Well, this was way too long in coming, but I'm kind of happy it happened. Also, the horizon line on the album cover somehow synced up with my couch and it's unnerving as all hell, I can't not see it... Anyway, more indie rock next, stay tuned!
I tend to talk a lot about artistic progression in these reviews, how artists choose to evolve or mature their sound over time, placing everything in context. But here's the unfortunate other side of all of this: sometimes an act might grow or mature or evolve in a particular way that might be good for the band, but not always to my tastes as a critic. And I can't tell you how unbelievably frustrating that is, especially if you can tell the level of quality remains the same - but it happens. Sometimes it just doesn't catch your ear in the same way, it doesn't resonate on the same level. So take Cloud Nothings for instance. Like most people, I really loved their 2012 Steve Albini-produced album Attack On Memory for its bite and smart hooks and well-defined writing. And yet when they released the follow-up two years later... see, it wasn't that the album was bad, but it didn't have the same edge. Part of which I will blame on a change in producers to John Congleton, but the hooks just weren't as sticky to me, it just didn't feel as sharp, partially because of the loss of their main guitarist and partially because the production seemed to muddy the band's strengths by pushing into fuzzier territory. It just didn't feel as immediate or gripping, and when word was coming down the pipe that this new project Life Without Sound was going to be both a little cleaner - courtesy of producer John Goodmanson, known for his work with Sleater-Kinney and Deathcab For Cutie - a little brighter, a little more relaxed... well, I had concerns. But hey, did Cloud Nothings surpass my expectations?
So let's talk about music distribution. Now to pretext this I don't have a background when it comes to the licensing and publishing of music, so if there's additional legal bulwarks that come up when a record is to be released internationally, please let me know - but that being said, in the internet age, there should be no good reason why any music shouldn't be available worldwide from the drop. Now when it comes to marketing, I can see it making a certain amount of sense if you're looking to stagger your sales push, but when I start doing research and I discover that the record wasn't even released digitally outside of the home country, it seems like a blown opportunity. So when I discovered that Zara Larsson's actually had a debut album released in her native Sweden in 2014, I had to reach out to my secret European contacts in order to somehow snag a copy. And the more I listened to it, the more I was utterly confused why this was never released - because as a pop debut, it's pretty great. I've tended in the past to place Zara Larsson in the same category as the pop upstarts launched in the wave of Lorde, but a more apt comparison, especially on that first release, might actually be Ariana Grande, because Larsson can hit those whistle notes too and she arguably had more consistent and interesting production that Ariana had on her first two releases. I wouldn't say the writing was spectacular or that Zara Larsson was more expressive than Ariana - she could tend to be a little more curt and aggressive, which narrowed her range but she could thankfully back it up - but it was a tight little project that unfortunately lags in the final third.
And then came 'Never Forget You' and 'Lush Life' and I was onboard with Zara Larsson... yeah, 'Ain't My Fault' wasn't particularly great, but her production team had good instincts and she had writing credits on over half the album, I had hopes that in terms of pure pop music So Good would connect - was I right?
So this happened... I'm not exactly complaining I covered this, but it is the sort of project where it really should be so much more interesting than it is, especially given all the styles and sounds it's touching. Eh, whatever. Anyway, first I've got Billboard BREAKDOWN dropping in a few minutes, and then Zara Larsson, so stay tuned!
So I was hoping this week was going to be where things started to get back to normal. Of course it wasn't all going to get there - Nicki Minaj is working on rolling out her newest record while beefing with Remy Ma, and as such we got the results of that showing up, but otherwise it looks like we have a breather - at least until Drake swamps the chart next week, but we'll get to that.
I've not been looking forward to this project, if you can't tell. And I've had a bad feeling about this for months now. Forget the lead-off singles, all of which have been mediocre at best and awful at worst. Forget the fact that Drake's been seeing increasingly limited critical returns on his projects, even despite somehow being more popular than ever - somehow, he seems to be getting worse. Forget that just like Views, this project is eighty-one minutes - that's right folks, over an hour of Drake, and given that I was extremely skeptical that he'd be telling any stories or crafting any sort of narrative, that was a problem. No, what gave me the real sinking feeling was the branding of this: not as an album, not as a mixtape, but as a playlist. And of course music "journalists" got their knees to take the hot load and gush about how Drake was 'revolutionizing music distribution'... that of course he was still selling for 10.99 on iTunes. Now I'm not going to deny there is a certain craft in putting together a good playlist in reading the flow of the audience and the room and controlling transitions and so forth. But if this album is all new songs, with the only real distinctive factor being Drake rolling it out on streaming platforms before physical copies are available, it screams of being a really cheap way to avoid calling it, you know, an album - if anything, it makes him look like he's running from critics who have been steadily charting his decline. Just because Drake tried to change the nomenclature and prioritized one form of distribution doesn't mean this is anything new - if anything, it perpetuates the utterly asinine trend that 'playlist makers' will be the new drivers of taste, when in reality it's the same format that mainstream radio DJs used to do before they were forced by delusional executives to play the same list of tracks every time. But for some ungodly reason you people wanted this. You wanted to hear me talk about Drake, even though this'll likely wind up overloading another episode of Billboard BREAKDOWN and I'll be forced to talk about this all over again. So what did Drake deliver on his newest album?
So a couple months back there was a thinkpiece published that tried to equate alternative genres with the alt-right in American politics, and it was stupid - amazingly so, there was a very good reason why Anthony Fantano did a Stinkpiece episode on it. Now I already ranted about this on Twitter, but for speculation's sake, let's try to get to a point that the author completely missed. Let's put aside how it completely ignored the much more diverse scene that is punk, or how it seemed completely ignorant of the strident political leanings that ran through alternative rock and country, and not just in the 90s but now as well, or how the piece seemed distinctly out of its own depth and uncomfortable even broaching the idea of alternative or conscious hip-hop. No, let's talk about indie rock and raise the question: is this genre and the market that it primarily targets predominantly white? Well, given that we all live in the internet age and listen to everything and it's far from the only genre where you could ask that question, you might have a shot at making that argument... presuming of course you ignore Bloc Party, TV On The Radio, and a host of smaller acts with black members that have existed over the past thirty-five years and never really got the attention of critics or the mainstream public. There might be an uncomfortable truth there: that the majority of rock critics, who on aggregate were middle class white guys, tended to favor and promote music that spoke to their worldview - as much as I might like them, I'm not ignorant to why The War On Drugs, The National, and Real Estate are popular in the indie rock scene. But it seems like slowly - often agonizingly so - that both the population of critics and preferred tastes are starting to diversify and we're seeing more acts in indie rock outside of the hipster type get critical appraisal - almost to the point where it can ring as a little patronizing and tokenizing to even bring this up, so even despite this intro I'm going to try to avoid it. And into the scene comes Vagabon, who has attracted a lot of attention for its frontwoman, multi-instrumentalist and producer Laetita Tamko. Growing up in Cameroon before moving to New York, she found a scene that cultivated her eclectic style and gave her a platform for thought-provoking lyrics that certainly attracted my interest. Hell, given how stale some indie rock can feel, I'd definitely appreciate a fresh perspective, so what did we get with this debut Infinite Worlds?
I'm not sure how many people this review pleased, but I'm happy I finally got a chance to dig in deep here... and considering how badly I wanted this to work, it's a little heartbreaking. Anyway, Vagabon is next, stay tuned!
I knew it was only going to be a matter of time before I contended with this subgenre of hip-hop. And while I'm not going to say I was avoiding it, I will say I was hesitant to approach, mostly because I wasn't really sure what to expect and I knew immediately that those more familiar with the genre were going to inundate me with more suggestions the second I stepped in than I would know what to do with. Yep, folks, let's talk about grime, the UK-based brand of hip-hop partially derived of a combination of UK garage, jungle, breakbeats, and elements of dancehall - a mutation more than specific subgenre, also pulling on elements of rough-edged gangsta rap in its aggression and depictions of urban decay. Now I've recognized grime names for a while - Dizzie Rascal, Skepta and Wiley spring to mind the most - but I hadn't really heard a lot of crossover until I started tracking the UK Official Charts a couple years ago. And given that hints of tropical rhythms starting landing in North America across last year, it was only a matter of time before some acts began importing their sound overseas, or at least picking up consistent traction in the mainstream in the UK. And one of the names that I've seen peppering the UK charts was Stormzy, who was looking to blend in more R&B sounds with grime's typical brand of aggression for the obvious mainstream crossover. And thus far he's gotten significant traction - hell, put aside the tide of people wanting me to cover this on Patreon, he broke into the top ten in the UK with 'Shut Up' and his remix of Ed Sheeran's 'Shape Of You' is doing particularly well. So okay, for someone looking for a beginner's step into this genre like the majority of people on this side of the ocean, I had to hope Gang Signs & Prayer might be a good introduction, right?
So I've said in the past that there are a few hip-hop indie labels where it's always a good idea to keep an eye on new releases. Top Dawg Entertainment is one, Strange Famous is another, and while it's a lot smaller and pretty much just for the collective I still dig Doomtree Records. Hell, I'll take Rhymesayers and Stones Throw in a pinch too - but the label I want to talk about here is Mello Music Group. If you know the name it's probably most for Oddisee or Open Mike Eagle, but all sorts of progressive, forward-thinking rap artists have worked with them in the past, and I've been generally pretty impressed. Now one of the names there that drew some curiosity from me was Quelle Chris, a Detroit rapper and producer who is known to work with Roc Marciano for some harsher yet still thought-provoking and witty hip-hop. Now I'm normally a bit cautious when I dig into rappers affiliated with Roc Marciano, especially if they mimic his delivery - that sort of slow, deliberate delivery can have mixed results for me - but Quelle Chris thankfully was able to switch things up with more intricate and interesting samples - hell, his instrumental project Lullabies For the Broken Brain definitely deserves more attention, I really love some of the sample blends there - and a great sense of relaxed cool humor, most of which seemed to be used to obscure greater existential panics. And while I wasn't exactly wild about his more melancholic tones on Innocent Country, after his newest record began picking up some considerable critical acclaim, I figured I'd dig in, especially given that hip-hop feels like it's been off to a really slow start in 2017. So what did we get with Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often?
So, might as well review the album all over again, apparently... by the Nine Hells, this was an absurd episode, but overall it's been well-received, so who the hell knows. Next up, though, something equally as weird, but much better - stay tuned!
So last week I made a very optimistic prediction that Lorde would challenge Ed Sheeran last week, that she'd keep the airplay momentum and huge sales to seriously step up against 'Shape Of You' with 'Green Light'. In retrospect, someone probably should have smacked me with the big stick of reality, because I was wrong in spectacular fashion. The truth is that nothing could stand against Ed Sheeran this week - Divide massacred everything in its path, which meant that of our ten new arrivals, every single one of them are from Ed Sheeran... which is a bit ironic, considering that in critical circles he's sliding rapidly towards the backlash zone.
I'm surprised I haven't gotten a ton more blowback against this review... but then again, it hasn't gotten a huge number of hits, maybe people are still digesting it instead of being little bitches on another review (sigh...). Anyway, Billboard BREAKDOWN and probably Quelle Chris next, so stay tuned!
So I'll admit I was pretty slow to the punch to cover Laura Marling's last album Short Movie in 2015. There was a lengthy back catalog to listen through and decode - mostly because Marling's exploration of themes and ideas reflected wisdom and nuance beyond her years - and despite being transitional and what I'd argue is a slightly lesser entry in her discography, there was still a lot to discuss and untangle. But again, it was transitional in every sense of the word - not only did it feel like a stylistic shift away from her acoustic sound to add more electric distortion, albeit feeling a bit listless, thematically it was tracing different directions too. This was a record that was partially inspired by her move to Los Angeles, and the mingled desires for companionship and lonely purity that ran through it. All of this led to an album I liked but didn't love, and while there are a few standouts that I do revisit to this day, it's not really a record that I return to very often. And believe it or not, while most critics were a bit warmer on it than I was, they tended to fall into similar opinions, that it was a bit of a lesser entry in her discography compared to I Speak Because I Can or Once I Was An Eagle. Not so this time around - in fact, the critical acclaim that Marling has received for her exploration of definitions of femininity has been considerable... not that I'm entirely surprised here. Marling has been a critical darling for some time - deservedly so, I should add - but there is also a pretty significant subset of well-meaning critics that'll throw praise for the exploration of specific themes without really touching on whether they're done well. Now again, it's Laura Marling, she's got the sort of insight and tact that can lead to brilliant writing, and especially coming after Short Movie, I was curious how she was going to evolve her sound. So what do we get with Semper Femina?
Well, this is getting a rougher response than I was otherwise expecting... eh, it happens. Again, a good return to form, but it should have been better. But that's not the only record I'm reviewing tonight... stay tuned!