Rapid Fire Reviews (The 1975, Meek Mill, Rita Ora)

Image result for the 1975 a brief inquiry into online relationshipsThe 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships

British pop-rock band The 1975’s third studio album is easily their most experimental and ambitious, diverting from the typical straightforward guitar-driven anthems to a diverse and discordant array of genres with central themes of attacking the political landscape and our dedication to social media and technology. I’ve often found that the band has tried way too hard to make a huge statement that isn’t really there in the past, but frontman Matty Healy gets his message across a lot better here for the most part. Despite a couple experiments that don’t quite work out the way the band wants them to and a fair share of fake-enlightened ridiculousness, A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships is a respectable step forward. I certainly didn’t see anything like this coming from them.

After a brief intro, we’re dropped into the high-pitched guitar riff of “Give Yourself A Try”, perhaps the track which recalls their earlier material the most of any here. A driving rock song, Healy’s voice cuts through the distorted mix as he immediately dives into some pretty dark topics, addressing struggling with finding meaning as he transitions into his 30s, even comparing his life with a young fan who took her own. It’s hard to understand the lyrics at times here when the mixes are so loud. Healy’s voice gets a little buried at times, but most of what he says is very pressing and poetic. The track “Love It If We Made It” has found its way onto numerous year-end lists, Healy singing “modernity has failed us” among a series of blunt and disjointed statements including Trump quotes, depictions of extravagant riches and Internet lingo. Healy pushes his vocals to the brink here – he sounds overwhelmed, breaking down, the song’s title repeated in the chorus as a desperate plea of sorts. The accompanying music is pretty great too – I love the half-time switch-up introduced in the second chorus, adding a funk bassline and some pounding walls of shimmering synth chords.

Sprinkled throughout the tracklisting are these completely unexpected switches in sound. “How To Draw/Petrichor” is a sparse and cinematic track that spans nearly 6 minutes that consists of twinkling orchestral instrumentals and beautifully layered vocals from Healy, ultimately adding an almost drum n bass dance beat – it complements the technological theme well, the digital intruding. One of my favourite experiments the band makes here is the addition of choral, soulful backing vocals on the tracks “Sincerity Is Scary” and “I Couldn’t Be More in Love”. The former is framed by some warm synth-piano chords and that accommodate the harmonies well, Healy toning down his vocals to an intimate and sincere level as he asks “why can’t we be friends?”, while the latter uses them to their full emotional effect, suddenly roaring in after an emotional soul ballad that goes full 90s R&B on the instrumental (there’s even a key change!). The track “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You)” is another great experiment, essentially sounding like a classic 80s pop anthem – the chorus melody actually really reminds me of “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”, and it captures the same euphoric high, with some celebratory harmonized gang vocals on the hook.

There are certainly a few experiments in genre that don’t really work out as well, however. The acoustic, folksy ballad “Be My Mistake” is relatively simple and repetitive melodically, and Healy’s penchant for the overtly blunt drops a few ridiculous lyrics into the mix that are all the more evident due to the minimal instrumental. I really didn’t think I’d get a trap beat on an album like this, but there it is on “I Like America & America Likes Me”. Healy’s vocals on the track are processed through some kind of Bon Iver-esque machine, and the tonal contrast, especially as he keeps hitting the same wailing vocal melody in the chorus with an unpleasant amount of distortion on his voice, turns the track into a bit of a chaotic mess. “Inside Your Mind” is another slower track where Healy sounds like he’s putting on a different voice, over-enunciating his words, which just gives me the chills due to the creepy subject material of the track. Healy described it as “wanting to know what your partner is thinking so much that you want to smash their head open to look” – except he takes it to a disturbingly literal level.

As the band has always been, most of this album is pretty self-indulgent, and when they start exercising some of their worst tendencies the project can go off the rails a bit. However, it’s almost as if the world has gotten so much more confusing and ridiculous that some of their typical ways to address it almost fit too perfectly where they didn’t before. This album is certainly nothing if not ambitious, and its high points are pretty incredible.

Favourite Tracks: I Couldn’t Be More In Love, Love It If We Made It, It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You), Sincerity Is Scary, How To Draw/Petrichor

Least Favourite Track: Inside Your Mind

Score: 7/10

Meek Mill – Championships.pngMeek Mill – Championships

Meek Mill’s Championships is his fourth studio album, and the rapper returns with as much unbridled energy as before. Never afraid to get deeply personal, the project contains quite a few detailed narratives of his experiences in jail, extending it to a criticism of the justice system at large after an FBI investigation into the inappropriate conduct of his judge. While his lyrics and storytelling are always a strength, the album is a bit of a mixed bag standing at 19 tracks and over an hour in length. Meek’s boastful tracks are always fun to listen to when he backs it up with the over-the-top, insatiable delivery that he possesses, but there are more than a few misses where things go on for too long, or a guest vocalist doesn’t quite deliver. Still, there are a fair share of tracks here that are enjoyable for vastly different reasons.

Meek sends a shot at “mumble rappers” on his Phil Collins-sampling “Intro” track, and if anyone is the exact opposite, it’s him. Meek’s voice is always at a full-voiced and expressive shout that’s assertive without veering into the abrasive 6ix9ine territory and assists in delivering both his earnest and emotional life stories and his braggadocio bars. Things pick up for the first time on “Uptown Vibes”, a track that Meek’s energy sends through the roof built on a melodic, Hispanic-sounding trumpet loop and a beat that switches back and forth from aggressive trap to reggaeton – Latin trap artist Anuel AA even shows up to add some Spanish flair to the track. This transitions into “On Me” with Cardi B, and I couldn’t think of a better combination – these two are equivalents in the vitriol with which they attack the mic, and the sinister instrumental allows them each to do what they do best, as unapologetic and unbothered as ever. As much as I can never stand Kodak Black’s voice, “Tic Tac Toe” is another adrenaline shot that introduces another great back-to-back with the track “24/7” with Ella Mai. There’s something about her silky-smooth classic R&B vocals on the chorus complementing Meek’s exuberance. Mai taps into her inner Beyonce, singing a bit of her song “Me Myself & I”, which the track samples.

“What’s Free” is a 6-minute track that represents storytelling Meek at his finest as he recruits label boss Rick Ross and Jay-Z for some extended verses on the meaning of freedom. Meek attacks the judicial system with some slavery comparisons, while Jay-Z shuts the track down with some elder statesman knowledge about keeping his wealth secure and avoiding the injustices. The title track, as well, is a pretty poignant reflection from Meek on the system that holds him down over an extravagant and jazzy classic sample, speaking about his father’s death in a robbery, gun control, and simply trying to stay alive in the violent community. “Oodles O’ Noodles Babies” hits a similar mark with a soulful sample and political talk, but Meek’s technical ability as he rides over a pretty complex instrumental seriously impresses here.

This album definitely would have benefited from some editing down – at a certain point, these three and four-minute tracks with Meek running through lengthy verses of political material with his voice at a constant shout starts to feel repetitive and tiresome to get through – it’s why I enjoy some of the more fun tracks at the end of the tracklisting more than most of them here, I needed a bit of a break (“Stuck In My Ways” has a quotable chorus that you can’t help but love). Meek doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on his diverse instrumentals, all of what he’s trying to convey is done through his words first and foremost – which works, in shorter doses. Some more minimal tracks with heavy subject matter like “Respect the Game” and “100 Summers” come to mind. There was bound to be a few filler tracks here, and they mostly come when Meek loses sight of his strengths. “Almost Slipped” is the first of a couple tracks where Meek tries his hand at singing and only succeeds at coming across as an off-brand Ty Dolla $ign – why remove that immediate, percussive impact of your words? Even “Going Bad”, the much-publicized reunion with Drake after a series of diss tracks, is a pretty lackluster effort from both of them, Drake dipping back into his disinterested flow and a few off-key melodic embellishments while Meek sounds like he’s holding back just a little bit to fit with the lower-key instrumental.

Meek is a serious mic presence and a compelling storyteller, but he’s not the most consistent rapper of all time. There’s a great album hiding somewhere in this tracklisting, but Championships diverts away from what he does best too often.

Favourite Tracks: Stuck In My Ways, 24/7, Uptown Vibes, Oodles O’ Noodles Babies

Least Favourite Track: 100 Summers

Score: 6/10

Rita Ora Phoenix cover.pngRita Ora – Phoenix

It’s surprising that Phoenix is only Rita Ora’s second studio album – after label disputes with Roc Nation and signing a new contract overseas, where she’s always been a lot more popular, her sophomore release comes 6 years after her first. Although its clear that this is more of a collection of songs than a fully defined album, pulling from collaborations, movie soundtracks, and songs that are over a year old at times, for the most part Ora recruits an impressive legion of some of the most tried-and-true hitmakers in the business and succeeds at creating some pretty smart and engaging, if not relatively safe, pop music.

All these tracks were new to me, despite some of them being released long ago – and some being huge international hits away from this continent. Opening track “Anywhere” is one of these, but it’s a great way to kick off this album regardless. Produced by Swedish DJ Alesso, the track evades some of the clichés of the pop song bridge building into the instrumental EDM drop with a nice acoustic transition and Ora’s sincere vocal delivery. The way Alesso chops up her vocals in his electronic chorus is ridiculously catchy. This transitions into latest single “Let You Love Me”, which despite that recent lip-syncing mess at the Thanksgiving Day parade is another well-structured pop track drawing from a more EDM style. The way the music cuts out when she hits the climactic highest note in the chorus before dropping into the heavy percussion of the dance break section is a pretty exhilarating moment, and I’m still not tired of the trend of using those vocoder/Prismizer computerized harmonies either – they sound great at the tail end of the track.

Even when the songwriting and production isn’t as strong, it’s hard not to at least nod your head throughout the duration of the album. These are all uptempo, high-octane pop tracks anchored around the strength of Ora’s voice – she has a surprising amount of power for someone who sticks to the dance-pop lane. The high-energy chorus for a track like “New Look” is puzzlingly short, but it’s great while it lasts. “Your Song”, a track written with Ed Sheeran and his production team, is pretty sanitized and inoffensive, but there’s nothing in it that’s overtly bad – as we progress through the album, the innovation goes down and most of these songs turn into background music, but there’s something in Ora’s delivery that keeps me engaged anyway even if there’s not going to be any awards for creativity here. By the time we get to mid-album tracks like “First Time High” though, the formulas are applied worse and worse and the transition to the electronic drop here is a bit of a mess.

There are a few songs throughout that take me out of the immersion of the album – as innovative as Avicii was, “Lonely Together” was one of his weakest recent tracks, and its placement in such a prominent area here despite already being released on his own album both decreases the quality of Ora’s project and unnerves me a bit for capitalizing on an unfortunate situation. “Summer Love”, a track with UK drum ‘n’ bass collective Rudimental, is another track that was released on another album first and doesn’t fit with the sound of the album at all, completely throwing the flow off. Rudimental themselves have a pretty solidified style that doesn’t switch up much from track to track, and hearing the same reiterated beat that I’ve heard before isn’t as exciting anymore. On the other hand, for a track from a movie soundtrack, the Fifty Shades Freed song “For You” with Liam Payne is actually pretty good. The syncopated and overpowering synth line in the chorus and Ora reaching up to some full-voiced high-notes, as well as the way Payne’s lower register complements and supports Ora so well, continues the franchise’s musical hot streak.

After getting through controversial and clunky mega-collaboration track “Girls”, the album ends pretty strong as well – Julia Michaels’ vocals are always appreciated on “Keep Talking”, a track that she wrote, but closer “Hell of a Life” is a true highlight – I love how the main vocal hook is teased earlier in the pre-chorus and cut off, and the off-kilter guitar pattern is a nice rhythmic switch-up.

Phoenix is a weird amalgamation of tracks from a star with a troubled career trajectory (in North America at least), but there’s enough pop starpower on board to make a few great songs – still, a lot of it is bogged down by filler material.

Favourite Tracks: Anywhere, For You (Fifty Shades Freed), Hell Of A Life, Let You Love Me

Least Favourite Track: First Time High

Score: 6/10

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Mitski – Be The Cowboy

Image result for be the cowboy mitskiOne of the most consistently critically acclaimed artists in the indie community, indie-pop and alt-rock singer-songwriter Mitski returns with her 5th studio album and first following her major-label breakthrough with Puberty 2. Be the Cowboy is a similarly eclectic and intentionally off-kilter collection of brief and often existential tracks. Blending her unassuming, indie-leaning vocal work and bleak and vulnerable lyricism with bombastic, distorted guitar instrumentals, there’s certainly nothing out there that comes even close to what Mitski is doing here. I’m all for experimentation, but it’s honestly hard to tell if I fully like the music here or I just respect it as a completely out-there idea. Although there are brief moments where things get a bit too chaotic here, for the most part the project is elevated by Mitski’s beautiful vocal moments and songwriting abilities.

Listeners are introduced to the kind of album it’s going to be pretty early on, some full, vibrant orchestral strings opening first track “Geyser” before the brief, horror-movie jumpscare type distorted noise honestly shocked me and the track eventually builds up to some underlying heavy distorted guitars as the rest of the pop elements of the track swell to their greatest cinematic peak. It’s all a little much, but it’s nothing if not ambitious. Mitksi’s use of distortion and chaos across the board is used to illustrate the mental state she describes in her lyrics, but it makes it hard to want to give a lot of these tracks repeated listens, especially when she intentionally doesn’t want to settle into a particular groove, switching things up immediately after they’ve begun.

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Mitski is at her best when she embraces the quirky indie-pop singer-songwriter angle: “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” uses the guitars more sparingly, punctuating powerful moments instead of taking everything over. There are some serious 80s synthpop vibes on the song, driven by a pulsating bassline and catchy synth hook that frames the sweeter areas of her voice well. On the song, Mitski expresses disappointment that an ex doesn’t want her back, even though she’s the one that ended it in the first place, and her confused and chaotic mindstate regarding romance continues to show up as a theme here. Almost all of these songs don’t even break the 3-minute mark, making the project resemble a series of disjointed, impulsive thoughts – and her lyricism and even her melodies often reflect this. Mitski has expressed in interviews that she didn’t necessarily want everything to come together perfectly, the distress she expresses on these tracks evident through the music itself. She discusses conflicted feelings on returning to a toxic relationship out of fear of being alone on “A Pearl”, where her vocal lines fluctuate around and never really settle on a direction, and continues to return to the theme of a kind of existential loneliness that has her losing her mind on tracks like “Lonesome Love” and “Blue Light”.

At the same time as this disjointedness works well for what Mitski is trying to express here though, many of my favourite moments on the album are over before they have even begun. “Lonesome Love” is one of the more instrumentally simple tracks here, Mitski adopting an almost folk/Americana cadence over little more than acoustic strumming, and the increased focus on her voice is welcome – but we don’t even hit the 2-minute mark here. “Me And My Husband” is another great moment here, the instrumental reminding me of the kind of old-school piano rock that appears on a Father John Misty project. Hearing Mitski’s vocals on an instrumental capable of turning her emotional vocal delivery into an anthemic mantra as she desperately clings on to a fading partnership.

Image result for mitski live

In the middle of all of this genre-bending madness, there’s what is essentially a perfect pop song in the single “Nobody”. Mitski’s voice already has such a Lana Del Rey-like automatic flair for the vintage, and there’s something about the chorus melody that captures it perfectly here, underscored by those low piano chords and almost disco synths. So many worlds collide on the track in the best possible way – the live percussion on the track elevates it to another level as well, and we’re catapulted into an off-kilter ethereal section of the track as it comes off the rails, Mitski’s voice becoming filtered and robotic as the song ends abruptly after a key change, repeating the title over and over to further illustrate the loneliness she outlines elsewhere. “Washing Machine Heart” is another great track where the almost too-perfect, adorable tone of Mitski’s voice is made to sound detached and robotic with the kind of childish yet eerie melody you’d hear at a carnival, the song ending with a single, terrifying second of static as the speaker becomes unhinged.

Be the Cowboy is certainly one of the most unique listening experiences I’ve had all year, but from everything I’ve heard Mitski say about the album its clear that she has a clearly defined artistic vision and she’s executing it about as well as she possibly could. There are quite a few very powerful musical moments on this album, and despite the lack of replayability, it’s a lot better listened to as a full experience than returning to single songs.

Favourite Tracks: Nobody, Washing Machine Heart, Me And My Husband, Why Didn’t You Stop Me?, Lonesome Love

Least Favourite Track: A Horse Named Cold Air

Score: 7/10

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.

Image result for florence and the machine

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

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 (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

Fall Out Boy – M A N I A

Fall Out Boy - Mania.pngVeteran rock band Fall Out Boy’s seventh studio album, delayed for four months after their bassist Pete Wentz explicitly admitted the songs weren’t good enough in an interview, is certainly a lot more impressive than I’m sure most people expected. However, as evidenced by opening EDM misfire “Young & Menace” remaining on the project, M A N I A is still inconsistent and directionless at times. But standing at only 10 tracks, there is not much room for filler, and Patrick Stump’s trademark vocals and the band’s dedication to heavier instrumentals are still as powerful as they’ve ever been.

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It appears that Fall Out Boy was at least partially inspired by labelmate Paramore’s transition into retro-pop on their fantastic After Laughter, offering some similar tropical pop chords infused with their trademark style of guitar riffs on “HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T”. The effect of someone with a voice as commanding as Stump’s transitioning to a more modern instrumental is quite powerful – he hits some huge notes in the chorus, bringing the stadium rock anthem into a new era. As the tribal drums hit in the track’s bridge and he holds that note on the final “knife” to his voice’s breaking point, I can already picture the scores of crowds singing along to that final chorus.

“The Last Of The Real Ones” brings frequent Weeknd collaborator Illangelo on board, and the track evokes the same kind of indescribable dark energy that a song like “The Hills” has. I give credit to the band for still sticking fast to emphasis on the musicality of the band, actual instruments (especially that impressive drum work!) prominent on every song here where most rock bands turn to more produced pop beats and synths – where this would frequently sound dated, Fall Out Boy bring just enough modern elements in to keep the classic idea of the heavier rock band at the forefront of pop culture alive.

The back to back tracks “Church” and “Heaven’s Gate” might be the band’s best work in years, Stump channelling every ounce of soul in his voice for some more R&B influenced tracks. The latter especially features a beautiful doo-wop instrumental and Stump harmonizing with himself on some seriously impressive high notes before giving the chorus everything he has, showing restraint and emotional vulnerability at just the right moments.

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There are certainly some lyrical shortcomings on the project that bring you out of the songs for a second – especially when comparing the group to the work of some fellow surviving bands lumped together under that “emo” umbrella from the mid-2000s. Where many have grown up in their lyrical themes, there’s something a little weird about hearing a 33-year old structure a chorus around the lyric “I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker colour” on “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)”. Adding a few awkwardly shoehorned pop-cultural references into the mix only exacerbates this – especially when they’re as poorly timed as their villainizing of Tonya Harding on “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea”.

The juxtaposition of that track with preceding “Champion” is noticeable for the repetition of the same tired tropes of self-empowerment they already had a big hit with in “Centuries”. They do know what they’re doing though – “Champion” is much less contrived than the former, and when everything collides together at the end it is legitimately an electrifying experience despite being derivative. Stump still possesses a live wire of a voice that can break through the mediocrity. The project can’t seem to settle on a concrete direction either, jumping between dance-inspired electronic guitar effects, finger-snap poppier tracks, and even a strange feature from Nigerian artist Burna Boy that attempts to jump on the dancehall trend.

The project is at its best when Fall Out Boy adhere to what got them here in the first place, making it less blatantly obvious that they’re trying to fit in when they incorporate some more modern pop trends on tracks like “HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T”. Still, even on such an inconsistent project, you have to give the band credit for sticking to their guns as much as they do, still capable of making some pretty great music even as the modern pop landscape starts to pass them by.

Favourite Tracks: Heaven’s Gate, Church, HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T, The Last Of The Real Ones

Least Favourite Track: Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea

Score: 6/10

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

 

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

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

 

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.

Image result for brand new band live

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