second-long bursts of fridge buzz that add nothing whatsoever to the content of the album. I can only suppose that Ocean made the executive decision to include them on the album for a reason, but if so, his intent is beyond me. Almost none of them actually qualify as music, only serving to disrupt the overall flow of the record and leave bewildered listeners scratching their nappy-weaved and/or pomade-crusted heads.

However, the real shortcomings of channel ORANGE occur when Ocean brings the avant-garde-ness and the experimental trippiness into the songs themselves, namely the 10-minute-long excuse for a centerpiece, “Pyramids”, which almost singlehandedly buzzkilled the whole album for me. Sorry, Frank, but it takes a REALLY talented performer to keep an audience engaged through a double-wide track overstuffed with free-verse Egyptian verbal imagery, video-game synth blurbs, and blandly flat, abrasively nasal vocal runs. Hell, I don’t even think the Weeknd could have pulled THAT one off. I don’t know, maybe if the lyrics, you know, made sense, or the song, you know, had a real hook somewhere, or his voice, you know, spanned more than one octave for most of the song, then maybe, you know, the track wouldn’t, you know, suck. But honestly, the song has so many separate flaws and sounds so dismembered and disoriented, even within itself, it comes off as barely even passable. “Pyramids” stands out on the record as a Frankenstein monster of a track in all the wrong ways. It’s a perfect example of what happens when a promising talent like Ocean tries to overreach before their time is fully ripe.

Next to the fiasco that is “Pyramids”, most of the record’s other low points (mainly found during its second half) seem forgivable by comparison. But the recurrent theme on channel ORANGE remains that whenever Ocean tries to dip into the realm of mad-scientist production values, he never really hits the mark spot-on. It’s confusing, and occasionally even off-putting. We know he has it in him to buckle down and turn out some real R&B gems if he really wants to. Unfortunately, with the way he retroactively approaches the genre as a superficial means he hopes to justify through his experimental ends, he’s only trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

I’m not saying Frank Ocean needs to give up on pushing his limits entirely. On the contrary, I’m all for experimentation. I feel like right now I must sound like just some stuffy old, holier-than-thou conservative who’s afraid of change, but that’s not at all the idea I’m trying to get at here. What I mean is that there’s some artists – Beck, Radiohead, Kanye, Madonna, the Beatles – who have made their entire career out of experimentation and succeeded simply because they chose a path that opened up a wide variety of LOGICAL opportunities to expand from the central nucleus their initial musical roots. Then there’s other artists (most recently the Weeknd, DIIV, the xx, and ScHoolboy Q) who have struck gold with a very specific musical quality and have found ways to cultivate it into a meticulously-crafted, unique genre within a genre. Whereas the former involves branching out from a central sound and coloring it with many different new sounds, the latter is more of an atom-splitting affair that moves from the outside in, hand-picking the very best sonic qualities to fine-tune the central sound into something one of a kind. Right now, Ocean seems to have a penchant for the first type of experimentation. But he’s obviously got a knack for a single particular type of R&B, and by using the outside-in method, he might be able to better create the stand-alone subgenre he’s searching for.

Okay, that was pretty deep. Did you maybe understand about half of that last paragraph? No worries. I barely even knew how to word it when I typed it cause I wasn’t really sure how to convey the idea. Basically, what I’m saying is, Frank Ocean would do well to approach things in a different light, because as of right now, he’s got some good ideas, but he’s going about them in some not-so-good ways.

All right?

I have faith in Frank Ocean. I think he’s a great guy, and a talented performer. I feel like he may have vaulted a bit prematurely into that “savior of R&B” limelight partially by standing on the shoulders of giants, be it his home collective of Odd Future or his breakthrough collaborators Ye and Jay. But I don’t think he’s fully earned the mantle yet. Although channel ORANGE isn’t a particularly disappointing album, it’s definitely not the work of a figurehead of the genre. I don’t see it as the “epic opus” everyone seems to be worked up into such a tizzy about. Shakily ambiguous songwriting and skitterish production reduce it, for the most part, to merely a subpar showcase of underfulfilled overambition. One can’t deny there’s a lot of raw talent bottled up within, but it’s not being used to its full potential, or at least its true potential. All Ocean really needs to do here is settle down and find his niche. Once he hits that sweet spot, he’s got all the tools needed to be the next great R&B artist.

But for now, let’s just cool it with all the hyperboles. Give R&B’s critical darling some time to grow. Props to him for being bold enough to step out of his comfort zone so early on. Now he just has to learn how to do it the right way.

RATING: B-

RELEASED: July 10, 2012 on Def Jam

MUST-HEARS: “Thinkin Bout You”, “Sweet Life”, “Super Rich Kids”, “Lost”, “Bad Religion”

DON’T FEEL BAD IF YOU SKIP: “Pyramids”, “Monks”, “Pink Matter”, “Forrest Gump”, any of those goddamned interludes

SOUNDS LIKE: Usher trying to be the Weeknd trying to be Kanye West trying to be Thom Yorke trying to not be Thom Yorke, which is really really hard because Thom Yorke has this thing for pissing people off.

PERFECT FOR: Chilling poolside on a hot summer day (the good parts); coming down from a bad late-night high in a metropolitan loft (the not-so-good-parts)

IN A WORD: Overreaching.

Watch the video for “Thinkin Bout You” (then “Thinking About You”) on YouTube!

Listen to “Pyramids”…. or rather, don’t

And remember – you heard it here!

– retnuH

Review: Swing Lo Magellan by Dirty Projectors

David Longstreth has given up trying to challenge us.

Or maybe he’s just challenging us so much now we don’t even care anymore.

Whatever the case, on his Dirty Projectors’ latest release, Swing Lo Magellan, he’s managed to somehow harness all that skittering musical avant-garde-ness of his into perhaps the band’s most easily accessible album yet.

In the past, the Brooklyn modern minstrel’s work has ranged from an intentional Afropop misremembering of a Black Flag record to a chopped-and-screwed chamber orchestra samplefest and a glitch opera about a suicidal Don Henley. Yeah, nobody else really gets it either. Even on the band’s stellar 2009 breakout Bitte Orca, despite the quality of the music itself, one often had little to no clue what nonsensical subject matter Longstreth was singing about, although the album’s succulent blend of streamlined, West African-spritzed baroque rock gave us little room to complain.

But with Swing Lo Magellan, as Longstreth and crew take yet another new step in their ever-changing musical saga, for once it seems like they may have made more than just a lateral move.

In some ways, the new album doesn’t really measure up musically to the sheer completeness of Bitte Orca. While their trademark vocal harmonies still thrive, alive and well in a relatively sparse new musical landscape, the band appears to have largely abandoned the walls of sound and tastefully slick production values present during the Orca era for a stripped-back drywall of lower-key beats, handclaps, and large open spaces. At times, when the odd electric guitar foolery or crash-ba-bash drum kit crops up, such as on “Maybe That Was It”, it still sounds hollow and unpolished compared to the last record.

Hell, even the ARTWORK feels unpolished compared to the last record.

However, for the most part, this minimalist approach (which, according to Longstreth, was 100 percent intentional) helps the album as an album more than it hinders it, hacking back Bitte Orca‘s dense undergrowth of overwhelming artful motifs to give the lyrics and content room to breathe, allowing the SONGS themselves to move to the forefront. And that is exactly the point of Swing Lo Magellan. “It’s an album of songs,” Longstreth has said in multiple interviews (57 by his count), “an album of songwriting.”

According to Longstreth, the sound of the new album was inspired by his recent fascination with hip-hop beats and the simple folk music of artists like Neil Young and Blind Willie – “just how sparse that music is. Just this idea — the grain of it, the rawness of it and the simplicity of it. The directness of the language. Dirty Projectors has been moving toward that kind of sonic simplicity for a little while. I just find it’s thrilling when there’s nothing going on in the speakers.”

On Swing Lo Magellan, the simplicity speaks for itself. No longer does the band leave layman listeners head-scratching as to what’s a bitte orca, or what kind of pretentious indie shit is this, or what in earthly hell did that weird-voiced dude just say. (Even at one point during the album, one of the girls mutters in the background, “Um, that doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.”) Rather, their new style allows us to understand the complex emotions and ideas that Longstreth has been funneling into his intricate compositions for so long, but without the heady musical clutter the Projectors have hitherto been so fond of. It only takes one listen through “See What She Seeing” to realize that this is just Longstreth singing about his dream girl, in the subtlest of poetic terms; not about any pompous, grandiose theological mystery. See there? These songs aren’t structured like shapeshifting orchestral compositions or complicated Afro-freak jams; they’re structured like SONGS.

Example: that chilling lead single “Gun Has No Trigger”. Good God, what a single. This is probably the most straightforward, simple song the band has ever released, yet it stands as the centerpiece of the album for its stirring style and rousing delivery. Grooving over only a simple snare-kick-bass rhythm section – literally, that’s it, there’s nothing else in the song – Longstreth and his female cohorts, Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle, show off their finest vocal chops in simple jazzy 4/4 time. Slithering through a masterful chord progression that takes the listener on a journey upwards, much like the deliberate melodies of an old Christian hymn, Longstreth spouts reprimandory lyrics to an unknown subject (he’s said the song is about the impossibility of meaningful activism) with all the fiery soul of a Baptist preacher before spiraling out and parachuting back earthward in a glorious culmination, lofted by the girls’ soaring backing harmonies. MY GOD. SO SIMPLE. BUT SO POWERFUL.

Sorry, I got a little carried away there. Where was I?

Right, right, the simplicity of the album. It’s capital-S Songs like this one that differentiate this album from everything the band has ever produced in the past. It’s not that the band has given up challenging listeners. (OK, I know that I said that in the very first paragraph. I changed my mind. Sue me.) It’s just that they’re finally challenging listeners in the right ways. Challenging them to accept an album structured as a pop album but often delivered counterpoint to what we’ve come to view as the traditional pop paradigm. Challenging them to accept the band’s cheeky brand of avant-garde, percussionistic prep-prog when it’s finally dished out without all the complex time signature reduxes and too-deep lyrics, now injected with a healthy dosage of gamboling hip-hop groove, intravenous electronica, and sprightly guitar lines that refuse to be backhanded by any snooty and/or ignorant naysayers. (Well, except “Maybe That Was It”, where it just sounds like the band forgot they were supposed to be making a poppy album now and inexplicably reverted to their circa-2006 Dirty Projector selves for a single track. It’s pretty weird. Skip that track, please. Thank you.)

BUT ASIDE FROM THAT…

Swing Lo Magellan is hard to pin down to any single genre, but it does have one overarching theme to it, and that is “accessability”. Whether through the h0ney-sweet folksy chorus of “Impregnable Question” – “You’re my love, and I want you in my life” – or the jarring, yet perfectly-placed electric breakdown on opener “Offspring Are Blank”, the album takes us to that place to which past Projectors works attempted to transport us. But it does it not by entirely subverting the band’s style, but rather deftly interpolating it into the new straightforward structures which Longstreth has chosen to pursue. Into simple, straightforward, sensible, structured, sonofabitchtheseareSONGS.

“I just don’t want to do the same thing over and over again,” says Longstreth. “I do feel like the hardest thing is to do something simple and tap into whatever remains of our common language rather than cultivating your own willfully esoteric vocabulary… I’ve been obsessed with arrangement for a long time, and this one is not about that. It’s about the words and the language and the melodies.”

And lord, how he hit that nail on the head with this record.

“With our songs, we are outlaws; with our songs, we’re alone,” sings Longstreth on closer “Irresponsible Tune”. “But without songs, we’re lost, and life is pointless, harsh, and long.”

If anything, that’s what the band wants us to understand with this record. Instead of leaving us lost and wondering in a disorderly, confusing world, Swing Lo Magellan simply steers us in a new direction, to a safe haven of sorts, still sailing the course on the vessel of their one-of-a-kind sound.

Yet somehow, they still remain true to their original mission: to make the job of us music critics reviewing their work goddamn near impossible.

RATING: A-

RATING: A-

RELEASED: July 10, 2012 on Domino Records

MUST-HEARS: “Gun Has No Trigger”, “Offspring Are Blank”, “About To Die”, “Just From Chevron”, “Impregnable Question”, “Dance For You”, “The Socialites”, “See What She Seeing”

DON’T FEEL BAD IF YOU SKIP: “Maybe That Was It”, and possibly the title track, but probably not

SOUNDS LIKE: David Longstreth moved from his native Brooklyn, where all “those weird bands” seem to originate, to Manhattan, the hub of American civilization, to learn what actual MODERN AMERICAN culture sounds like and then make an album about it in his typical anti-American style. (Which is actually totally the opposite of what he really did, which was move to the wilderness of upstate New York and take an 11-month sabbatical in an isolated log cabin with bandmate and girlfriend Amber Coffman, where they probably just made out a lot and occasionally practiced a few vocal runs over his extensive Lil Wayne collection.)

PERFECT FOR: Introducing to your friends as, “Hey, look at this awesome new band I found, think you’ll really enjoy them, HA, JUST KIDDING, it’s the exact same band I showed you when they released their LAST album and you said that time that they sucked.” Then you will cackle maniacally and throw up a gloved fist to all the snobby critics who enjoy throwing around words like “pretentious” to describe such music.

Or not.

IN A WORD: Adaptative. (NOT selling out, it’s different, so wipe that smirk off your face, hipsters.)

Watch the Apple-inspired music video for “Gun Has No Trigger” HERE

and stream the whole album while reading a tasty Longstreth interview HERE

and HERE is a rather entertaining track-by-track review published by some Pulitzer-worthy newshound from San Francisco which you really owe it to yourself to read. It probably explains everything better than I did. But even if it does, remember, you heard it HERE.

– retnuH

Review: Oshin by DIIV

I wanted to write a killer first paragraph to introduce this album. I wanted to instantly plunge you deep into the otherworld of swirling color and form suggested by its music. I wanted to grab you by the ears and hold you under its surface of sounds until you drowned, never relinquishing my grip until you were fully submerged in its self-created world of beauty.

But I didn’t have to, because the album itself does exactly that.

DIIV’s just-released debut Oshin is its own universe, one that perfectly harnesses the endless expanses and resonant depths of the open ocean as a life source for their vast and vibrant soundscapes, compositions that send listeners far beneath the shallow waves of shoegazey surf-rock into an entirely new realm of mesmerizing siren song.

Hey, that was pretty good.

But seriously, people. This is an album that may just blow your freaking mind.

When I say “surf-rock”, don’t be fooled. So many bands in the recent revival of the genre seem to rigidly adhere to the tightened-down tininess of the original studio surf bands of the 60s, for whom “surf-rock” merely implied the fast-paced, reverb-spiked punky riffing characteristic of their eccentric culture.

What DIIV has done here is something new entirely. Production is blown wide open, with lavish washes of reverb flooding the speakers, creating a sense of space. Yet it’s a weighty space, pressing in on the listener’s ears, their whole subconscious, drowning them in music, absorbing every possible strain of sound into itself like a sponge. In the hands of DIIV, surf-rock is no longer a stripped-down, small-scale studio affair, but a grand statement of texture and emotion, one that invites you to lose yourself completely in an ocean of nothing, an ocean of sound swirling within the deepest places of your own mind. Post-rock guitars reimagine the genre’s jangly riffs into a deluge of oceanic vibes, the simple beats barely tethering you to the reality of dry land, frontman Zachary Cole Smith’s voice sounding as if it were being radioed in from a distant submarine miles below the waves.

When I first saw this band at South By Southwest, I had never heard of them before, not even aware that they were on the setlist for the day party I was attending at the venue that day. Back then, they were a fledgling four-piece spelled D-I-V-E instead of D-I-I-V, memorable for Smith’s oversized clothing and striking resemblance to Eminem almost as much as for their instantly enticing brand of trancey guitar pop. At the time, however, the sound of Oshin was barely present, at least not in a live setting, where a tiny room full of tinny speakers reduced it to just a slightly more ambient version of the tuneful surf stylings of Beach Fossils. (Which, as I later discovered, is totally understandable because Zachary Smith is actually FROM Beach Fossils. Go figure.)

Eminem, right?

But given the freedom and resources of a full studio setup, DIIV, Dive, whatever they’re called, have exceeded all expectations, taking these deceptively simple guitar motifs to a whole new level, fleshing them out into a scintillatingly full sound the band claims was inspired by Krautrock, Nirvana, and ethnic guitar music from Mali. None of which it really sounds like much, but okay.

If there’s any term for this album’s sound, it would probably be something along the lines of “dream-surf”, “surf-wave”, “surf-gaze”… “dream-wave”. What the band has given us in Oshin is the musical equivalent of a deep-sea dive, delving into the mysterious waters that lurk below the choppy waves of your dime-a-dozen surf pop. Bright guitars on songs like “Wait” and “Sometime” move like shafts of light streaming in from the dappled waves of the sunlight zone down to the ocean floor, with Smith’s distant whale-song pulsating in and out over a majestic hum of distortion. Breaks between tracks sound not so much as an ending or a beginning as they do a resurfacing for air, breaking back into the sunshine above sea level only momentarily before sucking in your breath again to make a new, even deeper descent.

That’s not to say this album is entirely a textural, art-for-the-sake-of-art affair. This album has SONGS. Although about half the songs on the album are instrumentals, their deft guitar lines and bass work, such as those found on “(Druun)” and “Air Conditioning”, will still stick in your head regardless. And when they DO have words, let me tell you, it’s going to be nearly impossible for you to purge the simple vocal hook from “How Long Have You Known?” from your head after just two or three listens.

I don’t want to sink to the level of fanboy banner-waving here, don’t get me wrong. Maybe this is one of the albums of the year. It’s really good. Maybe it’s not. It has a flaw or two. But in the end, this is a really solid album from an up-and-coming, hard-working indie group who deserves to be recognized for the musical atmosphere they’ve managed to create here. I find almost no faults with Oshin. The lack of real lyrics doesn’t detract much from the quality of the album as a whole, mainly because the music is so pervasively soothing that it doesn’t even need words to hold you under its spell. With this record, DIIV has succeeded in adding a completely new dimension to guitar-based pop music, giving it as much depth and volume as the ocean that is the album’s namesake. I’m excited to see what the future has in store for the band. Hopefully the follow-up sees them employing even more accessible songwriting to further expand their sound.

But in the meantime, it’s worth your time to put this record on, sit out in the sun by the water, and just simply chill out to the beautiful music the band has created.

Take the plunge.

And remember – you heard it here!

RATING: A

RELEASED: June 26, 2012 on Captured Tracks

MUST-HEARS: All of them, but if I had to pick, I’d probably say “How Long Have You Known?”, “(Druun)”, “Air Conditioning”, “Doused”, “Past Lives”, “Wait”, “Earthboy”, “(Druun, Pt. II)”, “Follow”, “Sometime”…. okay, FINE, all of them.

DON’T FEEL BAD IF YOU SKIP: Feel like I should put another joke here about why you would be stupid to skip ANY of the tracks on this album, but I figure you’re pretty tired of that by now, right?

SOUNDS LIKE: The shoegazey guitars of The War On Drugs and Real Estate meets the atmospheric chillness of Washed Out meets the sound of the ocean itself.

PERFECT FOR: Losing yourself. (In the MUsic, the MOment, you OWN it… sorry, I’m… still hung up on the Eminem lookalike thing.)

IN A WORD: Mesmerizing.

Stream the whole album on Stereogum!

Watch the music video for “How Long Have You Known?” on YouTube!

– retnuH

Review: The House That Jack Built by Jesca Hoop

 

It’s June 25th, which means that today marks the official release of the latest album from one of my all-time favorite artists, one who everyone in the world would be better off for knowing, who deserves a hallowed spot among the great female singer-songwriters of our time.

That’s right, I’m talking about Jesca Hoop.

OK, so maybe you’ve never heard of her before. In fact, it’s almost a guarantee that you haven’t. Unless of course you happen to follow me on Twitter, in which case you’re probably getting tired of my constant stream of fanboy spam related to the release of this album. (Sorry.)

And, really, I don’t blame you. The UK-via-Cali songstress is characteristically underground, even spending months completely off the grid and isolated from human life in the northern California wilderness to write her last album. Couple that with the fact that she’s had little to no marketing or P.R. work apart from the praises of personal friend and mentor Tom Waits (yeah, him) and Guy Garvey, and you have one of the most little-known unsung talents in the business. Even the most eclectic of record stores, sadly, don’t have either of her previous releases in stock.

But honestly, in formally introducing Jesca and her music to the general public, I find it most fitting to quote the famous Mr. T and say that if you’ve never heard Jesca Hoop before,

I pity the fool.

That’s really all there is to it. Jesca Hoop is a true need-to-know artist, and for the past five years, most of the world has been sorely missing out.

But with today’s release of her third LP, The House That Jack Built, she might just have made the breakthrough she so deserves.

In a sentence, this record is a beautiful compromise of an accomplished indie artist “going pop” without going to pieces. It’s both a departure and a new arrival. While still retaining the strange alien beauty of her first two albums, Hoop has managed to align it into accessible pop-minded structures that serve as the perfect introduction to her music for the newcomer’s ear.

On her stellar 2007 debut Kismet, Hoop created a tangled wildwood of musical textures, letting her enchanting voice run free over eclectic shapeshifting arrangements loosely pinned to the genre of “dream-folk”, whatever that is. It wasn’t exactly the kind of sound one could put a finger on. Really, it was more akin to Bjork than anything else, if only for the spellbinding and versatile vocals, free-range lyrics, and the overall fairy-tale vibe of the album. At times it even veered towards the realm of a potential fantasy film score.

2009’s Hunting My Dress found Jesca finding a niche of sorts, streamlining her musical approach somewhat to turn the fairy tale wood into a structured array of evergreen boughs, although the multilayered blanket of pine needles on the forest floor remained, preserving her musical roots beautifully without sacrificing any of her original magic. (I apologize for overdoing the tree-related imagery. It just really seems to fit. Here’s a lovely picture of a fairy-tale forest.)

See what I mean?

But even after this pair of incredible releases, Jesca Hoop’s music could still be defined as “challenging” and “complex” – which is pretty much an immediate deal-breaker for the casual iTunes-surfer. But on this latest effort, she has effectively sectioned off a portion of her private fantasy world as a public park, framing the wild beauty of her one-of-a-kind music for all to enjoy.

Does that make sense to anyone besides me? What I’m saying here is that Hoop has at last managed to span the gap between “art as music” and “music as art”. With The House That Jack Built, she finally settles comfortably into the role of the former, adopting a brand new approach that highlights the endearing qualities of her early work while taking it into a new, more listener-friendly direction.

All right, all right. I know you’ve heard that like 78 times already this year. “We’re taking our music into a new, more listener-friendly direction, la la la.” Everybody seems to be doing it. I can’t tell you how many bands I’ve already seen try (and usually fail) to bring their music to the big time by compromising the unique qualities that made their original fans like them in the first place. (Here’s looking at you, James Mercer.)

The difference here is that Jesca Hoop attempted the same, but met with, quite frankly, resounding success.

The album’s centerpiece “Hospital” is perhaps the most powerful example of this transition. Traces of Hoop’s prior records remain, in her deceptively innocent vocal delivery and arpeggiated acoustic fret-jumping, but these now flow smooth and sweetly over a simple, radio-ready beat spiked with electronica buzz, culminating in the catchiest chorus of her career, guaranteed to have you dancing around the house for a good two hours singing to yourself, “There’s nothing like a broken arm/To win your love”. Then there’s lead single and opener “Born To”, which compacts the ambience of a windswept English moor into four minutes of danceable folksy instrumentation, championed by Hoop’s lilting, earthy strains and accents of dark acoustic guitar and mandolin, but set to an addictive beat that breaks down in the middle eight to a spine-tingling chopped-n-screwed sample of Jesca’s trademark harmonized vocals – almost like a remix of her first two albums.

Songs like this are the new medium here, as Jesca now embraces the traditional pop song as a vessel for conveying her deep emotions and musical motifs, rather than sticking to art-folk arrangements that defy preconceptions as they do in her previous work. God, I feel like such a high-society snob saying that out loud.

But really, that’s what it boils down to. This album is geared toward simple structures and polished production – running more like a pop record than a singer-songwriter one. Yet even this does not put a damper on Jesca’s style, as she expertly rides the crest of this redefinition with all the glory of a war goddess plunging into battle. Just listen to the chilling “Peacemaker”, an erotic, goosebump-inducing track which feels like the obvious missing link between this album and the last. Here, Hoop’s commanding voice soars in the style of an ancient Celtic melody, evoking the otherworldy vibes of her debut. Now, however, it’s not carried by the wayfaring-soul guitars of Kismet, but instead swells over a cavernous beat and dark swirling synths, touching deftly on the borders of electro-folk and art rock. It’s a thing of singular beauty.

Even on the more stripped-down sections of the album, Jesca’s vocals remain completely captivating, begging your rapt attention as they shift with chameleon ease from soft and introspective on the title track to the haunting harmonies of “Dig This Record”, as she tells listeners to “dig this record out of the basement, out of the discard, onto the record player” – an imperative so enticing that anyone in their right mind would gladly obey. On “D.N.R.”, rural-summer guitars perfectly complement an intimate vocal showing as Hoop demonstrates masterful efficiency, delivering an enrapturing performance that doesn’t even need any embellishment to shine. Her knack for hitting all the right switches while always maintaining an element of wild-eyed wonder is what saves her music from going the way of so many dime-a-dozen solo artists.

All throughout, the album glitters with the fairy dust that breathed life into her previous albums, reimagining it as a new creation that is equal parts genre-pushing ingenuity and skillful structure. Think of it as the female counterpart to Bon Iver’s self-titled LP, a brilliant artistic recluse emerging from the depths of their private inner sanctum to walk among the inhabitants of the now-unfamiliar outside world. On The House That Jack Built, Hoop is sharing a lifetime of vastly complex musical treasures with the rest of us, yet at the same time making them understandable to us by adapting them to our limited human scope of all that music can possibly be. Whether she accomplishes this through the mere addition of a simple beat, or through a complete production overhaul, she consistently achieves her goal with all the deft artistry of Jesus telling parables.

Well, it might be going out on a limb to compare Jesca Hoop to Jesus. Even so, it’s safe to say that this new album will definitely make converts out of a few nonbelievers.

And once that happens, perhaps Jesca Hoop will finally earn the messianic following her music deserves.

So even if you’ve never heard of Jesca Hoop before, this record is definitely worth a spin. Odds are, you might just find yourself appropriately entranced.

And if so, remember – you heard it here!

RATING: A

RELEASED: June 25, 2012 on Bella Union

MUST-HEARS: “Born To”, “Peacemaker”, “Hospital”, “Dig This Record”, “D.N.R.”, “Deeper Devastation”

DON’T FEEL BAD IF YOU SKIP: Your lunch break at work so you have free time to listen to this album instead.

SOUNDS LIKE: Peter Jackson hired Bjork to record a personal playlist for when he goes hiking in the forests of New Zealand to scout for possible shooting sites for the next installment of Lord Of The Rings cinematography. Because he’s got that kind of money.

PERFECT FOR: Anyone who hasn’t discovered Jesca Hoop yet and for some reason just decided that now would be a good time to do so.

IN A WORD: Spellbinding.

Stream the whole album for free on Spinner!

– retnuH

Hidden Gems: Mount Wittenberg Orca by Dirty Projectors + Bjork

Well hey there. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Three weeks, to be exact. Bet you didn’t miss me. (The sad part is that’s probably true.)

Long story short, it’s summer, and I’m a slacker. Forgive me. I know you were just on the edge of your seat waiting for my newest review. Well, at long last, here it is, hot off the presses. So stop whining. Hey, at least it was just a one-month hiatus, not a whole year, as in the case of the record I’m about to review.

Mount Wittenberg Orca by the Dirty Projectors and Björk. What do those words mean to you?

In the case of the average American layman, the answer is more than likely, “Nothing, are they SUPPOSED to mean something?” Even for the enlightened few who do in fact know who both Björk and the Dirty Projectors are, the response probably follows the pattern, “Wait, they did a collaborative album together??”

Yes, dear readers, yes they did. You may not have heard one word about it, but it’s out there. And not only that, but this little-known conceptual EP from 2010, no worse for all its obscurity, may just be one of the seminal recordings of the 21st century.

Yeah, yeah, I know, that sounds like such a snooty, pretentious, highbrow art patron thing to say. Then again, those seem to be the adjectives that haters most enjoy throwing around when describing David Longstreth’s posse and their music: “snooty”, “highbrow”, “pretentious”. I’m just working with the image here, folks.

Honestly, I don’t think the band is any of these things. They’re just really, really good. Like, REALLY, REALLY good. Like, “they’ve created music that most of us could only dream of” good. Hate on them all you want because their breakout LP, Bitte Orca, earned a 9.2 and “Best New Music” rating from Pitchfork back in ’09. So what? Even a hipster clock is right twice a day. They aren’t critically acclaimed for being pretentious – they’re critically acclaimed because they make freaking incredible music. Their signature blend of rhythmic West African music, baroque pop, and brilliant vocal interplay does everything right that Vampire Weekend doesn’t, straddling the gap between East and West, transcending multiple levels of musical artistry to create a beautiful sound entirely their own.

But enough with the banner-waving. I could go on for pages about their mastery of rhythm and melody and what have you, but overwhelming odds are that you really wouldn’t give a @#$%. So let’s just talk about the EP in question, shall we?

Backstory: Mount Wittenberg Orca was written back in 2009 for the sole purpose of a one-time live collaboration in a small Manhattan bookstore between the band and Icelandic pop princess Björk. The two artists wanted to create a batch of songs tailor-made for them to perform together rather than just skitching on each other’s solo catalogs.

(Um, for the untrained reader, “skitching” is a skateboarding term referring to the action of hitching a ride by being pulled along by an unsuspecting motorist. It’s like totally gnarly and stuff. Dude, bro, here’s a picture.)

SKITCHINGGGGG

Anyway.

…rather than just skitching on each other’s solo catalogs. Seven songs quickly materialized, they rehearsed for a week, they played just the one show together, and then the Projectors promptly embarked on the year-long Bitte Orca world tour, leaving the new songs behind and forgotten.

It wasn’t until mid-2010 that the band finally returned home and decided to actually record the lost songs as an official collaborative record. They knocked out the whole EP in the space of just four days, with no overdubs or post-work whatsoever.

The result is nothing less than sheer beauty.

The first thing you should know about Mount Wittenberg Orca is that it’s not structured like your typical EP. Rather than just a cobbled-together collection of unrelated odds and ends, it functions as a singular progressive work of art, a pocket-sized suite. Not a rock opera by any account – in high contrast to the high-energy affairs of theatric rockers like Queen, MWO is a simple, stripped-down symphony. Each individual track comprises a new movement, unique in its own private soundscape, yet seamlessly transitioning to the following section. Because of this, there’s a feeling of order, of continuity and closure, about the record, one that m0st other EPs in existence would be hard pressed to replicate. It’s what makes this record far more than just another EP, just as the Projectors are far more than just another band.

It only helps that Mount Wittenberg Orca is chock-full of trademark Dirty Projectors musical virtuosity. Forget the arrangements and production – this band has such sheer artistic chops going for them already that it barely even matters. Already we’ve got four of the most talented vocalists in the indie rock world in the same band, and when you add Björk’s one-of-a-kind croon to the mix, things reach an entirely new level of amazing. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the bubbly intro to “When The World Comes To An End”. Those are not keyboard samples, those are live-performed vocals, sung really fast and really well, by real people, in real time. But it’s done with such technical skill that it sounds contrived, computerized. Not so with the Dirty Projectors. As in everything they do, this EP is the product of raw talent and constant dedication to their craft.

On a related note, the sound they’ve managed to create on this record is so vibrant and lush that virtually no percussion or guitars are necessary. Most of the songs are done with only vocals and a touch of bass. But Longstreth’s arrangements are so spot-on, perfectly highlighting the complementary vocals of Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle, that it feels like you’re listening to a fully-fleshed orchestral composition. Which is really what the EP is intended to be.

Actually, it’s intended to be a concerto about whales. Really. It’s about whales. Check the Wikipedia page. You can’t lie on there. Seriously though, it’s about a family of whales in the Pacific ocean, based on a real-life occurrence in which a solitary Coffman saw a pod of whales off the Northern California coast. Björk plays the mother whale, the three girls star as the whale children, and Longstreth as the human whale-watcher. Sister tracks “Beautiful Mother” and “Sharing Orb” especially play off this premise, featuring the ladies and Björk trading lines about playing in the waves and… sharing whale love or something. I find it helps to keep this in mind as you listen. The mental images I get from listening to this record are a trippy combination of Finding Nemo stills and that one part from Disney’s Fantasia 2000. You know… the part with the whales. Thinking of playful sea mammals frolicking in the deep blue sea sort of enhances the feeling of the music, doesn’t it? Yes, it does.

Honestly, I view this EP as one of those rare recordings that surpasses the realm of “music” to become an “overall sensual experience”. Listening to the haunting humpback-song of Coffman and company on opener “Ocean”, I feel chills run down my spine that don’t abet for the next 22 minutes, as David Longstreth and his crew take me through seven spellbinding movements of hallucinatory, genre-bending, baroque-tinged vocal pop, the likes of which the music world has never seen before.

THAT’S why I choose to count Mount Wittenberg Orca as a classic recording. Overshadowed by the breakout release of Bitte Orca and next month’s long-awaited Swing Lo Magellan, it’s definitely never going to be well-known, but it deserves to be. Perhaps with the release of the upcoming DP album, new listeners will delve into the band’s back catalog and unearth this truly hidden gem of an EP, one that so undisputably merits the praise of the music community.

Until then, much like the whale-watching expedition that inspired the music, Mount Wittenberg Orca will remain a thing of magic, myth, and mystery.

RATING: A. I’ve switched to a letter rating scale from now on. You’ll see why later. (Oooh, spooky.)

RELEASED: June 30, 2010 on Domino Records

MUST-HEARS: “Ocean”, “On And Ever Onward”, “When The World Comes To An End”, “Beautiful Mother”, “No Embrace”

DON’T FEEL BAD IF YOU SKIP: Okay, it’s only 22 minutes long, do you REALLY need to skip anything? Impatient bastard.

SOUNDS LIKE: Mozart’s Magic Flute meets harmonic afropop, and the mixing technician fell asleep at the sound board with his face on the drum mic switches and accidentally hit Mute on every single one of them.

PERFECT FOR: Taunting high-school fangirls for their lack of knowledge as to what constitutes really, really well-done music. Just kidding. Maybe.

Here’s where you can listen to my favorite track from the EP, “On And Ever Onward”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1OquMlYFtnE

And here’s where you can buy the album for your choice of 7, 25, 50, or 100 dollars, all of which will go to the National Geographic society to help protect the world’s oceans. How sweet.

You owe it to yourself to listen to this album. And when you do, remember – you heard it here!

– retnuH

Review: Cancer For Cure by El-P

Jaime Meline doesn’t give a fractional fract of a fuck.

Or at least that’s what he tells us on the opener to Cancer For Cure, his first new studio album in five years.

Easily the most famous 37-year-old white rapper in the world not named Marshall Mathers (and actually… probably the ONLY 37-year-old white rapper in the world not named Marshall Mathers), Meline, under his stage name El-P, attacks any and everything on this new record, one big anarchistic slew of musical ambition built from the ground up on the strength of street-ready beats and injected with just the right dosage of antidistestablishmentarianism attitude.

But something tells me he gives much more than a fract of a fuck, whatever that is. This album is the fruit of five years of untiring labor. He’s been lurking underground for the past half decade, but on Cancer For Cure, El-P roars back onto the scene in style, silencing all doubters and dispatching the looming question as to whether or not he’s “still got it”. Because yes, he really does.

What separates El-P from his contemporaries and competitors is his ability to both flow and produce symbiotically, seamlessly spiking his beats with the perfect shot of street to underscore his heavy-hitting snarl. It’s not the same as Eminem’s unadulterated misogyneverything rants – just breathlessly pointed verses delivered with a self-assured swagger that most white males his age can only dream of possessing.

Underneath, the beats stew in a subterranean lair of urban sewage evocative of the deepest, darkest inner-city haunts – stuff that would perfectly soundtrack those memorable nighttime skate runs from Tony Hawk’s Underground. (Remember those? You remember those.)

It’s the music that ties it all together, turning this from just another look-who’s-rapping-now record into an addictive poisoned apple of an album, laced with industrial-strength chemical beats dystopian enough in themselves that El-P could just have released this as an instrumental album and it might have been just as spot-on. It doesn’t even matter that he raps too fast for you to understand him half the time. When it’s set to backing tracks like these, you’re ready to rally behind whatever anti-movement battle cry he throws up.

House samples, handclaps and sub-bass synths ride a crashing crest of head-banging rhythms on club-igniting numbers like “True Story”. And “Sign Here”. And “The Full Retard”. And “The Jig Is Up”. And “Tougher Colder Killer”. Matter of fact, with every track I progress further into the record, I find myself relishing it even more. It’s the first album in a long time that had me grinning from ear to ear less than halfway through. I can really dig this here dark, post-apocalyptic underground rap thing. I’m assuming that’s what it is, right? Underground? I feel so swag for knowing that.

Please disregard the previous sentence.

What makes El-P’s latest so downright tantalizingly amazing is how perfectly the flow and the beats build off each other into a coherent whole. That’s what makes or breaks a great album – coherency. And on Cancer For Cure, that’s a quality of which Meline is by no means in short supply. Only two of the twelve tracks crack the 4-minute mark, allowing the album to run its course fairly shortly. But each one is such an explosive burst of musical saccharine that it keeps the driving force of the album going from start to finish, as each track spills over into the next in one super-chain of songs that never let up, never slow down, and never wear out.

In fact, this is one of those rare albums where quite honestly, EVERY track is a standout track. Which is both lame and cool at the same time. It’s “came”. No it’s not. I didn’t say that.

If, in theory, you threatened me at gunpoint to choose which three tracks I’d wish for if I were stranded on a desert island and found a magic lamp with a Magical Genie of Rap inside, I’d be hard pressed to make a decision. I guess I’d have to go with the speaker-slamming centerpiece “Oh Hail No”, which features well-casted cameos by upstart MCs Danny Brown and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire (whose vocals you will literally not be able to distinguish from Dr. Dre’s). I saw all three rappers live at SXSW this year. How far they’ve come.

My second wish would be for the raging “Stay Down”, a smoldering volcano of a track starring Nick Diamonds of Mr. Heavenly (otherwise known as That Band Who Michael Cera Tours With) and Islands fame.

My third wish would be for more wishes.

Oh, I can’t use my third wish to wish for more wishes? Fine, then I wish for an entire new El-P album.

And actually, I’m going to get that wish, because it turns out Meline is collaborating with Atlanta veteran Killer Mike on a soon-to-be-unveiled tandem project, R.A.P. Music. Which might turn out to be even better than this record. You know the saying: be careful what you wish for…

Seriously though, just listen to the blood-pumping intro to “Drones Over BKLYN” and you’ll probably feel the same way I do. El-P casts an unbreakable spell, holding you in a staid grip for all 49 minutes of runtime, daring you, just daring you to take those earbuds out. But you won’t be able to, because you’ll be too busy head-bobbing.

I feel like I need to stop loving albums this much. But as long as bands keep releasing efforts as comprehensively indulgent as Cancer For Cure, I guess I’m just going to have to keep awarding them five stars.

In the meantime, though – ya done good, El-P.

And remember – you heard it here!

RATING: 5 out of 5 stars (for some reason the pictures aren’t working right now. Whyyyyy are the pictures not working.)

Just… just visualize 5 lovely stars in the blank space above.

RELEASED: May 22, 2012 on Fat Possum (it’s their fault I keep giving albums five stars)

MUST-HEARS: Everything. Seriously, you won’t regret just putting the album on and letting it run from start to finish. Or would you rather use those 45 minutes to do your taxes? That’s right, no you wouldn’t.

DON’T FEEL BAD IF YOU SKIP: Is this a rhetorical question?

SOUNDS LIKE: The soundtrack to the trailer for one of those futuristic high-action sci-fi movies that somehow never seem to be rated yet.

PERFECT FOR: Inspirational go-getter swag so you can finally land that elusive rim-grind darkslide combo run in the warehouse level of Tony Hawk. Don’t ask me how I know that.

Also perfect for tagging stuff.

IN A WORD: Combustible.

Listen to “The Full Retard” on YouTube!

Listen to “Oh Hail No” on YouTube!

Listen to “Stay Down” on YouTube!

LISTEN TO THE WHOLE ALBUM, MAN!!

– retnuH