Maggie Rogers – Heard It In A Past Life

Image result for Maggie Rogers - Heard It In A Past LifeSoulful indie-pop singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has been selling out concert venues before she even released this debut project. After gaining wider attention through a viral video in which Pharrell Williams nearly started crying when he heard the then-unknown NYU music student’s early demo of “Alaska”, Heard It In A Past Life has been in the making since 2016 – and Rogers certainly didn’t disappoint. While it might not be the most artistically innovative debut ever, Rogers knows exactly how to play to her strengths. The combination of her mature, emotive and deeply soulful voice with the upbeat percussion of HAIM’s brand of indie-pop and the songwriting approach of a folk or Americana singer creates a new and exciting mix of established forms – as Pharrell put it in the video, like the “genius” of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. There’s not a single bad track here, and Rogers solidifies herself as someone to watch.

Rogers and her producers have mastered the art of the slow build, perhaps demonstrating it the best of all on the energetic opening track “Give A Little”, a deceptively complex track where Rogers layers her angelic backing vocals with a clacking percussion line that keeps getting more and more involved as the track goes along. Everything comes together perfectly, from the dynamic walking bassline to the catchy high-pitched synths on top. It’s funk, it’s pop, it’s indie, and it’s a little gospel – there’s even a distorted guitar that roars in at the end. A track like “The Knife” is similar, Rogers’ backing vocals adding such a dimension of soulfulness that you don’t often hear in the breathier singers that usually deliver this kind of material, all the while the music behind her keeps offering these rhythmically complex and instrumentally varied embellishments to really highlight just how special of a vocalist they belong to. Rogers’ natural, seemingly effortless talent here is something to behold.

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You can tell that a pop mastermind like Greg Kurstin was heavily involved with the project, lending his production to most of the tracks here – these are all some maddeningly catchy pop melodies, but there’s so much more to them as well. There’s always something that pops into the mix that surprises you, like when those Lorde-esque ringing, clipped choral vocal samples suddenly turn the rapid-fire vocals and metallic synths of “Overnight” into something much more grandiose. While I wouldn’t usually be a fan of including a years-old track on a project like this, the placement of “Alaska” in a premium position early in the tracklisting is actually very welcome because you can see where she began, and how she applied those aspects of her early work to a more dynamic and exciting whole. It’s easy to see what was so appealing to music producers in the first place, the more minimal track putting more of a spotlight her vividly descriptive lyrics, the odd instrumental flourish all you need sometimes to complement that beautiful falsetto on the chorus.

If “Alaska” is Rogers at her folksiest, standout tracks “Say It” and “Fallingwater” showcase her at her most soulful – in completely different ways. The former is straight out of the 90s – you can tell how much Rogers loves Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, who she was apparently raised on – those huge percussion hits and rapidly descending synth lines that build up to the harmonized, emotive chorus where she reaches all the way to the top of her register are such a perfect exercise in drawing out tension and finally releasing it in a payoff that just makes you want to get up and move, Rogers adding these impressive little vocal moments overtop as the track progresses.

“Fallingwater”, on the other hand, takes more of the gospel route that is so naturally rooted Rogers’ expressive vocal delivery. Assisted by another impeccable pop producer in Rostam, it’s a poppier track (minus Rogers’ most forceful vocal performance yet) that takes a turn halfway through. The tempo slows as a backing choir comes in, singing at a lower, supportive pitch and repeating a catchy, almost chanted couple of lines as the added space in the track allows Rogers to add some more diversions to her original melody.

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Quite a few of these tracks had actually been released much earlier, but the cohesiveness in sound of this project is among the best I’ve heard in a while. She goes to so many different places, but her blend of genres and core sonic themes of heavy percussion, triumphant, soaring synth hooks and layered harmonies keep things anchored in a consistently enjoyable musical world. “Past Life” might be the only true diversion, but the placement of a more somber piano ballad, just to completely reinforce to the listener how spectacular of a vocalist Rogers is without the complex production tricks surrounding her, is a great addition to the middle portion of the project.

The only track on here which isn’t an essentially flawless execution of exactly what Rogers was trying to achieve here might be “Burning”, a celebratory, life-affirming dedication to her happy relationship where she sacrifices that constant, rhythmic flow for a more traditionally indie-pop joyously half-shouted chorus.

Rogers recently retweeted a quote she gave in 2016 where she said she wanted to “make dance music, or pop music, feel as human as possible”, and that’s exactly what she’s done here. There are certain debuts that are so fully realized and individual that you know they’re going to do huge things. The last time I felt like this was with Billie Eilish. Maggie Rogers is up next.

Favourite Tracks: Say It, Fallingwater, Overnight, Give A Little, The Knife

Least Favourite Track: Burning

Score: 9/10

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XXXTENTACION – SKINS

XXXTentacion – Skins.pngSince his death this past June, it’s becoming much more evident just how much of an incredible impact XXXTENTACION had on the direction of music and culture. While his projects were uneven and his career was mired in endless controversies, there was always a clear creative spark and an urge to put out something different, something uniquely him. SKINS is his first posthumous release, and standing at only 19 minutes in length, it’s clearly unfinished, most of these songs having issues with mixing and mastering or instances where X was recording a demo vocal to be replaced with something more substantial later. Although there are definitely a few issues with putting this out so quickly to capitalize on his name, looking back at how much the genre he kickstarted has grown has honestly made me appreciate the ideas presented on this tape for what they are – I can tell that if these were turned into full songs, it’d be a huge step forward from 17 and ?. If I’m evaluating this just on the music presented though, this barely qualifies as an album.

It’s immediately evident just how little new material we’re actually going to get here when the instrumental of the first full track, “Guardian angel”, starts playing – it’s just the beat of one of his biggest hits, “Jocelyn Flores”, reversed. X’s rapping on the track is honestly some of the best I’ve ever heard him, urgent and powerful, but the track ends before it even begins – this is just a tiny chunk of something he recorded. I always enjoyed his calmer raps, without the overuse of distortion, the most out of any of his wide variety of styles, and it continues on the next track “Train food” which sees X do something new and put together a full narrative and concrete idea – at almost 3 minutes, it’s an unusually long track for him. X’s lyrics are vivid as he paints the picture of encountering the figure of Death while walking home, enhanced by the sound effect of a punch before he wakes up tied to a railroad track. The repeated lyrics and very minimal instrumental suggest that this could have been even more powerful than it already is – that last verse is chilling and prophetic, as X raises his voice to a shout.

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The track “STARING AT THE SKY”, standing at under a minute and a half in length, sees X revert back to his full-voiced distorted yells and heavy metal production style interspersed with acoustic emo-folk delivery. It’s the kind of material that really made me worried for him on his previous projects, but the addition of a sinister whisper under his repeated yells of “WE’RE GONNA BREAK” is an absolutely terrifying touch that shocked me. It’s not something I’d ever want to return to, but it definitely made me feel something.

The heavy guitars continue to much better effect on “One Minute”, which recruits Kanye West and Travis Barker. Despite some seriously questionable lyrics, West absolutely demolishes his verse, the distorted guitars behind him injecting his confident and charismatic flow and delivery with some serious energy before X enters with a bloodcurdling scream – even if his part is minimal and clearly looped, it’s a pretty mindblowing track all in all.

It’s strange to accuse a 19-minute album of having filler tracks, but some of these songs are blatantly unfinished and it makes me worried that X’s team are suggesting that there is more to come if this is all they could muster to put on his first posthumous release. The tracks “whoa (mind in awe)” and “what are you so afraid of” are painfully repetitive and consist of little more than X’s whoa-ohs, suggesting that they were demos he recorded before adding actual lyrics. Most of the time, it doesn’t sound like he’s fully present in recording, like these were obviously nothing close to the final takes he was going to record.

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A track like “BAD!” sounds like it would have been an obvious hit if it were actually put together with some more effort – X’s words are barely clear, like he was unsure if he’d replace them later. The studio wizardry throughout is so clear, constructing tracks out of bits and pieces that it might not have ever been his intention to fit together. “I don’t let go” is another track that I can see coming together with more work – the glitchy instrumental from Cubeatz reminds me of “Moonlight” and X’s falsetto chorus is pretty enjoyable, despite its repetition without much else to switch up the energy of the track. Like everything else here, the idea is there, but the execution is far from complete.

Most of what I enjoyed from this project is simply from my fascination with the creative processes of one of the most culturally influential artists in recent memory – hearing X’s ideas in their bare-bones form gives me hope that he was moving in a more positive artistic direction, and that some of these tracks could have been a lot better than his previous work. There are a lot of things to like here, but the fact that we never really get to hear them come to fruition makes this a seriously underwhelming release that makes me nervous for just how long we’re likely going to be milking X’s work after he’s gone.

Favourite Tracks: One Minute, Train food, I don’t let go

Least Favourite Track: whoa (mind in awe)

Score: 4/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (Shawn Mendes, Father John Misty, Kanye West)

Image result for shawn mendes self titled albumShawn Mendes – Shawn Mendes

Shawn Mendes releases his third self-titled studio album at the age of only 19, expanding his musical influences to explore genres past his trends of safe, acoustic pop balladry. Working with a high-profile set of collaborators, Mendes delivers a solid set of pop tracks that splits about half and half with working what he knows and trying his hand at more upbeat pop tracks or venturing into more of an R&B The experimentation works out for him more often than not, the tracklisting weighed down by just a bit too much of what we’ve already heard from him – or someone like him (looking at you once again, Ryan Tedder).

Single “In My Blood” opens the album, and it’s probably the strongest single Mendes has ever released, transcending the cheesy and derivative pop tracks for a more rock-leaning song featuring live instrumentation and a nice build-up to a passionately sung chorus, his trademark crackles creeping into his delivery – those huge drums in the background are a nice break from the trap hi-hats we hear everywhere. The opening run of the album contains it’s best tracks, two of them co-written by the frequently outstanding Julia Michaels: “Nervous” is an R&B-funk adventure with a quickly delivered falsetto chorus and persistent bassline, and it’s the first time I could ever imagine a Mendes song on a dancefloor. Michaels actually sings on quiet acoustic duet “Like To Be You”, and they blend together shockingly well for two artists with very distinct voices. Mendes is surprisingly believable as an R&B vocalist, stating that he drew inspiration from artists like Justin Timberlake. “Where Were You in The Morning?” is his most obvious draw from the Man of the Woods, some lazy guitar chords and the slightest hint of a trap beat framing Mendes’ smoothest vocal yet, sounding much older than his age. Ed Sheeran lends his reliable hand to “Fallin’ All In You”, which sounds like a huge hit, blending his old and new styles impressively with the hint of a doo-wop bassline and Sheeran’s tendency to pack in as many syllables as possible.

The main problems with this project come when, standing at 14 tracks, Mendes and his collaborators can’t help but exercise a few tried and true ideas that edge closer to the slower, minimalist ballads that don’t capture my attention quite as easily. Other than “Perfectly Wrong”, a track where Mendes’ songwriting shines above the less showy instrumental with some heartbreaking commentary on forcing himself out of a toxic relationship he desperately wanted to save, tracks like “Youth”, a duet with similarly minded artist Khalid, and “Because I Had You”, itself a complete rip-off of Justin Bieber’s hit “Love Yourself” never really pick themselves off the ground. The notoriously unoriginal Ryan Tedder also contributes to “Particular Taste”, which lifts a few too many elements from Prince’s catalogue – someone else has already delivered the word “particular” like that in an iconic fashion. Most of the back half of the project feels too similar to its counterparts and I feel like the tracklist easily could have been shortened. “Why” shows potential with an extravagant, dreamlike instrumental, but as Mendes reaches up into his falsetto the breaks in the instrumental reveal a few awkward transitionary places in his range.

Mendes’ steps towards risk-taking on this project easily make it his best collection of songs – still very young, he’s showing a definite upward trajectory and is beginning to understand where his greatest strengths lie. For now, Shawn Mendes exists as a pleasant surprise that shows his potential despite a few of his old ways still sticking around.

Favourite Tracks: Fallin All In You, Where Were You In The Morning?, Perfectly Wrong, Nervous

Least Favourite Track: Love Yourself, uh, I mean Because I Had You

Score: 6/10

Image result for god's favorite customerFather John Misty – God’s Favorite Customer

Master songwriter Father John Misty’s fourth narrows his focus on his fourth studio album, dialing back the wide range of topics he addressed on his sprawling breakthrough Pure Comedy, a satirical takedown of politics, religion and everything under the sun. While he does return to some similar musical themes across this project, his trademark blunt and darkly humorous songwriting makes his tales of his mental health and familial relations just as compelling.

“Hangout at the Gallows” introduces listeners to the kind of material that will be featured on the album well, Tillman in complete command of a piano rock instrumental that previews the darker thoughts of suicide and paranoia he brings up over the course of the project. Tillman makes this kind of thing work perfectly for him, like a modern-day, extremely cynical Elton John. “Mr. Tillman” is a hilarious track spoken from the perspective of a worker at the front desk of a hotel, observing Tillman’s clear signs of a mental breakdown while he sings in a cheerful melodic loop intended to be just a little obnoxious. It’s not the only moment where Tillman picks up another character on the album, the incredible “Please Don’t Die” being sung from the position of his wife. It’s just as bluntly, beautifully Tillman as the track suggests, as it turns into something of a country ballad, a slide guitar twanging in the background as he softens his voice and expresses concern that Tillman might kill himself with some somber, falsetto harmonies.

Tillman has one of the most poignantly expressive vocal deliveries I’ve ever heard, capable of delivering raw emotion believably even when he doesn’t have much of an instrumental to support him. “God’s Favorite Customer”, the title track, continues his troubled relationship with religion, turning back to a faith he stopped believing in long ago in his time of mental instability. His knowingly futile calls to an angel on the stark chorus is just another example of his brilliant songwriting ability.

The instrumentals on this project are largely similar to what we’ve heard from Tillman in the past, potentially even sparser and more minimal on this one than something like Pure Comedy as he shows a clear focus on the clear delivery of his lyrical content. Without issues so enormous and pressing to offer his philosophical thoughts on, a few of these tracks with little more than a slow piano accompaniment aren’t carried by Tillman’s thoughts alone. “Just Dumb Enough To Try” is a pretty straightforward love song that rides on a very familiar acoustic strumming chord progression without much of the hilarious turns of phrase we’re used to, while the closer “We’re Only People (And There’s Not Much Anyone Can Do About That)” is one of the first times I’ve ever felt like Tillman tried to make a huge statement and didn’t actually manage to say anything, offering baseline analysis while I wait for the twisted joke to land.

It’s clear that Tillman decided to play it safe a bit coming down from such an ambitious project released only last year, but he has the skills that even that elevates him over most singer-songwriters of his kind. He’s certainly the only person that can deliver the lyric “Last night I wrote a poem, man, I must have been in the poem zone” with as much genuine emotional weight as he does.

Favourite Tracks: Please Don’t Die, God’s Favorite Customer, Mr. Tillman, Hangout at the Gallows, Disappointing Diamonds Are the Rarest of Them All

Least Favourite Track: Just Dumb Enough To Try

Score: 8/10

Ye album cover.jpgKanye West – ye

Innovative rapper Kanye West’s eighth studio album is the second of five he plans to produce this summer, a brief 7 tracks like its predecessor DAYTONA. Supposedly completed in a matter of a couple weeks after the originally planned Love Everyone was scrapped due to controversy, ye is a journey through everything we’ve come to love about West’s music over the course of his entire career. Although I have come to expect West to completely reinvent the wheel on every project he releases, ye utilizing old themes of industrial beats and soul samples, the production is still on a level no other artist comes close to touching.

ye sees West at perhaps his most introspective and confessional in his whole career, revealing his inner thoughts on his troubled years post-Saint Pablo Tour with his bipolar diagnosis and opioid addiction. The album opens with “I Thought About Killing You”, West delivering a spoken-word intro over some beautiful Francis & The Lights Prismizer work where he details his need to speak his mind freely to exorcise demons, even his darkest thoughts concerning suicide, directing threats at himself in second person emphasizing his bipolarity. The first half of the project resembles Yeezus more than anything, as the opener explodes into a chilling scream and knocking industrial beat. “All Mine” is an aggressive and minimalist grinding carnal track, eerie, breathy vocal samples and crashing percussion framing West’s hilariously blunt lyrics, while “Yikes” is the most immediately commercially viable song here. Pi’erre Bourne assists with the production as West delivers his best flow on the project and a great melodic hook – “find help, sometimes I scare myself”.

The back half, on the other hand, reverts back to the soulful “Old Kanye” sound that troll song “Lift Yourself” hinted might return. “Wouldn’t Leave” is a touching track dedicated to his famous wife’s loyalty despite his many mistakes, thanking her for remaining by his side in the wake of a breakdown about her own career repercussions and West himself suggesting she leave if she needed to. Harmonized soulful backing vocals from Ty Dolla $ign, an uncharacteristically passionate PARTYNEXTDOOR hook, and somber synth-piano chords complete the emotional track. The love is affirmed with a triumphant Charlie Wilson hook on “No Mistakes”, West’s flow coming a little unhinged but coasting through on a fun, rhythmic gospel sample from Edwin Hawkins. The best track is the emotional peak of “Ghost Town”, however, featuring a shimmering, soulful organ sample and Kid Cudi getting so into the hook he falls off the pitch in his usual endearing way. West’s verse is the best singing (no Auto-Tune!) he’s done in a long time, but new G.O.O.D. Music signee 070 Shake steals the show, turning the second half into a repeated anthemic mantra, the music cutting down to an enormous stomp-clap. I can’t wait to sing it in a huge crowd. It’s great to hear more adept lyricism from West after Yeezus and Pablo as well, acting as an adorably overprotective father towards his daughters on “Violent Crimes” and delivering some of his best wordplay in a while on “Wouldn’t Leave”.

Since the project was so quickly assembled and West’s favourite subject material in his lyrics is, of course, himself, many of the current topical references to his life that happened mere weeks or days before its release makes the project feel less larger-than-life than his past albums, his quotables becoming law, or at least Instagram captions. Referencing things like G.O.O.D. Music’s war with Drake on “No Mistakes” or drawing specific attention to that fateful TMZ interview, regardless of how interesting a light he paints on the intrapersonal repercussions of his actions, on “Wouldn’t Leave” will end up sounding extremely dated in comparison to something like The College Dropout, which still resonates 14 years later.

West hasn’t made a perfect album since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but he’s getting a lot better at finding beauty in the chaos. Although the album could use a little more polish, his artistry is still unquestioned and a closer look into his psyche and personal life is appreciated for the 9-year old in me who overplayed “Gold Digger” to death.

Favourite Tracks: Ghost Town, Yikes, All Mine, Wouldn’t Leave

Least Favourite Track: No Mistakes

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The Decemberists, Jack White, Diplo)

Image result for decemberists i'll be your girlThe Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl

The Decemberists return with a delightfully melodic and cynical take on the state of the world, taking a much more electronic path than their previous works and relying more on synths. The band named New Order as a major influence for the project and it definitely shows. While the project can prove to be meandering and unsure of its overall statement, the harmonies present and the humorous juxtaposition of joyful instrumentals and pessimistic lyrics make I’ll Be Your Girl an overall enjoyable listen.

I’ve seen quite a few people compare frontman Colin Meloy’s writing style across this project to the conventions of children’s music, and I can certainly see where they are coming from. There’s a degree of catchy simplicity to many of these tracks, with repetitive, easily remembered and sung along to hooks. The greatest part is, they use these juvenile sensibilities to deliver some quite cynical lyrical content, and the jubilant earnestness with which they sing about impending doom hits a degree of absurdism that I can’t help but love. The tracks “Everything Is Awful” and “We All Die Young” – which features a chorus of children yelling the title – in particular are structured like folksy childrens’ melodies. The layered ‘everything’s building up to that small break in the music before the first harmonized “EVERYTHING IS AWFULLLL” made me crack up immediately – because it is, and we’re trying our hardest to smile about as hard as Meloy’s joyful melody suggests anyway.

Meloy’s vocals are certainly coming more from the folk and Americana side of the Decemberists’ music, a matter-of-fact tenor delivery with trademark indie vocal inflections, and the addition of computerized synths that back up his acoustic guitar often give his sharp lyrics a bit more of a punch on tracks like “Severed”. He’s the main guitarist as well, delivering a great solo that emulates the synths on upbeat, theatrical track “Your Ghost”. One of the greatest parts of the album are the strong harmonies that make these simple and beautiful storytelling melodies even better. “Sucker’s Prayer” is the best track here, bringing a catchy piano hook running through the track that cuts out at just the right times. Meloy taps into his most soulful chorus yet and higher female harmonies back up his exasperated declaration – “I wanna love somebody but I don’t know how” as a drum fill reintroduces the calmer piano chords of the verses. It’s a pretty impossibly perfect song.

The band’s transition to a more electronic influence isn’t always seamless. The ascending and descending synth arpeggios that cascade through a track like “Cutting Stone”, which opens with the folksiest of acoustic chords, seem incredibly misplaced for the melody of the track, which is clearly influenced by the simplicity of Americana melodies. The instrumental is too busy for the beauty of Meloy’s stark vocal. The middle of the album becomes a bit similar, not possessing the energies that open and close the album, particularly on the one-note “Tripping Along”. The intersection of genres and trepidation towards a full commitment to making the album political shows a lack of direction, and nowhere is this better emphasized than the 8-minute “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes”, a slow and meandering track that sees Meloy, out of nowhere, begin describing a tale of some sort of Russian succubus mermaid. It doesn’t really serve a purpose here, either narrative or musical.

I’ll Be Your Girl is one of the calmest and most comforting albums about how, well, everything is awful that I’ve heard. The vocals are top notch across the board – enjoy a quirky mashup of electronica and indie-folk.

Favourite Tracks: Sucker’s Prayer, Everything Is Awful, Your Ghost, I’ll Be Your Girl, We All Die Young

Least Favourite Track: Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes

Score: 7/10

Image result for boarding house reachJack White – Boarding House Reach

Former White Stripes member and garage and blues rock guitarist Jack White drops his most polarizing and confusing work yet, hitting a degree of experimentation that will determine listeners’ enjoyment level based on their willingness to embrace White’s most theatrical and whimsical tendencies. White barely sings on Boarding House Reach at all, filling the project with spoken word pieces, extended bluesy instrumentals and distorted backing vocals. I fall onto the side of loving this project, as I simply haven’t heard something this sonically ambitious on a mainstream release in a long time. White throws song structure out the window and takes listeners on a consistently surprising electronic journey through the capitalist apocalypse.

As White’s career progresses, he’s adopted more and more of a flair for the melodramatic. Throughout the album White’s vocals are intentionally so passionate that they almost fall off the pitch, while his backing vocalists are always at full volume. Rock ballad “Connected By Love” opens up the album, the drums rolling and something like a rock organ pounding away as White relishes in the sonic misdirection of the clashing tones of the track, shouting his proclamations of love and thriving in the chaos before bringing it back down with the most mournful “what have I done” you’ll ever hear. The authenticity White brings to his delivery is always evident, sounding absolutely miserable on the philosophical “Why Walk A Dog?” as he contemplates his passive acceptance of his slavery to the music industry’s demands.

The theme of capitalism persists throughout the project. White adopts the voice of a commercial announcer on interlude “Everything You’ve Ever Learned”, suggesting that all information has a corporate attachment – “brought to you by…”, but the greatest culmination is outstanding track “Corporation”. The first half of the track is entirely instrumental, filled with interlocking punchy blues rock guitar hooks and a mad bongo drummer before White arrives with the ferocity and conviction of a deranged preacher, rhythmically rallying people to join him in starting a corporation, which he states is the only way to succeed today. The slight shifting of the basic instrumental motifs building up to White’s most wide-eyed declarations is an absolute experience. “Ice Station Zebra” feels almost like old-school hip-hop, a stuttering boom-bap beat backing White’s rapped vocals and some catchy blues piano riffs, while “Over and Over and Over” is classic White Stripes with some intense rock vocals and chilling, horrific pitch shifted vocals signifying futility. There are too many great tracks to acknowledge here, but “What’s Done Is Done” is hilarious – White harmonizes a somber country ballad with full acknowledgement of his own ridiculousness, resorting to ending the life of one of the two in a failed relationship – “and it won’t be me”, the female voice closes the track.

White himself has acknowledged how annoying this album has the potential to get on tracks like “Hypermisophoniac”, in which he was apparently actively trying to create something listenable out of the most annoying sounds possible, starting with the beeps and whirs of his son’s toys. It doesn’t line up on purpose, and this is the track where this idea is pushed too far to the point of unlistenability. “I don’t think we succeeded, but we definitely got the annoying part down.”, White said. The title of the track refers to an affliction causing extreme hatred of certain sounds. A few tracks at the end feel underwritten – I really want to hear White’s command of the mic more, but tracks like “Get In the Mind Shaft” and “Respect Commander” still have a great experimental garage rock feel.

Boarding House Reach is certainly not for everyone, and it is sure to be one of the most divisive recordings of the year – think Kanye’s “Yeezus”. White’s theatricality and social commentary turns the project into grandiose, intense performance art. It’s a daring and ambitious statement, and I think the risk paid off.

Favourite Tracks: Corporation, Over and Over and Over, Ice Station Zebra, Connected By Love, What’s Done Is Done

Least Favourite Track: Hypermisophoniac

Score: 9/10

Image result for diplo california epDiplo – California EP

EDM superstar and producer Diplo drops a brief, 6-track hip-hop leaning EP that shows him perfectly embracing summer sounds about as well as contemporary Calvin Harris did with his Funk Wav Bounces. Diplo brings his trademark influences of dancehall and trip-hop to a pulsating, gyrating mixture of fun synth lines – just enough to disguise the heartfelt emotional content lurking beneath. Diplo recruits an all-star crew of rap’s new insurgence of earnest goofballs and emotional crooners that believe every word they’re saying, including Lil Yachty, Lil Xan and Trippie Redd. It’s tough for Diplo to go wrong at this point – the man knows what he’s doing, and his take on new rap trends with his own signature electronic sound is another success.

Diplo plays directly into the strengths of his guests, providing the soundscape each can excel in while still maintaining the aspects that make these tracks easily identifiable as a Diplo song. We open with “Worry No More”, a track that plays into the carefree, childlike side of Lil Yachty and complements it with the high-pitched voice of Santigold. “I’m chasing after my dreams”, Yachty sings in an intoxicating melody over a beat that sounds like it comes from those Jimmy Fallon videos where he replicates a song with classroom instruments. “Look Back” is a much more cinematic track perfect for the gravitas of DRAM’s booming R&B singing voice. The track plays out like Diplo’s take on a Bond theme, orchestral synths swelling in the background to match DRAM’s theatrical and distressed wails at the top of his range.

The final 3 tracks on the project are where Diplo’s blend of his older style and the trends of today are fully realized. “Wish” immediately drops into an incredible 90s piano groove reminiscent of classic Diplo production, the upstart Trippie Redd opening with a catchy pop melody that quickly grows into the depressed proclamations and emo vocal inflections he is known for. It fits shockingly well, even as every musical sensibility is screaming that it shouldn’t. On “Color Blind” Lil Xan’s subdued, barely there delivery is played off of like its own instrument with the most aggressive instrumental on the project, hitting the listener with a barrage of synth triplets at the forefront of the mix. The closing track, a new remix of “Get It Right”, is simply classic pop Diplo. Set to triumphant and uplifting piano chords, Mo’s shouty prechorus kickstarts a huge buildup that drops into a glitchy chorus of pitched vocal samples and a soulful rap verse from GoldLink. It’s easily the most dancefloor-ready track here.

“Suicidal”, featuring Desiigner, is the only misstep here, a much emptier track in comparison. Diplo often specializes in crowding his tracks with an immersive wall of sound, and this track’s repetitive nature and Desiigner’s delivery doesn’t really command the more ethereal, spacey instrumental.

Now 40 years old, Diplo has been making hits for long enough that he’s reached the perfect place in which he has a complete command of a unique personal style, and yet can release a great EP like this that adapts to trends of today like it’s simple. The veteran producer keeps on rolling, and with a collaborative project with Sia and Labrinth in the works, it’s looking like another great year for him.

Favourite Tracks: Color Blind, Get It Right Remix, Wish

Least Favourite Track: Suicidal

Score: 8/10

 

Rapid Fire Reviews (Vance Joy, Tory Lanez, Tech N9ne)

Image result for nation of two vance joyVance Joy – Nation of Two

Indie-pop singer-songwriter Vance Joy returns with his second studio album, almost 4 years after the runaway success that was “Riptide”, a song which was run into the ground to a rather annoying degree for this reviewer personally. Joy’s sentimental songwriting and catchy falsetto melodies are back on this project, and while a few of these breezy and instrumentally sparse tracks can seem overly simple or derivative at times, Nation of Two does stand out as a solid project due to its thematic cohesion and Joy’s undeniable ability to write uplifting tunes that we all want to sing along to. The album details the story of what Joy calls a “perfectly self-contained couple”, and the highs and lows of their blocking out most of the outside world.

The album opens with “Call If You Need Me”, potentially the closest thing on the whole album to exactly what we expect of him, the instrumental little more than a repetitive, plucked guitar pattern backed up by some ghostly indie-folk falsetto vocals that we’ve heard on his earlier work, and many others’. Joy knows what works for him and plays it safe to a degree that doesn’t really engage me quite a bit. There are more interesting musical choices than I would have expected after that intro, however, as the album starts to pick up immediately. “Lay It On Me” is a great track that sees Joy get more upbeat than usual, building into an explosive brass-backed chorus with some nice harmonies and a huge drum build-up. The fuller instrumentals work to his benefit, giving more power and support to his singalong choruses. Even if he uses some of the same tricks repeatedly, Joy’s earnest and confessional approach to songwriting fits as the instrumental raises and lowers volume in accord with the more emotional moments in his delivery. Joy’s voice is the perfect instrument to deliver the heartfelt declarations of love he is so fond of, accompanied by tiny wavers when he holds out a note and appropriately soaring for the bigger, celebratory choruses. There’s something indescribably unique that connects him to a listener.

Still, by the 5th or 6th time a song opens with the same basic picking patterns you’ve heard your friend play on the ukulele more than once the album starts to get tiresome. There’s a reason Joy was rewarded with a prime spot opening for the perfect exercise in pop marketing – Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour. Joy’s approach to songwriting can be intentionally formulaic and accessible to a lowest common denominator audience, not deviating from the song structures or content that is expected.

Joy went bigger on this project without altering too much of what got him here in the first place, and despite the lingering feeling that we’re simply being presented with a cookie-cutter “wholesome” façade, there’s enough underlying talent that it doesn’t matter much.

Favourite Tracks: Lay It On Me, We’re Going Home, Alone With Me, I’m With You, One of These Days

Least Favourite Track: Call If You Need Me

Score: 7/10

Tory-lanez-memories-don't-die.jpgTory Lanez – MEMORIES DON’T DIE

Toronto singer and rapper Tory Lanez’ second studio album, MEMORIES DON’T DIE, is just as overlong and derivative as his debut project I Told You. For someone who has had numerous conflicts with fellow Torontonian Drake in the past, his emulation of his processes and formulas on this project is surprising. While the production on this album can certainly save a few of its tracks, too often we return to uninspired piggybacking on OVO trends such as the fake dancehall tracks, Lanez possessing a small fraction of the charisma that allows Drake to pull it off.

Most of the album is backed up by the same spacey, moody R&B instrumentals and trap beats that can be found on every artist riding this new wave’s projects. Lanez is a much more engaging rapper than he is a singer, although even this comes with its clear influences from others – “Benevolent” is just a better than average Drake track with its soul flip and entrancing dark trap instrumental. Worse, Lanez has the audacity to suggest that others are copying HIM on “Old Friends x New Foes”. His singing can be overly indulgent, slowing songs down and contributing to the extensive runtime of the project. He does mix the two together, like another larger artist we might all know, but he can’t pull off the disinterested, barely trying attitude that makes these kind of mixed vocalizations sound listenable. He sounds downright obnoxious on a track like “Shooters”, falling off the tone at the end of his sentences and confusing his Auto-Tune machine. Lanez’ delivery doesn’t feel genuine or natural at times either, often adopting a higher, strained baby voice to accompany the fake accent he uses on dancehall tracks like “Skrt Skrt” and “4 Me”.

Certain tracks do possess some more interesting musical deviations in the instrumental. “48 Floors” is one of the catchiest tracks here, mostly thanks to a melodic panflute instrumental from lesser-known producer Mansa that blends well with Lanez’ repetitive earworm of a hook, while Benny Blanco and Cashmere Cat’s trademark atmospheric pop style fits surprisingly well on “Hypnotized”. Still, tracks like “Real Thing”, with a pretty energetic trap beat, can still be pulled down by Lanez’ substandard delivery. The string of features near the albums’ tail end didn’t seem to put in much effort, with the exception of 50 Cent, who can still drop an engaging verse. NAV, Fabolous and Wiz Khalifa are just as inept as usual, however.

Tory Lanez doesn’t do anything on this project that isn’t done more effectively somewhere else. His team does everything they can to mask the fact that his personality is rather indistinct, but MEMORIES DON’T DIE falls flat.

Favourite Tracks: 48 Floors, Hypnotized, B.I.D.

Least Favourite Track: Shooters

Score: 3/10

Image result for planet tech n9neTech N9ne – Planet

Prolific independent rapper Tech N9ne releases yet another in a long string of albums over the past few years. Although he is heralded by his lightning-fast “chopper” style that raises him high above most rappers in terms of technical skill, his lyrics and attempts to mix his work with other genres have often left something to be desired. Tech N9ne always has the capacity to surprise the listener with his ability even after so many years, but his albums are often a mixed bag of quality and Planet is no different.

Planet opens strong with “Habanero”, featuring a catchy chorus from one of the Strange Music label’s most promising young artists in Mackenzie N Tech doesn’t go all out on his verses here, but his boasts are a good intro the album displaying a small portion of his technical ability and deferring most of the song’s staying power to Nicole. The album wakes up in full on the track “Don’t Nobody Want None”, where Tech pays homage to his roots as a breakdancer with an old-school 80s breakbeat that fits his slightly goofy persona perfectly. Hearing Tech’s chopper flow over a beat that was never supposed to accommodate it is absolutely impressive. “Bad JuJu” might be Tech’s strongest vocal performance on the album, and King Iso’s feature is just as mindblowingly speedy. Closing track “We Won’t Go Quietly” might be Tech at his career best, an incredibly powerful track where Tech addresses racism and the extreme political divide preventing artists from stating their true feelings over uplifting piano chords. What might have gotten my attention the most, however, is how strong the transitions are between tracks on this album, flowing into each other seamlessly in a surprising way due to the many genres the album attempts to span. It’s impossible to notice the tracks skipping over here.

One thing Tech has done more in recent years is show an affinity for metal music, even collaborating with members of Slipknot and System of a Down. While these have been an interesting contrast to his music, Tech’s attempts on his own to scream like a metal frontman over some harder, guitar-driven beats have often proven awkward at best. Tech doesn’t have the lyrical skill to go as cinematic and grandiose as he does on tracks like “Brightfall” either, complemented by full-blown operatic choirs as he speaks about his complicated relationship with religion. Tech’s lyricism is often affected by his desire to spit so quickly, due to having to find so many words to rhyme as the lyrics fly by and simply finding a word that fits the rhyme scheme much better than the narrative. Tech also inexplicably adopts something of a country accent on the obnoxious hook of “Kick It With Myself”, previewing the later “Not a Damn Thing”, where it returns in a messy genre clash between the harder verses and harmonized chorus. 20 albums in, it’s tough not to repeat as well, and “Comfortable” is basically a retread of one of Tech’s biggest hits in “Fragile”, criticizing broadcast media rather than print this time.

It’s undeniable that Tech N9ne is and has been one of the most technically gifted rappers in the industry, but so many other aspects surrounding his music could use better execution. When it comes together perfectly, it creates something very powerful, but that’s becoming more of a rare occurrence later in his career.

Favourite Tracks: We Won’t Go Quietly, Don’t Nobody Want None, Bad JuJu, Never Stray

Least Favourite Track: Kick It With Myself

Score: 5/10

First Aid Kit – Ruins

Image result for first aid kit ruinsSwedish folk duo First Aid Kit’s fourth studio album continues to display the sisters’ airtight harmonies and excellent storytelling while settling into a satisfying and consistent niche throughout its 10 tracks. While the album isn’t particularly abundant in musical risks, this is the sound of a band in full control of what works well for them, and they deliver some enchanting fireside melodies here. First Aid Kit edge slightly closer to country territory on this project, their vocals possessing a slight twang over the trademark acoustic picking and background strings.

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One of the greatest strengths of the project is the consistent ability to surprise when you think their songs are one-dimensional. Opening track “Rebel Heart”, despite its emotionally powerful chorus, doesn’t change much in terms of energy throughout its first two-thirds before a brief moment of silence – which I thought signaled the end of the track – gives way to a much more upbeat and rhythmically complex instrumental section, the vocals coming back strong on top.

The sisters are masters of the slow build, often beginning tracks quietly before the instrumentation swells and the harmonies kick in stronger than before for some truly captivating vocal moments. I wish “To Live A Life” lasted a bit longer, the power they display at the end of the track isn’t quite satisfying for how much buildup it took to get there, but it’s a great example of how well they can pull off sudden shifts in energy. Another great moment is the bridge of “Distant Star”, which suddenly twists the bright major key with some more ominous notes that are barely noticeable, but give the track a definite and inexplicable feeling of unease that fits with their unsuspectingly dark lyrical themes.

“It’s A Shame” is possibly the greatest vocal showcase on the album, backed by a stronger foundation of some quicker guitar chords for the sisters to get a bit louder over. The harmonies are at their cleanest on the chorus, the artists’ proclaimed love for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours never more evident as they juxtapose their rather grim lyrics about loneliness with the sunniest sounding song here.

I really do love the interplay between their voices here, the album is seriously carried by the vocal talent more than anything else. The breaks in their voice as they jump up to a higher note and the slight melismatic tone throughout is somehow perfect for the brand of stark, confessional lyrics. They frequently sing over constant harmonized vocal support in the instrumental, a track like “Fireworks” bringing it all together perfectly.

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Despite the project’s shorter runtime, there are a few noticeably weaker tracks. When the sisters aren’t at the top of their game vocally their approach to the genre doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. A track like “Postcard” is more subdued vocally, and does contain a great piano solo midway through the track, but the instrumental is at its closest to classic country tricks here, and I feel like I’ve heard this track quite a few times before.

Additionally, the more powerful moments on this album make the tracks that don’t spend as much time progressing towards a triumphant goal at the end feel much weaker – “My Wild Sweet Love” never really reaches a climax as immediately captivating as its counterparts. The full-voiced belt seriously takes the listener aback, often dropping on them unsuspectingly, its what makes you really admire the full extent of the musicianship here.

Ruins is a very solid effort that continues to establish First Aid Kit as they slowly assert themselves in the public consciousness. The level of raw talent and songwriting ability here is impressive – the band knows exactly what they’re doing right.

Favourite Tracks: It’s A Shame, Fireworks, Hem Of Her Dress, Rebel Heart, To Live A Life

Least Favourite Track: My Wild Sweet Love

Score: 7/10

Kesha – Rainbow

Kesha - Rainbow (Official Album Cover).pngFormer dance commander and proponent of sleazy electropop Kesha is now minus a dollar sign in her name and a contract with an abusive producer. Rainbow is her first album since 2012’s Warrior and thankfully, we finally get to see the kind of music Kesha wanted to make all along. There were very brief glimpses of just how talented Kesha really is on her earlier work, but the character she portrayed was fun enough to transform her into a massive pop star anyway.

This latest project was her opportunity to let loose, and as she runs through emotional piano ballads, acoustic folk tracks, and forays into country and harder rock, Rainbow is all over the place in the absolute best way. A few of her experiments are noticeably weaker in execution than others, but the combination of actual talent with the goofy eccentricities of her past and a powerful message of strength is more than enough to carry Rainbow.

It would appear that Kesha’s found some new producers! Quite a bit is attributed to go-to pop producer Ricky Reed, but some of the more interesting choices here include Ryan Lewis (of Macklemore fame) and alt-rocker Ben Folds. Her uniqueness is demonstrated even further with her feature list: She recruits both a horn section, and hard rock band Eagles of Death Metal for TWO tracks. Most interestingly, however, country legend Dolly Parton joins Kesha for a cover of her hit “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)”, which was actually written by Kesha’s mother.

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Hearing Kesha actually sing for the entire duration of an album is a great experience. It’s like watching a whole new artist being born. Kesha without any restrictions is a truly dangerous thing to unleash upon the world. We open with “Bastards”, where she bluntly sets the tone over some acoustic strumming: “Don’t let the bastards get you down, down let the assholes wear you out”. This message of personal strength persists throughout.

One of the best parts of Rainbow is how you can tell that some of her old persona was actually real, as her personality comes through in full force. Studio banter is often left on the final cut, and she even breaks down laughing halfway through a verse in “Woman”, missing some of her lyrics in the process.

Tracks like “Godzilla” and “Boogie Feet” are the greatest exhibition of this. Honestly, I was waiting for at least one more party-girl rap verse from Kesha and I got it and then some on “Boogie Feet”. The track turns into a B-52s style back and forth with Eagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughes before they both drawl “Are you scared of these boogie feet?” You have to hear the song to understand the magic. “Godzilla”, on the other hand, is just an adorable song with whimsical lyrics on falling in love with a man who might scare others with his nonconformity – hence, Godzilla.

On almost every track, Kesha finds a way to throw in subtle references to how much more control she has over her life and music in the absence of her contract. “I write this s**t”, she asserts in “Woman”, a track about female independence. Celebratory pop track “Learn To Let Go” offers “The past can’t haunt me if I don’t let it”.

Lead single “Praying” is a heartbreaking ballad where she addresses Dr. Luke directly and displays her most emotional vulnerability on the project. It takes a special kind of strength to write a song to your abuser thanking him for “How strong I have become” and hoping that one day he “find[s] his peace” and learns the error of his ways. Not that the song isn’t tinged with a bit of anger either – a bit more fire creeps into her voice in the second verse, where she relishes in proving Luke wrong with her success without him. “When I’m finished they won’t even know your name”, she concludes. To top it all off, she hits a whistle note that spawned reaction videos. It might be the most powerful piece of songwriting this year.

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Kesha’s diversity is great to hear for someone who used to be so one-dimensional. Something like “Hunt You Down” is a fun country track – in a feminist twist on outlaw country, Kesha threatens to kill if she’s cheated on over a twangy bassline – but her true strength as a pop songwriter is the biggest revelation of Rainbow. The title track, “Hymn” and “Learn To Let Go” are all incredible pieces of pop music. “Rainbow” especially is another incredibly affecting track, apparently written on a toy keyboard while in rehab. The strings and backing harmonies swell as Kesha implores every girl to find the magic inside themselves and fall in love with being alive.

I truly believe that Kesha laid down every crazy idea that got in her head just because she could on this project, and that means there had to be a few questionable moments. “Let ‘Em Talk” is a mess. I like that she wanted to channel this crazy energy with the assistance of a hard rock band, but this is a bit too much chaos for me. The track speeds along with a frenetic guitar riff as Kesha taps into her inner rock and roll frontwoman. I can’t tell if it’s a slight distortion effect on her voice, but the higher pitch of the song eventually makes it pretty grating. The whole song is just too loud.

“Spaceship”, as well, closes the album on a low as Kesha ventures a little too close to self-indulgence over a bluegrass instrumental. It is easily the longest track, and ends on a speech that could be mistaken for a series of Jaden Smith tweets.

Someone as free-spirited as Kesha was never going to make a perfect album, but this is an absolutely spectacular return to the music industry that blew my expectations away. I’m not sure how the mainstream will receive this, but this new, dynamic and unleashed version of Kesha is a force to be reckoned with.

Favourite Tracks: Praying, Rainbow, Learn To Let Go, Boogie Feet, Hunt You Down

Least Favourite Track: Let ‘Em Talk

Score: 8/10

Avicii – AVĪCI (01) EP

AVĪCI (01).jpgSwedish superstar DJ Avicii returns with a brief 6-track EP in the wake of commercially underperforming 2015 album Stories and a retirement fake-out. There isn’t a lot of diversion here from the sound that helped him ascend to worldwide status, which is becoming somewhat outdated in the current musical landscape. However, it is nice to have the original pioneer back, even if the folk roots that he draws from have since fallen out of favour on mainstream radio.

Avicii’s formula is a smart one, and with assistance from features like Rita Ora and AlunaGeorge, his brand of folktronica and catchy drops that sound like they belong on a video game soundtrack could easily insert him back into the public eye. There could be a much greater degree of creativity here, but I can’t deny that these energetic and uplifting tracks do their job effectively.

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The album opens with some acoustic chords and a bouncy bassline, as a pleasant tenor voice starts singing about friendship. We could be watching a guy strumming a guitar at a campfire here. Avicii still definitely knows how to tap into this sentimentality, and there isn’t really anyone else in this exact lane.

I really do have to commend him for how he was able to keep some of the aspects of tracks like “Wake Me Up”, but do just enough to modernize his sound as well, especially on “Friend of Mine”. THe voices aren’t overly folksy, the acoustic strumming cuts out at the most climactic portions of the song. It’s a very intelligent approach.

“So Much Better”, a remix of Swedish singer-songwriter Sandro Cavazza’s track, sees him abandon his style the most and tap into some more current EDM trends – there are some definite tropical house influences here as he attacks listeners in a quieter manner like a Kygo or Cashmere Cat. We get a single main synth and some rhythmic bass stabs, and sometimes that’s all we need. He fits quite well into the newer laid-back style. Cashmere Cat actually appears alongside Benny Blanco for “Lonely Together”, but it doesn’t stand out as much due to Rita Ora’s overly poppy vocals.

“You Be Love”, even though I fully recognize how many of the boxes it ticks on the “overly sugary party track” checklist, gets me to submit all the same. It is the most rhythmic track of all, as Clean Bandit-esque synth-piano chords begin pounding away and a quickly oscillating and high-pitched main synth line activates the confetti cannons and the beginning of the party. Billy Raffoul’s slightly gravelly vocals syncopate well with the rhythm and give it a bit of an added dimension of soul. I was very surprised to learn that the track was written by massive country songwriter Hillary Lindsey, who doesn’t seem like she belongs anywhere near this world but has given us some great stuff in the past.

Despite all this, Avicii seems to have forgotten that the first track that got him any recognition was “Levels”, a completely instrumental track. The instrumental bits really still are the best parts of his songs, and for the most part, they end far too abruptly here.

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The release of energy that the track builds up never lasts long enough and ends up making me resent the gimmicky nature of the remainder of the track. Avicii knows that he can rely on a basic formula of wholesome lyrics and a brief infusion of electronic aspects and coast on it. The AlunaGeorge track is basically entirely this without even getting to the drop – it sounds like a more electronic version of a track like Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me”. That’s how overly saccharine some of this stuff gets, as Avicii uses their childlike voices to maximum effect.

Even on a very short 6-track EP, it feels like Avicii’s old tricks grow tiresome quickly. Buy the time “Without You” comes on and we get the 4th track in a row of a voice with some indie inflections singing a very basic melody over an acoustic guitar, eventually being taken over by a massive synth breakdown that sounds like a same instruments were being used every time, you begin to tire of all of it and that’s a problem for a project so short.

This is really the underlying problem with doing in-depth reviews on EDM music, because so often the album format is not really how these tracks were meant to be consumed. I’m confident in saying I would lose my mind if any of these came on in a social situation.

Ultimately, these tracks are far from my favourite EDM material I’ve heard this year but they meet my expectations for an Avicii project and I respect what he’s doing. This is supposedly the first EP of 3 that will combine into the album, so I’m excited to see if he takes a few more risks later this year.

Favourite Tracks: You Be Love, Friend Of Mine

Least Favourite Track: Without You

Score: 6/10

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Image result for pure comedyFolk-rock singer-songwriter Josh Tillman releases his third studio album under the Father John Misty moniker, abandoning the deeply emotional love songs which characterized his critically acclaimed 2015 album I Love You, Honeybear. Instead, he turns to crushingly depressing and frequently hilarious social and political satire. Pure Comedy is an incredibly dense album, extending to nearly an hour and a half and containing some absolutely beautifully written commentary on the issues plaguing humanity as a whole, including some very self-aware analysis and criticism of himself as a speaker, a musician and a human.

Almost nothing escapes Tillman’s cynical eye – capitalism, religion, the political divide and the entertainment industry all receive scathing takedowns from a largely nihilistic perspective. Since the self-inflicted destruction of humanity is so clearly imminent, what else are we to do but laugh at ourselves?

Even though things are much more focused on what Tillman has to say here, the musical aspects are far from relegated to the background. These tracks are all based on acoustic guitar loops and elements of rock piano, but the variation between tracks, usually to fit a theme, means even the most repetitive of instrumentals stays interesting and appropriate. Some of the tracks about religion utilize aspects of gospel music to their full ironic potential, while the joyous pounding on the piano takes over some others, accompanied by celebratory brass sections, when Tillman is speaking about the perfect utopian world advertised to us.

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The instrumental is stripped back and repetitive when Tillman gets most introspective, such as on the 13-minute “Leaving LA”, but the analysis of ourselves that he offers is so striking and profound that serviceable and pleasant instrumentals containing a few interlocking aspects and great musicianship is almost more than we can ask for in addition. It’s for the best that the music never distracts us from what he has to say.

Tillman has the perfect voice for the delivery of these hard truths, smooth and capable but very matter-of-fact, with the ability to pack emotion into his delivery without increasing in volume. It’s almost as if he is trying his best to prevent from breaking down and crying at any moment. However, the real magic of this album is its lyrical content. Incredibly detailed, he weaves philosophical and literary references and dark humour into vivid description of post-apocalyptic societies and the human condition.

In a terrifying and hilarious track, “The Ballad Of The Dying Man”, the titular character wonders who will critique the “pretentious, ignorant voices” of the “homophobes, hipsters and 1%” once he, and his superior opinions, are gone. He checks his Facebook news feed one more time before taking his final breath. “Total Entertainment Forever” is the album’s most upbeat and triumphant track, commenting on how technology is encompassing our lives and leading to our deaths. Tillman issues the most sarcastic “na na na come on” of all time before closing the track with the image of a historian finding corpses plugged into hubs, “a frozen smile on every face” as we escape from the real-life hell we wrought in virtual reality.

“When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay” skewers religion, envisioning a confused Death on Judgement Day saying that Earth is similar to the Hell he is about to take them to, as the speaker informs God that his creation of flawed beings was bound to fail from the start – “Try something less ambitious the next time you get bored”. There are so many fantastic lyrical concepts on this album I wish I could fit into this review.

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Tillman takes it upon himself to make most of the criticisms I could make about this album first. “Leaving LA” is a 13-minute epic addressing Tillman’s displeasure with the industry’s treatment of artists in his vein, before attacking himself for the 2nd half of the song. He envisions his critics: “That’s just what we all need, another white guy in 2017 who takes himself so goddamn seriously”, losing fans as he delivers a “10-verse chorus-less diatribe”, while they say “I used to like this guy, this new s**t really kinda makes me want to die”.

It is true that repetition of vocal melody and instrumental can get somewhat tiresome, but the only real time I was taken out of the experience was the extended instrumental section on “So I’m Growing Old On Magic Mountain”. Tillman’s commentary is what elevates the typical folk backgrounds to something special. However, his diversion from the theme on “Smoochie”, a track dedicated to his wife’s ability to keep him sane, and a failing attempt to convey meaning with blunter lyrics regarding the political divide on “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” are two aspects which detract from the awe-inspiring stream of consciousness which dominates the rest of the album.

Pure Comedy is the perfect soundtrack to the world we live in today. There is really nobody like Tillman making such in-depth songs right now, so if you don’t mind being served a hefty dose of reality, this is one of the year’s greatest albums so far.

Favourite Tracks: Pure Comedy, Ballad of the Dying Man, The Memo, When The God Of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell To Pay, Leaving LA

Least Favourite Track: Two Wildly Different Perspectives

Score: 9/10

Lady Gaga – Joanne

Image result for lady gaga joanneAfter a few years accompanying Tony Bennett, far removed from the mainstream consciousness in the world of jazz music, Lady Gaga returns to the public eye with her fifth studio album and first since 2013’s ARTPOP. Gaga is accompanied by many interesting and unexpected collaborators from all over the musical map, leading people to wonder what direction Joanne might be taken in — Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Beck, Father John Misty and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker are just a few.

When single “Perfect Illusion” was released with its rock-influenced sound, polarizing some fans and failing to draw mass radio appeal, we knew we were going to get something interesting. And Gaga certainly does have many new and interesting ideas on this project, but can’t shake off her past as an over-the-top performer to accompany the more toned-down and serious nature of the music here. Gaga’s voice can be very impressive at times, but she tends to get much more melodramatic than the folksy instrumentals here call for. Overall, Joanne is an admirable but inconsistent creative effort.

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Many of these collaborators appear in the writing credits, as the primary production credit on every song on Joanne goes to none other than Mark Ronson, who is fresh off of the most successful song of the decade. Ronson has always been known for more guitar-based music, and he makes his unique presence felt here. However, even with a single production team (Gaga and Bieber collaborator BloodPop round it out), the album does not have a particularly unified sound. Famed country songwriter Hillary Lindsey appears to give “A-Yo” some country-rock flair. “Dancin’ In Circles”, written by Beck, goes down the Gwen Stefani-esque reggae/ska path. “Million Reasons” is a pure folk ballad. Father John Misty’s world-weary attitude is felt on his two co-written tracks “Sinner’s Prayer” and “Come To Mama”. This is truly an amalgamation of many diverse musician’s styles, creating the inconsistency when some of these influences do not necessarily mesh as well as others. Still, there are some pretty incredible musical moments on here.

Gaga’s voice is very emotive, and as a result, some of these songs can be incredibly moving. “Million Reasons” is the true gem of the album, and interestingly enough, perhaps one of the quietest songs on the project, proving that Gaga doesn’t need to overdo it to be effectively emotional. Another Hillary Lindsey collaboration, it exhibits Gaga as a singer-songwriter over a beautiful ballad instrumental which shifts between piano and guitar effortlessly. As the song ramps up into its more powerful chorus, adding some of the only harmonies we hear on the project, Gaga delivers the lines with a voice that is just powerful enough, drawing back to deliver the emotional gut-punch: “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away/But baby, I just need one good one to stay”.

“Come To Mama” is another great track, with its jazzy and glamorous instrumental and fantastic melody that sounds like Ronson recreating one of his early Amy Winehouse tracks. Gaga sounds like a genuine soul singer here, another different direction that the project flies off into in its latter half, but a great one nonetheless. Gaga’s versatility is very impressive on the album, pulling off all these styles effortlessly, right after finding success as a jazz singer. The creativity to write a song to fit all of these styles is really something admirable. “Hey Girl”, a duet with Florence Welch, is quite enjoyable, as the two powerful ladies trade lines over a 80’s rock piano beat. However, it did make me realize that fully committing to this rock angle might not be the best idea for Gaga long-term, as Florence’s gritty voice outshines Gaga’s lighter, sweeter one here – this is her zone.

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Where the project loses points for me is that it does not feel like a complete evolution from Gaga’s old self, the application of these styles feeling more like a lens. Anthony Fantano put it fantastically in his review – Gaga is treating these musical styles like they are “Just an outfit to be put on and worn at the red carpet”. Another negative aspect is the lyricism. Now that Gaga isn’t making pop music anymore, opting instead for a genre where lyricism is championed, her weaker lines are exposed. We have no dance beat to distract us from them anymore. Especially because Gaga goes into some darker territory regarding the state of the world and politics on tracks like “Come To Mama” and “Angel Down”, she should have put in more effort here. And as I said before, on some of these quieter, folk-based instrumentals, I don’t need to hear Gaga wailing “WHERE ARE OUR LEADERS!?” in my ear.

It is interesting to see a shift in direction from a pop singer who has fallen from her previous levels of popularity, attempting to reinvent herself as a singer-songwriter type and bringing in some great musicians to help her do so. And even if some of these ideas weren’t fully developed, there are still some pretty stunning ones. Gaga is certainly a talent, she just needs to determine the most optimal ways to use it.

Favourite Tracks: Million Reasons, Come To Mama, John Wayne, A-YO

Least Favourite Track: Perfect Illusion

Score: 6/10