James Blake – Assume Form

Image result for assume formEclectic UK experimental pop/R&B singer and producer James Blake’s 4th studio album Assume Form has been anticipated for a while, as he continues to expand his discography by appearing on the projects of just about everyone who matters, whether it’s Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean or Travis Scott. I was surprised to see people in hip-hop communities so ready to post their thoughts on this album – Blake’s vocals are slow-paced, chilling and emotional – but he has made a name for himself as both a counterpoint to and a legitimizer of hip-hop music as an art form to be taken seriously, even if his sound is pretty far removed from it. He brings Metro Boomin and Travis Scott aboard here, but he also brings people like acclaimed flamenco breakout star Rosalía and the powerful, cathartic vocals of Moses Sumney. It’s an album with its twists and turns, and it doesn’t all click quite perfectly, but Blake delivers an ambitious, complete project here.

The title track that kicks off the album is a disjointed, glitchy mix of some absolutely beautiful musical segments, mostly orchestral and hip-hop percussion – it sets the tone for the rest of the project pretty well. There are always these exciting motifs, but Blake might snatch them away just as fast and whisk you down some other incongruous musical corridor suggesting you should just enjoy them while they last. It’s tough to say that I’d come back to a lot of these tracks, but it’s certainly a new kind of sonic experience. Those classic James Blake withering falsetto harmonies are present across the board and stronger than ever as well.

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Up next are the back-to-back Metro Boomin tracks, and it’s pretty fascinating to hear these two pioneers from different worlds blend their styles together. “Mile High” features Travis Scott, and minus Metro’s trademark skittering hi-hats, it removes the typical dark atmosphere of a trap cut and replaces it with these vivid, glacial synths and Blake’s yearning, emotional tone. The fact he somehow made Scott sound like he fit right in is a testament to how much Scott’s sound dominates the current musical conversation – but Blake knows exactly how to warp it just enough to put his own personal spin on it. The next, “Tell Them”, is a lot more traditional trap, but it puts the incredibly natural soul and rasp of Sumney on top, inverting the genre in the complete opposite way. In a world where we’re clearly getting tired of the Migos formula, this is just what we needed to kick off 2019.

Speaking of guests, Rosalía is such an unexpected yet logical addition to Blake’s world on “Barefoot in the Park”, the two voices intertwine perfectly, similarly understated but Rosalía’s breathiness nicely supporting Blake’s more forward, nasal approach. The addition of some more traditionally flamenco production when Rosalía sings the verses in Spanish is a great touch as well.

While it’s not as mindblowingly experimental as a couple of other tracks here, there’s something to be said about the strength of Blake’s ear for a simple great pop melody as well, which he applies on more straightforward tracks like “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow” but perfects on the gorgeous “I’ll Come Too” later on in the tracklisting, a romantic track built on a looped sung “ooh” melody and the shimmering violins coming in quietly on top of the mix when he sings his most emotionally charged lines. “I’ve got nothing to lose with you”, he sings, throwing his voice around a little bit but sounding so blissfully happy in the process.

The second half of the project kicks off with the rhythmically off-kilter “Are You in Love?” that combines these soothing, 90s-esque synth-piano chords with this rubbery tone in the forefront that just skitters up and down the scales recklessly, the twinge of uncertainty reflecting Blake’s lyrical questioning of a partner’s authenticity.

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The experimentation goes off the rails a little bit at times here, the ambition of a couple tracks going in a different direction than I was expecting them to. He generates something completely new, but it somehow turns out different than a “something new” that I see as a logical evolution of where things are at the moment. “Into the Red” is one of these songs. It begins with some layered harmonies and orchestral production, but this abrupt cut introduces a twangy guitar melody which seems completely out of step with the rest of the track, especially as it builds back up with some absolutely stunning moments at the end as Blake just extends these high notes as these warm orchestral chords build – I just can’t get fully into it when this repeated riff that sounds like it’s from some kind of country music parody is playing on top.

“Where’s The Catch?”, a track with the inimitable Andre 3000, doesn’t really come together either, Andre delivering yet another technically spectacular verse as some upbeat production comes in behind him, but Blake’s surrounding contributions don’t match him in intensity, the repeated hook falling off the pitch and slowing down the tempo as soon as Andre finishes.

It’s easy to see why so many high-profile artists call on this guy who still hasn’t cracked the top 10 on the Billboard album charts – there’s not many who can execute a fully realized vision as well as he can. Despite a couple of off-kilter diversions, this album goes many different places but is still unapologetically James Blake.

Favourite Tracks: I’ll Come Too, Tell Them, Barefoot In The Park, Mile High, Are You In Love?

Least Favourite Track: Lullaby For My Insomniac

Score: 8/10

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Florence + The Machine – High As Hope

HighAsHope.pngIndie-pop band Florence + The Machine return after 3 years with their 4th studio album, their most minimal and personal yet. Standing at a concise 10 tracks, Florence Welch’s immediately distinctive vocals take the spotlight once again, especially as the instrumentals behind her calm down for the most part. The band draw on some gospel sensibilities across the board here, infusing some of these tracks with rich harmonies and powerful choral moments. Although I prefer the scarce occasions when things get a little more upbeat here, Welch’s voice the unrestrained ball of energy over the driving percussion, High as Hope is another overall solid project from the consistent group.

Opening track “June” quickly draws listeners in to the ethereal world of Florence + The Machine, Welch’s raw, fluttering and emotional vocal delivery backed by some sparse, moody piano chords and twinkling effects to further enhance the dreamscape that her vocals belong to. While the track and quite a few others here are less structured than I’d like them to be, the rhythms of the piano chord progression lining up in a slightly awkward fashion, the focus on Welch’s very personal inner monologues pull the stripped-back sound together, the surrounding instrumentals representing the chaos of the personal struggles she describes. Second single “Hunger” pulls all the great elements of the band together – Welch speaks on her struggles with an eating disorder as the gospel chords pick up and the percussion settles into a steady rhythm. The band’s greatest singles have always had this same quality of an anthemic mantra, Welch’s passion just selling the message. It’s a track that’s equal parts powerful and brilliantly catchy.

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“100 Years” is one of the only other upbeat tracks here, a prominent, fun stomp-clap rhythm backing up Welch’s empowering message of persevering despite disheartening world events – 100 years marking the length of time since women first voted in her home country of the UK. The band recruits a great list of collaborators here, and you can feel their effect – the whole album is produced with superstar indie producer Emile Haynie, but the writing credits boast unexpected names in Jamie xx, Sampha and Tobias Jesso Jr. You can hear Sampha’s influence especially on his co-written track “Grace” – the evocative piano and blunt, specific lyrics could have fit on his debut Process. The slow build of the track as Welch puts more power into the chorus each time, leading to a full-voiced, expletive-laden shout at the conclusion, is a perfect contrast to the verses where we hear the calmer, surprisingly sweet side of her voice. Quite a few of these songs capture a kind of larger than life, awestruck cosmic feeling as the deafening backing vocals roar in for the chorus. It’s the same thing we hear on their classic tracks like “Dog Days Are Over”, and it’s a truly unique thing that the band is able to bring out.

Penultimate track “The End Of Love” is the album’s greatest, featuring a chorus built on chilling layered harmonies. It’s a very minimal song, but it makes the bigger moments all the more powerful. The saxophone that briefly wails in as Welch describes a rushing river is a great touch that shows attention to detail, but that beautiful, shimmering chorus is the deserving centerpiece of the work.

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Some of the quieter tracks here fall a bit short due to the traditionally uncontrolled, warbling nature of Welch’s voice – the band doesn’t give enough to rein in and support its wilder qualities at times here, giving off the impression that she’s making up these melodies on the spot. A track like “South London Forever” has one of the safest instrumentals here, a steady, reflective pop piano loop that doesn’t mirror Welch’s shouted vocals, the hook suddenly cascading in unexpectedly without the track doing much to signify its arrival. Welch sings with reckless abandon, throwing in the squeaks and uncontrolled vocal runs that make her so unique – on tracks like “No Choir” and “Big God”, we get to focus more on all those quirks without the energetic instrumental behind. While Welch’s lyrics are still very compelling, the vocal eccentricities sound improvised and out of place when the supporting cast isn’t as dynamic and passionate as she is.

High as Hope finds Florence Welch at the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen her, and the quieter contributions from the band exposing her raw vocal delivery reflect this move. Running through loss of family members, relationship struggles, religion and personal anxieties, Welch’s lyrics are the primary focus here. While the music can leave me anticipating more of the high-energy experiences Welch’s distinct instrument is more than capable of delivering, this is a very cohesive and well-thought-out project.

Favourite Tracks: The End Of Love, Hunger, Grace, 100 Years, June

Least Favourite Track: South London Forever

Score: 7/10

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