Macklemore – Gemini

Image result for macklemore geminiSeattle rapper Macklemore’s third studio album and first without producer Ryan Lewis sees him largely abandon the maudlin and misguided political exploits that colored his 2015 effort This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, falling instead into a cycle of trend-hopping that is so specific I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t wind up with a few lawsuits on his hands. Macklemore’s brand of bombastic, stadium-sized rap tracks still has its fair share of thrilling moments, as he demonstrates how capable and technically skilled of a rapper he is at points on Gemini, but far too often the project falls into lyrical oblivion and painful unoriginality. The Heist seems like a distant memory.

The album actually opens in promising fashion, as Macklemore recruits “Downtown” collaborator Eric Nally for a pump-up anthem on “Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight”. No matter how often Macklemore uses one of these bouncy piano beats with a trademark horn section, he can carry a track with his charisma when he wants to. The added funk bassline, stadium-sized chorus and self-confident lyrics make it a track to throw on for any occasion.

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Macklemore’s reliance on slower, introspective tracks is pretty disappointing given how great of a technical rapper he actually is. Remember “Jimmy Iovine”? He demonstrates some quite impressive speedy flows briefly on “Willy Wonka”, but he combines it with some legitimate star power on goofy dance track “Levitate”.

Gemini feels like parody much too often, either of another artist or of himself. Macklemore is seemingly completely unable to latch onto any particular thing that makes him special as an artist in any way, as the project boasts a featured artist on every single song but one and nary an original idea. Macklemore has clearly been studying the rap charts recently, as you can easily match about half of the tracks here to a better executed rap hit counterpart.

“Marmalade” has not only the exact same piano chord progression as D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli”, but THE SAME FEATURE ARTIST in Lil Yachty. You could probably tell from the title, but “How To Play The Flute” sounds like a bootleg “Mask Off” made by a YouTube DJ. “Corner Store” recruits fellow Seattle rapper Dave B, who does his best Chance the Rapper impression as the Social Experiment-emulating horns blare, while “Willy Wonka” sees Macklemore try his hand at Migos’ trademark style of trap with Offset, awkwardly yelling his own ad-libs after every line in the way only the Migos can.

Lead single “Glorious” feels like an outsider checking all the boxes of a typical Macklemore song but not putting as much effort into it. The incredibly general “inspirational” lyrical content, stadium chant backing vocals and piano beat just bring to mind a watered-down “Can’t Hold Us”. Macklemore attempting to blend into the modern rap scene and aping what everyone else is doing is such an antithesis to the sound he presented on The Heist, which blew up because there was nothing like it at the time. When he tries to put a Travis Scott-style effect on his voice on a track like “Ten Million”, it just doesn’t fit him at all.

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Macklemore’s lyrics on this project are frankly embarrassing and almost make me wish he tried to say something of consequence again. Tracks like “Marmalade” make me wonder what kind of a mindstate he was in when he wrote these bars down. A couplet sees his criticizing Tinder users before immediately admitting he’d use it too if he were single, and bellows “Watching Toy Story 3, that’s a great f*ckin moooovie” with absolutely no context.

“Intentions” is easily one of the worst tracks of the year, as Macklemore offers some sleepy rhymes over a repetitive acoustic guitar loop while doing what he does best – whining about his first world problems. Oh no everyone, Macklemore wants to read a book but all he can do is watch TV. “I wanna be a feminist, but I’m still watching porno” is a real line on a recorded album this year. But it’s fine, as the chorus repeatedly asserts, Macklemore is “Okay with who [he] is today”. His striving to be relatable continues on Kesha collaboration “Good Old Days”, which sounds exactly how you think it does as the two play on the ever-popular theme of nostalgia without actually saying anything of interest.

Macklemore opens misguided rock venture “Firebreather” by saying “Got a Guns N Roses T-shirt, and never listened to the band. Just being honest, I just thought that sh*t looked cool”. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Macklemore tries on everybody else’s style like an outfit to discard later on Gemini. I wish he went back to the thrift shop.

Favourite Tracks: Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight, Levitate, Corner Store

Least Favourite Track: Intentions

Score: 3/10

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Rostam – Half-Light

Image result for rostam half lightAll-star producer and former Vampire Weekend guitarist Rostam Batmanglij’s debut album Half-Light sees him venture closer to the melodic art-rock of his past than his more recent pop exploits, making the kind of off-kilter and unique artistic statement that we only could have expected from him. After contributing to recent masterpieces from Frank Ocean, Solange and Carly Rae Jepsen, Rostam’s spacey, low-key tracks here come from a much different world.

Rostam imbues many of these tracks with a Middle Eastern flair associated with his Iranian heritage, but there isn’t much else going for it in the way of cohesion – Rostam even included some loose tracks dating all the way back to 2011 on this project. I appreciate being able to observe the many strange places Rostam’s mind goes when completely unhinged, but his less than stellar singing voice and overly indulgent and sluggish tracks make Half-Light an underwhelming experience.

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Some of Rostam’s best ideas come when he taps into the orchestral and classical influences that colored his work with Vampire Weekend. On more than one occasion, the instrumental made me think that he was sampling a well-known symphony, as it sounded so familiar. Opening track “Sumer” is the only one that actually does, as he sings over a joyful choral piece from the 13th century.

Half-Light is at its best when it is more upbeat, the album frontloaded with some of the only jolts of excitement here. There is an anthemic quality to Rostam’s best production work: “Warm Blood”, “Ivy”, “Little of Your Love”. The chorus of “Sumer” and the buzzing, synth-infused “Bike Dream” definitely fit the bill.

“Bike Dream” especially makes me wonder why so many of the other tracks here aren’t as melodically competent, content to settle for minimalistic repetition and sparse, isolated vocals. Title track “Half-Light” is another standout, as Rostam reaches into his falsetto over some pleasant acoustic chords and a persistent, wandering synth lead that accentuates his yearning vocals well.

The main problem Half-Light suffers from is Rostam throwing so many insane ideas at the wall at the same time and expecting them to stick. It often makes for some strange musical mismatches, such as on “Thatch Snow”, where the first two thirds consist of Rostam’s ambling vocals failing to keep up with the bouncy and joyful string part in the background – before exploding into a breakbeat on top of all of this.

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Rostam’s musical knowledge is incredibly vast – he said he was trying to emulate “Appalachian choral music” on that one – but pulling from so many diverse worlds at the same time just collides together awkwardly. “Hold You” begins with 30 seconds of Auto-Tune and trap hi-hats, before Dirty Projectors’ Angel Deradoorian cuts the beat and comes in with some angelic choral harmonies. It gets laughable when he tries to combine the two later on.

Quite a few of these tracks, especially nearing the album’s end, have a promising start before an abrupt shift occurs halfway through and sends it careening off the rails. “When” begins with an inviting Middle Eastern drum pattern before devolving into a minute and a half of spoken word conversation, distorted painfully past the point of comprehension. “Rudy” begins with one of the catchiest melodies here as the openly gay Rostam sings of a young boy coming to terms with his sexuality before a chaotic and off-key saxophone solo storms in and Rostam starts screaming.

I can’t help but think that he should stay behind the boards as well. While he does have some nice sections of falsetto, his lower range is less focused, often modulating around when holding a longer note and even breathing in strange places in the middle of a phrase. Some of these tracks have interesting instrumentals that might have been carried by someone with more of a vocal presence.

Ultimately, knowing when kinds of joy Rostam’s music has given me in the past, it is quite disappointing hearing his long, drawn-out tracks that ultimately go nowhere here like “Don’t Let It Get To You”, a very repetitive track that extends past 5 minutes and serves as the centerpiece of the album. You can tell the wheels were turning here, but Half-Light needs a gallon of extra polish.

Favourite Tracks: Half-Light, Bike Dream, Sumer

Least Favourite Track: When

Score: 4/10

 

Galantis – The Aviary

Image result for galantis the aviaryElectronic duo Galantis, formed by the union of prominent Swedish pop producers Bloodshy and Style of Eye, have broken through to the mainstream with the release of dancefloor-conquering single “No Money”. A year and a half later, the track appears on the duo’s second studio album, alongside some more sugary, high-octane dance tracks.

The Aviary is built like a standard pop album – scores of writers, repetitive, catchy hooks and the like, but is all infused with Galantis’ trademark vocal manipulation and glitchy, chiptune-emulating drops. For the most part, the album straddles a fine line between cheesiness and euphoria, more often than not falling into the former camp. These are guys who have worked with everyone from Charli XCX to Madonna, and know more than a few tricks to hook listeners into a dumb pop song. On quite a few occasions, however, the duo’s gimmicks just wind up being obnoxious.

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It’s strange – every time one of these songs started, my mind quickly snapped to a position of skepticism as they repeated the same tried and true tactics. This position didn’t change very often, but eventually, a few of them gradually began to win me over. With every party-ready drop and shouted background “hey!”, Galantis are asking you to join them on the dance floor. Galantis at their best is a overwhelming surge of joy stemming from those catchy synth melodies and pounding bass.

At times, the pitch shifting of the vocals makes it tough to identify even the singer’s gender, and while certain effects can get very annoying quickly, I have to say that the intentional namelessness here helped to bring me into the sense of a universal dance party. Tracks like “Tell Me You Love Me” and “Love On Me” take the rare step further, adding a welcome extra dimension to these tracks that pushes them over the edge.

The former slides the listener nicely into a chorus that builds up with some ascending horns and harmonies that sound like they’re straight from a gospel choir. The vocals are soulful and pleading despite their modulation, and as every little guitar riff or synth swell is added, it just widens my smile.

“Love On Me” got me with the steel drums, and then got me even harder with the surprise of keeping that infectious chorus going overtop of the dance drop. I can only imagine what my reaction in the club would have been. “Salvage (Up All Night)” even shows some variation in their dance drops, interestingly basing it around a chopped vocal and switching up the rhythm halfway through. For a band trying to be so fun, you’d think they’d try more fun tricks like this.

Far too many of these tracks feel like a copy and pasted checklist of your standard dance-pop song, sometimes applied without any attention to detail and creating awkward mishmashes like “Girls On Boys”. I expected more from a ROZES feature – she made even The Chainsmokers good – but when the song unexpectedly morphs from a softer-toned ballad with chords that accentuate her voice nicely to an all-out techno attack that comes in a measure too late and repeats an annoying higher-pitched synth melody, it just seems like the duo is relying in their audience to respond to a gimmicky dance breakdown regardless of what it is.

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This sloppiness pops up again on “Hello”, where the vocals seem like a total afterthought over a few piano chords that I’m certain I heard on another track here. They never quite click together rhythmically, as the duo compensates for this by cutting the whole track with a quick swooshing noise and another formulaic dance drop. Galantis’ formula is undoubtedly an effective one on the dance floor, but these tracks sound laughably similar when placed next to each other.

Galantis also don’t seem to understand how much an extended gimmick can bring down one of their songs, but hey – these are the ones that are selling. The vocals are pitched up WAY too high on singles “Hunter” and “No Money”, and getting through these choruses verges on excruciating. “Hunter” especially is one of their most low-key tracks, giving more than enough spotlight to that chorus repeating on and on like a mosquito buzzing in my ear.

I probably shouldn’t be expecting lyricism from a duo that relies so heavily on huge dance breaks, but you can’t help but notice them when they try to calm things down and go for an introspective angle. Wrabel taps right into that well of “aw, shucks” on – somehow – the 2nd track with the terrible title “Written In The Scars” I’ve heard in the past couple weeks (Thanks, The Script).

Ultimately, my feelings on The Aviary are very mixed. The duo display infuriatingly small glimpses into their huge potential. Their “fun” formula is making them very successful at the moment, but that priceless jolt of surprise when they try something different is so much more fun.

Favourite Tracks: Love On Me, Tell Me You Love Me, Salvage (Up All Night), True Feeling

Least Favourite Track: Girls On Boys

Score: 5/10

ODESZA – A Moment Apart

Image result for odesza a moment apartSeattle electronic duo ODESZA’s third studio album comes after some high-profile remixes and extensive touring bringing them some more widespread appeal. Riding the rising tide of softer-toned electronic sounds subbed as chillwave, their latest project A Moment Apart expands upon the sound over the course of its hour-long runtime.

When breaking out of their typical formula and putting in some higher-octane tracks, or reaching across genres to collaborate with individuals like Leon Bridges or Regina Spektor, the duo’s true potential is seen. As the album stretches on, many of their more similar tracks begin to blend together, but ODESZA have certainly created a unique musical world here.

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The project opens with a monologue detailing an astronaut falling in love with the mechanical sounds emanating from his spaceship to preserve his sanity. This seamlessly transitions into the title track, an instrumental piece which features some twinkling piano melodies and swelling synth bass. For whatever reason, it captures the feeling of going to space. If ODESZA are particularly talented at anything, it is this – bringing to mind a vivid sonic picture with their atmospheric sounds. Most of this album feels like one cohesive journey.

A Moment Apart begins strong: Naomi Wild’s vocals are as smooth and pleasant as a typical ODESZA mix on “Higher Ground”. The duo demonstrate their likely talent for pop production by bringing out her best aspects with some triumphant synth chords and deep, booming percussion. “Boy” is another great track, veering closer to future bass with the hardest-hitting production on the album and highly rhythmic synth patterns.

ODESZA at their most energetic and experimental frequently brings me out of the trancelike state their calmer music induces, and the rolling, almost traplike beat here certainly fits. When they put some extra creative aspect in, it always assists greatly – the bossa nova horns and Spanish vocals on “Everything At Your Feet”, or the more organic feel of “La Ciudad”, with its handclaps and chanting crowd.

Another specific thing ODESZA does well is working around their silences as much as their sound. Many of their better tracks briefly cut the music before a bigger explosion, contributing to a more driving energy.

ODESZA successfully alter their sound to accommodate for their guests, even surprising appearances like soul artist Leon Bridges. Dialing back their production, the trademark synth swells rise and fall with his smooth vocals on “Across The Room”. It helps to accentuate one of the catchiest hooks here nicely. They strip back even further when their track is graced by the haunting soprano of Regina Spektor on “Just A Memory”, backing her with only piano and some underlying swells for a truly chilling track.

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ODESZA can mistake repetition for their “chill” aesthetic at times, settling into a groove with an idea that doesn’t necessarily pop as much as other and drawing it out for the full extent of a track. “Late Night” is placed among the more energetic tracks in the early stages of the album, and while I can see what they were trying to achieve with the techno synthbass groove at the forefront, the repetition of the vocals ends up killing the energy.

It’s certainly difficult to make an engaging song that is pure instrumental, and about half the tracks here can fall into this category. ODESZA came up on these slower tracks that are content to revel in a few sparkling chords without much variation, and while there is certainly a time and place for them it’s not incredibly attention-grabbing on such a lengthy album. Tracks like “Meridian”, “Divide” and the especially sluggish “Thin Floors and Tall Ceilings” all wind up sounding too similar and blending into each other.

ODESZA has a few telltale characteristics that pop up on almost all of their songs – particularly those higher pitched and swelling synths that make us feel like we are staring at some great expanse, awestruck. Aspects like these have the potential to really work, and frequently do here, when that little something extra is added in. But too often, it never comes.

ODESZA’s sound is certainly unique and their ability to transport the listener to their own musical world is unmatched. Perhaps if the album was scaled back a bit it would be especially captivating, but at this point I’ll be content with some extended glimpses at the duo’s potential.

Favourite Tracks: Boy, Line Of Sight, Higher Ground, Falls, Across The Room

Least Favourite: Thin Floors and Tall Ceilings

Score: 7/10

Alvvays – Antisocialites

Image result for alvvays antisocialitesToronto indie-pop quintet Alvvays release the follow-up to their critically acclaimed self-titled debut three years later, and expand upon many of the aspects that drew fans to them in the first place. Antisocialites sees Alvvays step further into their unique musical niche, providing dreampop vocals and the structure of an indie band but backing this all up with heavier, guitar-laced instrumentals.

Many of these sounds wouldn’t be out of place on a punk album from the 80s, but vocalist Molly Rankin’s sweet and lilting vocals and very melodic songwriting style complement them much better than you might expect. Although there are still a few kinks to be worked out with their loudest tracks, Antisocialites is a brief, joyous whirlwind.

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Rankin’s voice really carries a lot of these ideas throughout the course of the album. It is breathy yet powerful and assertive, playful yet seductive. She reminds me of an edgier Carly Rae Jepsen at times, and really brings out these great melody lines. “In Undertow” is a great introduction to the album, as she harmonizes with herself repeating that lovely “there’s no turning back” melody of the chorus and ends the song with a striking high note that comes out of nowhere.

Much of the appeal of this album comes from Alvvays capturing a few aspects of different retro sounds and blending them together nicely. At one point “Plimsoll Punks” hits this surf-rock guitar fill that catches the listener off guard in the best way. Hearing all of these speedy, crunchy guitar parts with a very feminine voice overtop just brings to mind the spirit of another time. “Lollipop (Ode To Jim)” sounds like some ancient punk-rock television performance, as the guitar provides the main melody and Rankin’s echoing vocals recall the simple yet sweet musicality of the past.

Even so, I believe that Alvvays has so much more potential to explore if they embraced the full extent of their dreampop aspects. The aptly titled “Dreams Tonite” is far and away the best song here, and it is also the poppiest. Building up slowly, it captures a retro-pop sugar rush as Rankin’s vocals layer on top of each other, wistfully dreaming about a stranger she passes by. Her voice slides up and down between notes, with a tone that just brings a smile to your face. The crunch guitar is absent, opting for some cleaner power chords and twinkling synths.

Antisocialites can be viewed as somewhat of a concept album, as the first nine tracks see Rankin coming to terms with the end of a relationship. She goes through various stages of sadness, feigned indifference and rediscovery of herself before starting all over again on the final track. These topics can bring out some pretty powerful lyricism, and across the board it is stronger than most of the peers in their genre.

“Not My Baby” is one of the most compelling here, as Rankin runs through all the ways her life will improve being single, repeating “I don’t care”. But even though she never admits it, the somber tone in her voice and forced repetition of the mantra indicates she does indeed. By the end of the song, she’s finally convinced herself it’s for the best, feeling “alive for the first time”.

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Closer “Forget About Life”, in contrast to the rest of the album, is equally incredible. Over an ethereal, minimalist instrumental, Rankin describes the beautiful blossoming of a new relationship. She paints a scene “underneath this flickering light”, asking her partner to forget about the stresses of everyday life with her. The raw emotion captured here paints a picture as lovely as her melodies.

There are a few times when the mix gets muddled, the guitar becoming less clear and starting to overpower Rankin. Sometimes she compensates for this by hitting more and more climactic moments in her vocal delivery, and since the songs are already so fast-paced and hectic, it becomes a bit of a sensory overload.

“Your Type” is one of the shortest songs on the album, but you’d never know it with how much they attempt to cram in. As the guitar increases in volume and distortion and Rankin is up in the stratosphere, some musicality is lost. “Hey” is another louder track, once again speeding through too many musical concepts without giving the listener time to catch their breath. Rankin’s more conversational delivery would be interesting if it were developed before switching to an off-kilter, eerie bridge and a bombastic conclusion. You can’t deny that effervescent spirit is there though!

Alvvays stands out because there is so little like it right now. Rankin sounds like she’s having a great time, and the energy of these tracks is through the roof. Who said great dreampop had to be calming?

Favourite Tracks: Dreams Tonite, Forget About Life, In Undertow, Saved By A Waif, Not My Baby

Least Favourite Track: Your Type

Score: 8/10

The Script – Freedom Child

Image result for freedom child the scriptIrish pop group The Script’s fifth studio album Freedom Child is half a decade removed from their last significant hit, as they attempt to modernize their sound to better fit into the current radio climate. The band’s work is more electronic than before, adding the odd dance drop, contrasting with the still-present crowdpleasing pop-rock.

Even more prominent, however, is a shift in subject material. Many tracks here present a political angle, touching on a number of issues. Unfortunately, Freedom Child is extremely hollow, with only the most surface-level observations or such little attention to detail it becomes inadvertently ignorant.

It feels like The Script is using the current chaotic state of the world as a springboard to generate attention and clamber back into relevance, and the result does not look good on them at all. The blatantly emotionally manipulative songwriting and jarring shifts in genre and energy mid-song do not help their cause, as The Script delivers one of the messiest albums of the year.

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The album opens in a way that you believe for a second it won’t be a complete disaster, as the electronic aspects are integrated pretty well on “No Man Is An Island” and frontman Danny O’Donoghue taps into the best part of his falsetto range to write a unique and charming melody for single “Rain”, but we quickly drop off a cliff.

“Arms Open” was produced by MAGIC!’s Nasri Atweh, and it is easy to see the influence the band had on the rest of this project, as The Script draws from all of their worst tendencies. The track in question begins the trend of repetitive and awful songwriting, trying to capture the wholesome and romantic ballads of their past by stringing together some awkwardly rhyming lines and offering “my arms are open” in response to each one of them.

The Script really aim for some kind of feel-good, inspirational angle with everything they do. It is annoying on tracks like “Rock The World”, where they throw in some generic lines about rising above and proving people wrong before legitimately constructing a chorus around that cheesy title, but it is even worse when they incorporate this mentality into their political material.

This political angle is introduced on the less than subtle “Divided States of America”, where The Script acts as if listing a few events and asking “what the f**k is going on?” is effective social commentary and activism. O’Donoghue throws a few emo inflections on his cadence to appear as pitiable as possible, spinning the state of a country he doesn’t live in into a cash grab.

Nothing O’Donoghue says on this project shows any sense of analysis or intelligent thought, he is simply observing that these events are happening and suggesting they change. “Put confetti in an atomic bomb”, he suggests on the closer “Freedom Child”. “Instead of war, we’re declaring love”. It gets no deeper.

The absolute worst of these trendy, topical tracks is “Make Up”, which had my mouth wide open at how much The Script’s good intentions could go hopelessly wrong. O’Donoghue tells the story of a few transgender characters in the process of dying from their surgery. This is a real premise of a song that is in the same happy, uplifting vein as their others.

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From the perspective of a supportive father, O’Donoghue sings “You don’t need makeup”, “You’re doing me proud”. The reason why I believe they have no idea what they’re even getting into here is that they couldn’t even bother to keep their pronouns straight, addressing the same subject as “he” and “she” in the same verse. Their biggest revelation about the whole issue is “That’s the saddest f**king thing, yeah”.

The Script’s shifts in genre are always awkwardly executed here, but none are worse than when O’Donoghue insists on rapping on a few tracks. In the whitest sing-song voice possible, he offers “I’m your great white, you’re my piranha/We don’t give a, we love the drama” on “Mad Love”. It’s tough not to burst out laughing.

“Deliverance” is one of the more electronic tracks here, as a sudden synth stab introduces a pounding bassline that comes in on seemingly the wrong beat and throws the rhythm of the track out the window.

I read another review that termed the project “sonic wallpaper”, and that couldn’t be more accurate. So many of these tracks are just aiming to be passable, with an attention-grabbing lyrical aspect (Tinder, politics, etc.) that they just use as a Chainsmokers-esque basic word prompt. Eventually, they find some kind of off-kilter idea or awkward lyric that sinks the ship. This is at its most evident on “Wonders”, the chorus listing a few wonders of the world in an incessant two-note melody jumping up and down overtop some faux-dubstep nonsense.

Finally, “Love Not Lovers” sees O’Donoghue crooning “swiped right on Tinder”, and that’s all I’ll say about that because this list of complaints is getting too long.

This album only escapes 1/10 status by virtue of the first two tracks, as “Rain” won’t be leaving my head for a while. The lyrics here are honestly embarrassing, and it’s just too easy to see through O’Donoghue’s wholesome white guy with a guitar image.

Favourite Tracks: Rain, No Man Is An Island

Least Favourite Track: Make Up

Score: 2/10

LCD Soundsystem – american dream

LCD Soundsystem - American Dream cover art.jpgCritically acclaimed new wave group LCD Soundsystem reunite for their fourth studio album and first in seven years, american dream. The band returns to their traditionally lengthy tracks and winding, electronic and funk-infused instrumentals, as frontman James Murphy delivers some self-aware lyrics about his declining creativity and increasing age in a faster-paced world.

american dream is a slow burn in every sense of the word, many of these tracks seemingly going on forever and containing ideas both negative and positive before we reach our destination. Murphy’s voice is shaken and strained for dramatic effect, and in a vibrant and frequently overcluttered world of sounds, the underlying melody often gets lost in the shuffle. LCD Soundsystem still has a wealth of unique indietronica flavour, but american dream is tough to get through at times.

LCD Soundsystem continues to prove their versatility across the board, some of the better tracks on here reminding me of anything from experimental electronic work like Aphex Twin to the chilled indie-pop of Tame Impala.

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“other voices” stands out for being more like the former, tapping into a more rhythmic side as the instrumental builds itself out of a funk bassline and numerous interlocking sounds of percussion, eventually building into some wailing synth keyboard solos. Murphy’s voice drops into some dramatic chants rather than singing, feeding into the energy of the track and even ceding a similar verse to keyboarding Nancy Whang.

Murphy’s lyrical themes can be very poignant and poetic. On “tonite”, the instrumental emulates more mainstream electronic music as he criticizes the similarity of the hits, and the tendencies of materialism and instant gratification that come with the culture. He imagines a future where the internet is permanently down: nobody will know what to do and society will grind to a halt, but at least those embarrassing pictures will be gone forever.

His lyrics can certainly be hilarious in their bluntness: “emotional haircut” sees Murphy detailing his quest to stay young and hip with a unique haircut – and the subsequent negative reaction to it. The title track, “american dream”, takes a break from the bombastic instrumentals to focus on Murphy’s words, as he tells the story of an older man waking up after a drug-fuelled one-night stand and contemplating his lifelong regrets, the idea of the prototypical “American Dream” likely being dead for him.

Murphy’s voice can be very affecting when at its most emotionally fraught, such as on closing track “black screen”. A 12-minute ode to the friendship Murphy developed with idol David Bowie shortly before his death, he expresses regret that he didn’t make as much use of the time together as he could have. “I’m bad with people things”, he states, before concluding the album with a somber repetition – “you could be anywhere on the black screen”, of the night sky.

For how long many of these tracks are, frequently extending past 6 minutes, some of them can be painfully underwritten. I understand that the band focuses more on the instrumental a lot of the time, but I want to hear more of Murphy’s more intelligent lyrics. Opening track “oh baby” stands in stark contrast to something like the title track, as he offers some very bland and overused themes surrounding a break-up.

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These tracks frequently have too much going on in the instrumental for my tastes, starting with a few interesting sounds before adding too much into the mix as the song winds through its full length.

“change yr mind” begins with a familiar funk bassline, but insists on adding some elements from other musical worlds that only distract. A distorted guitar wails with reckless abandon and hits some off-key notes that are way too prominent in the mix to achieve their rhetorical aims, while the percussion switches up too often. About 1/3 through, a faint alarm clock begins ringing for nearly the whole remainder of the song. There are far too many sounds here. It’s a shame, because Murphy’s harmonies with himself here are actually very nice.

On the other side of the coin, the more static tracks that don’t contain as much rhythm as others can quickly devolve into a meandering journey that eventually goes nowhere in particular. “i used to” is one of the more rock-influenced tracks here, but the instrumental uses more or less the same plodding riff throughout its 5-and-a-half-minute runtime, and Murphy’s falsetto wails don’t do it many favours.

The 9-minute “how do you sleep?” is even worse in this regard, as a mostly empty instrumental continues to trudge on as Murphy’s voice echoes. The passion in his voice as he speaks about his real-life legal dispute is not enough to stand in for the utter lack of melody.

Every track here has a truly interesting and unique musical idea at its backbone, and Murphy’s vision is clear. However, the meandering tracks and cluttered instrumentals makes it hard to see me revisiting american dream much.

Favourite Tracks: american dream, tonite, other voices, black screen

Least Favourite Track: change yr mind

Score: 5/10

 

Lil Uzi Vert – Luv Is Rage 2

Image result for luv is rage 2 coverWell, here we are. We live in a world where Lil Uzi Vert has sold over 100k and has the most popular album of the week.

Perhaps known as the leader of the wave of Soundcloud rappers, Uzi’s innovative approach to the hip-hop genre has drawn widespread attention. Explicitly stating the influence he draws from rock music, the addictive melodies and darker, more organic feel of a track like breakout hit “XO TOUR Llif3” has numerous contemporaries attempting to imitate his trademark style and cadence. Individuals like XXXTENTACION and Lil Peep have been integrating elements of rock and roll in a similar way as well.

On debut studio album Luv Is Rage 2, a sequel to an earlier mixtape, we get a small bit of Uzi’s strokes of unexpected genius, but quite a bit more that is hard to get through. Spanning almost an hour in length, Uzi’s mind-numbing lyrics and heavy Auto-Tune use begins to get grating, Still, nobody can say he isn’t a trailblazer.

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The instrumentals here can be the saving grace whenever Uzi’s ideas aren’t at their best. He recruits some tried and true producers to take about half of this project, but I especially love his reliance on 20-year old Wondagurl. “Feelings Mutual” would be one of the middling tracks here without her electronic, carnivalesque beat to accompany Uzi’s “merry-go-round” line. Pharrell and Metro Boomin kill it, as expected, but my favourite beat might be the lesser known Maaly Raw on “444+222”, where Uzi’s repetitive chants are energized by a fizzy and joyful synth loop and top-tier trap rhythm.

It’s tough to describe exactly what the appeal of some of Uzi’s best tracks are. The way he quickly cuts off his words and strings phrases together gives tracks a euphoric bouncy quality – and when this is combined with his talent for infectious hooks it pushes it over the edge. “No Sleep Leak” is a great example – his flow in the verses plays off of the driving trap beat so well, and he tops it off with a catchy, repetitive melody and lyrics you just want to shout to the world.

“The Way Life Goes” is the closest Uzi comes to recapturing the “XO TOUR Llif3” magic, and it really is a spectacular track that demonstrates the importance of his unique inspirations. Reassuring himself he’ll eventually get over a breakup, Uzi interpolates the chorus to indie rock duo Oh Wonder’s “Landslide”. Sometimes Uzi’s simplistic lyrics just click, finding the quickest way to hit listeners with something heavy. The slowly cascading melodies in the verses ensure this will be Uzi’s next smash hit.

Uzi shows that he is very versatile, often sounding like a feature on his own song with the amount that he switches up the way his vocals and delivery sound. While this can surprise the listener in a positive way, not much of it is original.

For someone who frequently claims to have scores of rappers copying them, it sounds like Uzi is trying to channel the energy of some other oddball rappers who came before him, clearly emulating aspects like Young Thug’s cadence or Desiigner’s flow. I truly wish Uzi diverted from the Auto-Tune here, as he sounds his best when this versatility leads him to just straight rapping. He maneuvers around alien ray gun blasts on “For Real” and trades some solid bars with Pharrell on “Neon Guts”.

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Uzi speaks a lot about his own innovations on this album, claiming to be “the one that really started” the current trends in hip-hop and even declaring himself “one of the greatest to ever do it” on “Sauce It Up”. Uzi needs to do a lot more work to inherit that title.

Uzi’s style has a lot of similarities to fellow hip-hop pioneer Lil Yachty in his carefree and arrhythmic tone, paying little attention to musical structure as he blurts out a series of boasts and warbled vocalizations. The difference here is that Yachty has personality in spades, whereas Uzi’s lyrics are standard trap fare more often than not.

The tracklist is overstuffed with similar concepts, as we get too much filler where it just doesn’t sound like Uzi is even interested in what he is doing. I can’t understand why someone with such a talent for melodies insists on unorthodox and meandering Auto-Tuned digressions that serve no purpose but to annoy the listener. Uzi’s whiny tone of voice isn’t always the easiest to listen to and his repetitive lyrics don’t do much to help this.

The stretch from “Early 20 Rager” to “Pretty Mami” is excruciating, as all the worst parts of Uzi come out in full force. Why is he moaning up and down the scales in the background? Why is half of “UnFazed” just chanting the song’s title? For every brilliant idea that Uzi puts on this project, 3 more terrible ones spring up.

Uzi is a very strange artist. Sometimes the exact thing that makes one track so great crashes and burns in another. Ever so often he strikes absolute gold, but he has a lot of work to do on the consistency front.

Say it with me now: “LE-O-NAR-DOOO DI CAP-RIIII-O”.

Favourite Tracks: The Way Life Goes, No Sleep Leak, XO TOUR Llif3

Least Favourite Track: Pretty Mami

Score: 4/10

Brand New – Science Fiction

Image result for brand new science fictionRock band Brand New, often credited with spearheading what became known as the emo genre in the early 2000s, release their first studio album in 8 years. Much more than the musical label frequently associated with them, Brand New use their final statement to look back on their career with a different sound.

While many of the band’s most well-known songs are loud and explosive, frontman Jesse Lacey analyzes his career at the forefront of a slower, somber soundscape. After all, most of the things he has to say are actually not all that positive. As we explore the deepest reaches of Lacey’s mind, we receive a project that makes up for its lack of exciting musical moments with some profound musings and anthemic hooks.

Science Fiction opens with a recording of a therapy session, as a woman describes having a dream where she feels overwhelmed and the relief she felt upon waking up. This paints the backdrop for most of Lacey’s words on the project, stating a sense of pride in his accomplishments but much more so contemplating what would have happened if he hadn’t devoted his life to the band. He became forever associated with one thing, and the pressures and expectations associated with it, rather than living a full life.

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Many of the lyrics on this project contain a similar juxtaposition, mostly somber and pessimistic but containing a glimmer acceptance, being at peace with their fate and making the most of it. This extends even past Lacey’s commentary on his own work, as some other tracks reference the state of the world.

“137”, a reference to an isotope created by nuclear warfare, imagines a world after a devastating war. Despite his obvious fears, the track also romanticizes the idea and calls it a “lovely way to die” – it happens so quickly, you don’t have to deal with the pain of saying goodbye. The track also contains sarcastic references to looking forward to entering Heaven, a common theme across a few tracks as Lacey shows his cynicism towards religion. “Desert” sees Lacey speaking in character as a hateful Christian, denouncing immigrants and homosexuals before the track ironically concludes “God is love”.

In a world quickly being dominated by mumble rap, lyrics like these are eye-opening and refreshing. Some of the most emotionally affecting are Lacey’s conversations with himself – on “Waste”, he muses on getting old, offering advice to his reckless younger self, while on closing track “Batter Up” he taunts younger bands “give me your best shot”. In the context of the album, it is both a genuine, hubristic challenge and a warning of all that comes with accepting it.

The band clearly has a talent for big anthemic hooks. I love that bridge on “In The Water” – the catchy melody states “I don’t want it enough, so everyone’ll wait”, likely referring to the album’s delay. The music cuts out for a second, before roaring back into a guitar solo. It’s a truly beautiful moment here. Most of these tracks have choruses that will be hard to forget – I can easily picture crowds singing along to the smartly written melodies on tracks like “Waste” or the call-and-response hook of “Desert”

I also really enjoy the bluesy guitar riff that backs “451”, the most unique song on the tracklist from a musical perspective. It’s great to hear some diversity near the tail end of the project, because it is mostly atmospheric, somber and repetitive.

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Outside of a few brief energetic explosions in vocal delivery, the project is rather one-note musically. It contains tracks like “Could Never Be Heaven”, which contains a quiet and repetitive acoustic riff and a monotone vocal delivery that never ventures outside of a comfortable range. The lyrics are frequently compelling, but don’t have as much passion behind them.

The album begins and ends with songs that each stretch beyond 6 minutes. Some of the quietest, they stretch on for too long attempting to capture a chilling effect as we wait for some semblance of emotion to appear. We know the band is more than capable of delivering this – see the refrain of “Same Logic/Teeth” here.

You might expect opener “Lit Me Up”, a song where Lacey envisions the freeing effect of being set on fire, to appear as more than a mumbled afterthought. But perhaps this is the point, as Lacey expresses his disillusionment with his music career. Is he breaking free by circumventing our expectations, finally creating something that is just for him?

Science Fiction is an endlessly thought out and dense work, which stands as an incredible way for a band to make a final statement. Lacey’s honesty about his issues and doubts make for some harrowing material that I won’t soon forget. Batter up, indeed.

Favourite Tracks: Desert, 137, Waste, No Control, In The Water

Least Favourite Track: Could Never Be Heaven

Score: 8/10