William Tyler continues to plumb the complexities of the American identity on ‘Goes West’, perhaps his most subtly hopeful release to date
January 25, 2018
The last time I heard something I felt like I deeply needed to hear, it was the Go-Betweens’ painfully beautiful break-up album, 16 Lovers Lane. Grant McLennan and Robert Forster’s lyrics and perfect musical arrangements paint a more complete picture of love and loss than I have heard on any other pop music release. I remember turning it on for the first time those years ago, at that point at least a year removed from my own heartbreak and still wildly uncertain about the things going on inside me—not to mention how they were manifesting. The Go-Betweens opened my heart’s latch and I hung on each syllable, feeling all of my emotions unfurl before me in real time. It was an intoxication, an exorcism, an awakening, a frenzied release, amplified by the resounding awareness that I was engaging with something that I was always supposed to encounter. The world seemed to have chosen this moment and this music only for me, and when it presented the thing, I latched onto it with obsessive commitment.
How can a wordless album accomplish essentially the same thing?
William Tyler has operated within the mystery of this question for some time now. 2019’s Goes West is the guitarist’s fourth studio release since 2010 and his third with the titans of Merge, and it arrives as a deeply rich, beautifully subdued culmination of the musician’s decade-long contemplative American odyssey. From his debut Behold the Spirit to now, Tyler has offered a complex arc that works to define many of the characteristics of this place and its modern identity; there is an exhilarating freshness everywhere, but behind it is a thick melancholy, an intense longing to identify and protect the beauty of this world from its own shortcomings. He ruminates on this identity through instrumental arrangements driven by shimmering guitars, fingerpicked and thumb-droned to carve out, somehow, one of the most unique voices in modern American music without offering a single word.
Since embarking on his solo career, Tyler has committed himself to holding a mirror up to the face of his neighbors, no matter how far removed from him they are. He understands the interconnectedness of this century and the wild promise it offers. He communicates his faith in that promise through the traditions that have followed its evolution, arming his lush musical style with the structural cornerstones of country and blues, the inescapable progress of work and struggle, the encompassing essence of hope in the ones next to him, and a relentless belief in the one within.
Goes West makes good on this decade of promise. His first record with a full band behind him is surprisingly perhaps Tyler’s quietest release. This song cycle finds the composer engaging deeply with the subtleties of both his medium and his subject. Like much of Ry Cooder’s poetic guitar work, Goes West elaborates on those subtleties with beautiful mastery, a tone poem that whispers its worth into the listener’s ear as if to say, things will be better, look at all the good you and I have already done, listen to it growing, taking the place of dark things whenever it can, search for it every moment you can.
I listened to Goes West before I did anything else today. I drove to work and bathed in the gift of knowing, once again, that the world had chosen a new moment only for me. Wordlessly, William Tyle told me a universe of things that I needed to hear this morning. In “Fail Safe,” a rich guitar flourish opens up to a highway and succumbs to the abandon, the childish wanderdrunk that accompanies the road to a faraway destination. “Call Me When I’m Breathing Again” plays just like sadness that you can’t name, the kind you can only feel and know deeply, the kind that never leaves but only becomes more manageable. The stunning “Rebecca,” very possibly my favorite track of Tyler’s, is a universe of suggestion. Sparse pianos chime like hints of warmth amid frozen memories; Tyler’s guitar plays a melody kindled by longing and accentuated by its own resolve to love, despite things.
William Tyler’s music is one of this century’s greatest treasures. For Americans young and old, his music should come to you as a beacon of genuineness, and a shield against its opposite. Tyler has never been one to force himself on his neighbors; his music quietly knocks at the door, knocks that seem to tell you themselves that a friend is calling. Accept his wordless invitation, open your ears, and enter into one of the most meaningful conversations you can have through modern popular music.
Jeff Tweedy’s debut set of original solo material reminds all of us of what’s gotten him here, and a lot of what’s gotten us here too
December 6, 2018
For me, it was Being There. It wasn’t the first Wilco record I’d heard and it still might not be my end-all favorite, although sometimes it damn sure is. I was a sophomore in high school headed north in a hulking breaking church bus—the crimson-stain’d letters were peeling tiredly away from the van’s yellow white sheen—on a straight shot to Memphis, riding shotgun, crushing on a girl in my 5-person youth group who sat a row or two behind, and listening to our driver’s music selection. I’d turned over the reins only moments before, begrudgingly. But we were talking about Wilco because Wilco (the Album) was coming out and I was a new fan who acted like he’d listened to more than he had. So he put his favorite Wilco record into the CD player.
The screeching discord of Being There’s first minute groped at my bones and I heard for the first time what was happening in the chaos of my aching inside, manifested here on the stereo, for everyone. (Now, before you say anything, get over it. We’re all aching this much, all the time, about something.) Seconds later, a simple piano and a man named Jeff Tweedy painted my thinking and feeling heart every color.
The six and a half minutes of “Misunderstood” were my first introduction proper to the most important band and songwriter of my life. In those lines of loss, wandering, anger at the world for not getting it, condemnation of the self for taking too long to figure it out, rage at the dead ends of never figuring it out the right way, and finally thanking everyone for none of it, I felt a universe. I felt my universe. We drove on to Memphis and listened to every minute of that double album.
Tweedy has had this effect on me ever since that bus ride. Each time I listen to his music I can sense some semblance of this original feeling. It’s the feeling of knowing completely that another person sees you, which is confounding. A musician has no right to see us and we have no right to see them, much less are either of us ever even realistically able to. But the great ones do see us. Like Van Morrison’s heartbreaking Astral Weeks, there’s an empathy to Tweedy’s musical worldview—it creates a feeling like he’s actually with you, dealing just like you are. He’s been doing this with his music for thirty-five years now. It’s been true since the Uncle Tupelo numbers.
Thirty-five years removed, Jeff Tweedy has finally released a first set of original songs under his own name.
On 2018’s WARM, Jeff Tweedy seems keenly aware of his effect on people and of his place within American musical and social culture. He addresses this immediately on “Bombs Above” which makes this awareness seem more like a new, slightly unexpected struggle for Tweedy rather than an unwelcome but long-foreseen outcome. It’s a terrific burden to bear, and Tweedy spends much of his time on WARM exploring what it means to have contributed a body of work that has deeply affected the musical perspectives and emotional palates of thousands for multiple decades, while also devoting space to the effects that relationship has had on him personally. Only one track after “Bombs Above,” he delivers “Some Birds,” a devastatingly guilty condemnation of himself as a prod rather than a salve to the masses’ suffering. Tweedy even finds his own form of redemption in this strange metacognitive realm—on “From
Far Away,” the singer contemplates his own hypothetical death and upon it he humbly asks us, his fellow dealers, to take everything from him.
It’s a total comfort to hear this songwriter’s first love letter to his friends, family, and massive worldwide audience with only his name on it. It feels like it’s taken him all this time to figure out exactly what to say, to us and to himself. “When a sunny day turns to rain, think of me,” he soothes on “I Know What It’s Like.” He’s told us this before, over and over again. On and on and on, Wilco will love you baby, because Wilco hurts the same as you and we need each other to get through all this shit. It’s not that Tweedy’s musical career has been the only one to commit to this duality of thrilling personal coping mechanism and unflinching listener support system; it’s just that there aren’t many musicians out there who can accomplish the feat with such sweet, heartbreaking sincerity as to confess to all of us that he actually means it. And we feel better because we know he does. For years now, I’ve known exactly where to go when I haven’t known how I could possibly proceed. Wilcoping has stitched and restitched my feeling fabric for a decade, and there are thousands who’ve experienced this for three times that long.
WARM feels somehow like an arrival for Jeff Tweedy, even though the first thing you may notice are his aged vocal cords. It reignites the classic question of when a song stops being a Jeff Tweedy song and starts becoming a Wilco song, since the ones here are so original, fully fledged, and by this point heroically familiar thanks to the timeless musical style of its creator. The pieces of Tweedy are all here, from haunting poetic nonsense that screams truth to the evolved nervy guitar solos that owe much to Neil Young’s fragmented genius, from how-did-he-do-that strumming techniques to how-was-that-so- obvious surprises of melodic bliss. A Wilco fan can almost hear the parts of the other members, which is probably aided by Glenn Kotche’s eternally perfect percussion. And by record’s end, like all of the things in life that demand our thoughts and feelings’ attention, or like a house from some past moment that was so comfortable it hugged you, we want to return to it. We recognize the value not only in moving forward, but in knowing that to do that the right way, we must see the value in the world around us as it is right now, no matter if that’s the best or the worst place we could be.
I’d like to thank you, Jeff Tweedy, for everything.
Why You Should Listen to: Ekatarina Velika’s ‘Ljubav’
November 14, 2018
Welcome to the weekly-series “Why You Should Listen to”, where we will discuss great albums worth every music lover’s attention. In today’s society, while we do have all the possible access to everything and anything on the Internet, it can often happen for us to miss some music we would love to hear. That’s why, every Monday, we will try to help you discover some awesome music in this series of articles. The focus will mostly be on studio albums, be it classics or underrated gems and records that have been forgotten by time. Our focus will also stretch out across the world, from the USA and UK to the African continent, Latin America and even the Balkans. Today, we’ll talk about the legendary ex-Yugoslav band Ekatarina Velika (Ecatherine the Great) and their classic album “Ljubav” (“Love”). NOTE: Since this album is not in English, the translations will most likely be literal and possibly inaccurate at certain points.
The 1970s and 1980s new wave movement may have originated in the UK and US, but it quickly spread all over the world and influenced countless bands from many different countries. It also reached the now-defunct country of Yugoslavia (or as it was fully named the Socialistic Federative Republic of Yugoslavia), which was going through many changes at that time, which would ultimately lead to its demise.
The ex-Yugoslav pop culture was quite influenced by what was going on in the UK and US at the time. In the 1970s, the predominant genre was hard rock fused with some traditional elements, dubbed “shepherd rock”, a sound created and popularized by the, arguably, most popular ex-Yugoslav band Bijelo Dugme (White Button). While it had a gigantic following, the younger generations wanted to rebel against the primitive sound and silly themes of that genre. The emergence of punk and new wave gave many young bands from the former Yugoslav countries a new theme and a new idea of what kind of sound should be popular.
With new wave came many great bands such as the iconic band Idoli (Idols) and many pivotal releases, one of them being the highly lauded new wave compilation album “Paket Aranžman” (“Package Deal”), often considered the best former Yugoslav album. On that compilation, one could hear the cult band Šarlo Akrobata (Charlot the Acrobat, which was how Yugoslav people referred to Charlie Chaplin), the band that would lead to the formation of Ekatarina Velika. It was a young new wave band of rebels Dušan Kojić “Koja” (who would later on form his own influential band Disciplina Kičme), Ivan Vdović “Vd” and Milan Mladenović (who would later on become the founding member and frontman of Ekatarina Velika). After their incredible and critically acclaimed debut album, the band fell apart in 1981 and the members went their own separate ways.
Milan and Vd would become part of a new band known as Katarina II with Milan’s guitarist friend and band co-founder Dragan Mihajlović “Gagi”. Between 1981 and 1984, many line-up changes occured and the band’s final core line-up consisted of Milan Mladenović (guitar, lead vocals), classically trained pianist Margita Stefanović “Magi” (keyboards, vocals), Bojan Pečar (bass), with the drummers constantly changing. In 1984 they released their debut as Katarina II, an album that did not reach a wide audience. After a name change to Ekatarina Velika (further referred to as “EKV”, as fans of the band liked to call them), the band’s next two albums would bring them a dedicated fanbase and critical acclaim, but also some rivalries with other post-punk and new wave bands of the time.
EKV is often compared to the likes of Joy Division, The Cure and Talking Heads. They reagrded themselves more as a European band, rather than a Serbian band and were influenced by the likes of Elvis Costello, XTC and Joe Jackson.
from left to right: Bojan, Milan, Magi and drummer at the time Ivan Ranković “Raka”
Since EKV is not a very well-known band around the world, it might be appropriate to introduce the band, in the line-up that recorded their fourth studio album “Ljubav” (“Love”), as we will talk about it in detail.
Milan Mladenović (1958 – 1994) – legendary frontman of the band, who was also the guitarist and main lyricist of the band. He was known for his deep and cryptic lyrics, strong moral values, recognizable and powerful voice that could emit the most blood-curdling and banshee-like shrieks and screams, but also some very smooth and emotive vocals, as well as minimalistic, but integral guitar-playing. While he spent most of his life in Belgrade, he also lived in Zagreb and Sarajevo in his childhood, due to his father’s military obligations, which gave Milan a strong connection to his Yugoslav identity. He died of pancreatic cancer in 1994.
Margita Stefanović (a.k.a. “Magi”) (1959 – 2002) – the second most-known band member, known for her fantastic musicianship and anthemic synth and piano lines. She was loved by fans and bandmates alike, and recognized as a kind and unique spirit. She appears on the front cover of the album. Magi died after being diagnosed as HIV positive, due to intravenuous drug use.
Bojan Pečar (1960 – 1998) – was known for his incredible bass guitar skills and iconic basslines. He was a very proficient musician and contributed to the grooves and dynamics of the band’s music. He is remembered as the third core member of the band, despite leaving the band in 1989 to move to London, where he also died of a heart attack in 1998.
Srđan Todorović (a.k.a. “Žika”) (born 1965) – was the band’s drummer at the time, and is one of their most well-known members. His primary career is in acting, and is one of the most famous ex-Yugoslav actors, who is still active today.
The album “Ljubav” was the band’s fourth album. It came after the band’s sophomore album “S’ Vetrom Uz Lice” (“With the Wind Against My Face”) that gave them the necessary and well-deserved mainstream attention in Yugoslavia. While some critics accused them of “selling out”, fans approved of their success and continued to support them throughout.
The recording of the album started in the summer of 1987, and was completed in one month. It was produced by Australian gutarist Theodore Yanni, and carried the band’s signature new-wave and post-punk sound to new heights.
The opening track, and also one of their most well-known, is “Zemlja” (“Land”). It is a song driven by a flanged guitar playing a very anthemic and repetitive riff, while the bass and drums carry the groove and set the foundation for Milan’s voice and lyrics. Magi’s keyboard playing is present, but is a bit more subdued on this track. Milan’s lyrics seem to symbolize unity, brotherhood and love, making this song one of the more brighter cuts in the band’s often dark discography.
The title track is also a fan-favorite, opening with a punchy and loud drumbeat that welcomes the rest of the energetic instrumentation, in the form of the ever-dynamic bass and quite punkish guitar riffs. Magi’s synth lines add a light melody that makes the energetic track more refined and help Milan delve into the topic of love not being as its advertised to us. Lines such as “I boli, i boli, i boli/Boli nas ljubav” (And it hurts, and it hurts, and it hurts/Love hurts us) or “Uz lažni smeh/I naše reči od milja su navika/I naša imena od milja su navika” (“With fake laughs/And our nice words are just a habit/And our sweet nicknames are just a habit”), clearly paint Milan’s idea of love as being just a habit, rather than a true and constant feeling, meaning that relationships aren’t always pure and genuine as we want them to be. The vocal harmonies in the chorus make this energetic, yet bittersweet track all the more worthy of listening.
On ‘Fudge Sandwich’, Ty Segall reveals a complex, reverent understanding of his idols through the lens of his own relentless spirit
October 29, 2018
2018 began with a particularly gleeful iteration of Ty Segall’s typically unhinged bang. His Freedom Band that emerged with 2017’s eponymous release found their footing on Freedom’s Goblin, unleashing over an hour of Segall’s indelible brand of garage rock, elevated always by his sacrosanct commitment to glam, fuzz, and power pop in the midst of his evil space psychedelia. Goblin reasserted Segall’s place among the West Coast ranks, reminding everyone of the kind of fully formed composer he has become.
But the show stopper on Goblin wasn’t a Segall song.
When I looked at the track listing and saw “Every 1’s a Winner,” there was no question what was coming. I could hear the riff, I could see the leather and polyester combos, I could taste the Hot Chocolate. When track 3 rolled around, sure enough, Segall unloaded perhaps the best cover song he’s recorded in a career that is chock full of them.
Segall has always had an attachment to the cover song, and he’s always treated the endeavor with a greater urgency than many of his peers, be they contemporaries or influences that are years gone. He holds a special reverence for each song he chooses to arrange, and he channels it through a relentless amalgam of pure fun and pure devotion to the style and attitude of the song’s origin, often drawing out a full portrait of his heroes while reimagining their identities, allowing them to play anew in a universe all Segall’s own. In this way, Segall offers his listeners a unique answer to the question of his musical influences and tastes.
Fudge Sandwich appears in the blink of an eye and somehow before what was supposed to be his fourth full-length album in 2018. Ty has dived fully into his sandbox of musical portraiture to deliver a lightning bolt of purely fun rock and roll, and a gleaming love letter to his diverse idols. The stunning rendition of John Lennon’s “Isolation” flies thanks to an eerily on-point vocal performance that practically reincarnates the Beatle, while Segall’s trademark glam and fuzz explodes the ballad into a relentless freakout. He somehow recreates the unhinged guitar and vocal tones of Amon Düül II on highlight “Archangel Thunderbird,” ripping and howling amidst typically funkified Freedom Band percussion. On the album closer, Segall captures every ounce of the heartbreak and longing of Sparks’ near-perfect “Slowboat” to remind everyone just how special the rocker is at balladic arrangement.
Elsewhere, it’s Segall’s deranged explosion of his source material that achieves these tracks’ transcendence. Ty growls out War’s “Low Rider” like some cursed thing atop a pit of synths that swirls and screams. Neil Young’s “The Loner” and Dead’s classic “St. Stephen” both get almost complete retreatments, shoved through a meat grinder of punk and freak out and unleashed as euphoric exercises in heavy. In one of the record’s softest moments, Segall casts The Dils’ frantic “Class War” in an entirely different light. Segall delivers a top-shelf LA power pop gem with a majorly satisfying Segallian solo to boot.
Fudge Sandwich arrived out of nowhere, but it feels like one of Segall’s’ most natural installments. The psych master has paid respects to his musical heroes throughout his career with consistently impressive covers, and a whole album of them is just a peach of a thing for Segall fans. He somehow manages to make an album of novelties stand all the way up as a record of real value, delivering a truly inspired celebration of his predecessors and a first-rate rock record at once.
Greta Van Fleet return with a refined and nuanced sound on their second album, ‘Anthem of the Peaceful Army’
October 26, 2018
The neoclassic Michigan rockers Greta Van Fleet have finally released their long-anticipated follow-up to their 2017 debut album “From the Fires”. Within the past year, this band has seen their following grow tenfold from the release of their first studio EP “Black Smoke Rising” in April of 2017 to playing over 50 dates and festivals on their upcoming tour all around the United States, U.K., and Australia.
From the very start of their eruptive rise to popularity, Greta van Fleet’s classic rock revivalist sound has been donned as the “modern Zeppelin” or “Led Zeppelin junior”. From lead singer Josh Kiszka’s howling vocals to his lead guitarist twin brother Jake keeping the guitar solo alive in the modern day, critics and fans alike have continuously likened the band to the revered Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Their ostentatious clothing and grandiose stage presence show the image they’re aiming to create: personifying classic 70s rock in the modern age.
Although the archetype that they’re trying to follow is obvious, the band has definitely begun to branch out and evolve from their more cut-and-dry, subdued first album on “Anthem of the Peaceful Army”. As opposed to most of their songs from their debut album being distinguished by caterwauling vocals and lengthy guitar solos, it’s clear that they’ve experimented more on this album with varying musical techniques such as a higher emphasis on bass and drum solos, new slide guitar sounds, and even incorporating some tracks that could be categorized along the lines of a ballad.
The opening track of the album, “Age of Man”, begins with some dramatic isolated vocals, slowly climbing to a higher tempo and intensity. This is definitely a song suited for an opening track, and sets the defining theme for the rest of the album to follow. Josh Kiszka’s soulful belting vocals go in tandem with bringing out the triumphant, coming-of-age theme of the lyrics.
The second track, “The Cold Wind”, falls straight into the category of unadulterated rock pleasure. Other songs like, “When The Curtain Falls”, “Watching Over”, and “Brave New World”, from the album seem as though they were created solely for the purpose of an on-stage jam session that is a sure way to energize a crowd. Josh Kiszka himself has even said while introducing “When the Curtain Falls” live that it was written purely for the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.
Some of the more experimental and less mundane tracks that were unexpected from the album include the upbeat, almost sing-songy tracks such as “Mountain of the Sun” and “You’re The One”. One attribute that specifically makes “Mountain Of The Sun” unusual but good is the touch of Jake Kiszka’s twangy slide guitar opening the track and later on in his solo, and the bridge later on in the song highlights drummer Danny Wagner’s skills with an unexpected combination of drums, the tambourine, a cowbell, and Josh’s vocals. “Mountain Of The Sun,” is undeniably a unique, upbeat song that pushes the boundaries of most other Greta Van Fleet songs. Along with the peppy and lighthearted track “You’re the One,” they’re showing much more musical versatility than their usual heavy, harder-rock songs.
Other less intense songs from the album such as “The New Day” and “Anthem” focus heavily on acoustics to exude a more buoyant and jovial feeling. “Anthem” itself can possibly even be categorized more on the side of a slow ballad, keeping a subdued tempo throughout the track.
Then there are two of the more definitive songs of the album, “Lover, Leaver,” and the extended version, “Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer)”. These tracks have a definite prominence about them that highlights them as some of the defining and tracks from the album and are bound to be one of the most popular. “Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer)” is sure to be a crowd pleaser to play live, especially for the lull at the bridge of the song that leads to a dramatic build-up, and has even lasted for 26 minutes in one live recording they’ve released playing the song on tour already.
All in all, on this album, Greta Van Fleet have definitely taken risks and pushed boundaries on the limits of finding their sound. As still very young artists with only two studio albums out, they show immense potential in introducing the current generation to unfiltered rock music and allowing the older generation to revel in the times of classic rock. Of course, no artist will ever be able to emulate the monumental impact that Led Zeppelin had on the history of music itself, Greta Van Fleet seems to be paving a path for their own unique legacy with their changing and evolving sound with this solid second album.
Why You Should Listen to: The Streets’ ‘Original Pirate Material’
October 22, 2018
Welcome to the weekly-series “Why You Should Listen to”, where we will discuss great albums worth every music lover’s attention. In today’s society, while we do have all the possible access to everything and anything on the Internet, it can often happen for us to miss some music we would love to hear. That’s why we will try to help you discover some awesome music in this series of articles. The focus will mostly be on studio albums, be it classics or underrated gems and records that have been forgotten by time. Our focus will also stretch out across the world, from the USA and UK to the African continent, Latin America and even the Balkans. Today, we’ll talk about the pivotal UK hip-hop record, “Original Pirate Material” by The Streets.
The UK has never been known as a huge hip-hop place, at least not in comparison to its place of origin – the USA. Lately though, thanks to UK grime and the likes of Skepta and Stormzy, the United Kingdom is getting its well-deserved cred in the hip-hop game. Although all these fresh new names are flooding the scene and making a name for themselves, one must not forget the people who paved the way for such artists with their breakthrough projects.
The 2000s in music were an interesting time. The radio waves were dominated by the new rock revival, nu metal, boybands, R&B, pop, house and bling rap. The UK had a slightly different scene from that in the US thanks to a collection of dance and rap subgenres that came from the underground. One of the earliest of these genres was UK Garage, an important movement in the 2000s, as well as today, thanks to many revivalists. While the UK Garage beats were skippy and sung over, usually to serve the function that house music served in the USA, there weren’t too many rappers in the world tackling those faster beats. At least not in the way a young bloke from Birmingham would with his 2002 debut album.
Mike Skinner, a young producer, and rapper, 23 at the time, was preparing a sonic revolution in the hip-hop and garage scene that nobody was ready for, probably including him as well.
His debut came in the form of “Original Pirate Material”, released under the name The Streets, and featured some incredibly fresh garage and hip-hop beats, sharp lyricism, various moods and topics and just a sense of importance that seems to stand the test of time even today, considering the fact that the album does not sound dated in any way. This is even more impressive when you realize that it was produced on an IBM Thinkpad laptop in Skinner’s bedroom.
Most of the beats are driven by the skippy garage beats that just serve their function of driving the song, along with minimalistic sub-basslines underneath incredibly powerful string sections and the occasional piano loop. Really, if there is anything that marks the instrumentals of this album as iconic and incredible, it is definitely the strings.
We first get a taste on the opener “Turn the Page”, with the cinematic strings being driven by the energetic beat and Skinner’s sharp wit as he uses references from the movie “Gladiator” to introduce us to The Streets and the messages we are about to hear on this iconic record. When reading the lyrics without the music, it sounds like poetry with occasional lines that sound straight from a casual conversation or a typical hip-hop song, which is the magic of Skinner’s music and personality.
He manages to sound like an average Joe and a prophet at the same time, a rapper and a regular young citizen, clever and simplistic and tons of other possible contrasts. Delivering epic lines such as “Eyes transfixed with a piercing gaze/One hand clutching his sword raised to the sky” and the closing line “Brace yourself, ‘cause this goes deep/I’ll show you the secrets, the sky and the birds/Actions speak louder than words/Stand by me, my apprentice/Be brave, clench fists”, he makes the listener wonder what could possibly come next to top this awesome introduction. And then this song happens:
“Has It Come to This ?” must be one of the most important, if not the most important, song of early 2000s hip-hop. It creates such a powerful feeling of melancholy, malaise, and nostalgia thanks to a beautiful piano loop, a sharp garage beat and hints of sub-bass. Skinner’s lyrics don’t convey a larger-than-life meaning, but rather seem to almost document the time they were written in, referencing PlayStations and 64s, the UK Garage scene and smoking weed with friends in your apartment. The hook is basically a sung vocal singing the title of the track while Skinner delivers the iconic lines “Original pirate material/You’re listening to The Streets/Lock down your aerials”. He also drops some amazingly creative lines such as “Turn the page, don’t rip it out at your age, move to the next stage/Lock the rage inside the cage, like SK, it’s a new day”, showing just how proficient he is at crafting great song lines and delivering them.
Now, since the record has been perfectly introduced with its two stellar openers, Mike Skinner has to show his mission statement. He did that with the song “Let’s Push Forward”, with which he seems to claim that he is going to prove to those who believe nothing changes and everything stays static, that he will push things forward, most likely referring to the genre he is trying to impact. This is evident in the lines such as “I make bangers not anthems, leave that to the Artful Dodger”, showing that he is beyond commercially-crafted music.
“Sharp Darts” is a weird short track that sounds fantastic for its brief runtime, and actually bears a bit of resemblance to American rap, but is delivered with Skinner’s typical wit and charm that sets him apart from most MC’s. The following tracks “Same Old Thing” and “Geezers Need Excitement” are about the everyday life Skinner goes through and how if “geezers” like him might turn to violence and drugs if not entertained. The former track is led by another fantastic loop of strings and a cool beat that makes it more lively than its central theme. On the other hand, the latter of the two tracks has a more somber instrumental showing the darker side of Skinner’s lyrics and how it’s easy to get yourself lost in the monotony of life and trying to find a violent way out.
Even though this album is a concept one, about the youth of England and how they spend their time smoking weed, going to garage parties and hanging with friends, there is occasionally a song that hits a bit harder in the feels. “It’s Too Late” is the track that seems to follow that pattern, with Skinner rapping about losing his girl due to his irresponsibility and being a neglectful boyfriend, over a sad string section and beat, almost painting a cliche picture of a boyfriend begging for forgiveness at the airport while his girl is leaving him for good. “Now nothing holds significance and nothing holds relevance/’Cause the only thing I can see is her elegance” are the lines that finish off the final verse before the final chorus, teaching us that taking our partners needs seriously is key to a good relationship.
“Too Much Brandy” is a funny story about Skinner getting wasted drinking Brandy, eating junk food and getting high, leaving him sick and quite regretful. This is followed by the charming and energetic hit single “Don’t Mug Yourself”, in which Skinner is fighting his inner self over pursuing a girl he just met. His friend Cal is the voice of reason on the track and tries to help him, but he just doesn’t listen, telling him that he is not a sap and that he has the game all figured out. It’s driven by a colorful beat consisting of only drums and a bassline that easily gets stuck in one’s head. All in all, a funny and charming song about dating and advice we all get from friends, whether we like it or not.
“Who Got the Funk?” is, as its name suggests, a funk song that features a guitar with a wah-wah pedal, horn stabs and a groovy bassline, and Skinner talking about random locations. It’s a nice little interlude before the song “The Irony of it All”, a song that features two characters played by Skinner himself. We are introduced to an alcoholic who claims that he is a law-abiding citizen and causes no trouble, who is known under the name Terry. The other one is a stoner that is soft-spoken and not nearly as aggressive as Terry, talking about how his marijuana abuse is less negatively influencing his society unlike alcohol, and how his other activities involve thinking about Einstein and discussing how beautiful Gail Porter is. This is a very unique and interesting track, in which Skinner plays these two roles to perfection.
As the album nears its end, we are also reaching Skinner’s more melancholic side on the song “Weak Become Heroes” where he talks about realizing that his youth will not last forever. “It’s dark all ’round, I walk down. same sights, same sounds/ New beats, though, solid concrete under my feet” is a line that suggests that, while Skinner is probably far from his halycon days of taking drugs and partying, there is always something new on the horizon to keep him going, as weak become heroes and the stars align.
After the short interlude “Who Dares Wins”, we get into the closing track, which is also the darkest on the entire record. “Stay Positive” has a dark looping piano and a slower beat, while Skinner raps about life having severe downs that should not stop us, but rather make us stronger. He refers to the listener as “you” in order to catch our attention and gives us a lot of smart and observative lines on the topic at hand. “But remember that one day, shit might just start crumbling/Your bird might fuck off or you might lose your job/It’s when that happens that what I’m talking about/Will feel much more important to you” is the line that hits hardest, because if one is listening to the problems Skinner lists earlier and thinks that they are safe from them, they are reminded that they might find themselves in this difficult position too, and then, this song will matter to them much more than it does now.
“Original Pirate Material” is truly a timeless record, full of classics and it is a must-listen for fans of any type of music. No single track on it feels superfluous and each adds something different to the table. It is a landmark album for Uk hip hop as well as garage and will most likely continue to influence young producers and MCs finding their own voice in this oversaturated world.
Empress Of creates a community like none other on ‘Us’
October 22, 2018
When Lorely Rodriguez (stage name Empress Of) released “Me,” saturated — almost distorted — with dense synths, she posed pensively (and a bit insecurely) for her black and white debut album cover. But as she comes into full color for her sophomore album, “manspreading” in a dress and red gym shorts, there’s an undeniable self-assurance. “Us” is the natural progression of Rodriguez, who takes a break from the draining politics and sexism of the world to create a 33-minute diary to cry, dance, and smile too.
Rodriguez experienced an immense amount of change between albums (a collaboration with DJDS & Khalid, an international tour, moving from New York to Los Angeles), but she still has a silver tongue for narrations. Accompanied by synths ticking like a clock, Rodriguez duets with Hynes on “Everything To Me,” teeming with her idiosyncratic observations of living in the Big Apple (“We can see the city if we squint,” “Everyone on the roof is in/ Bathing suits, but there’s nowhere to swim”). The beat cuts out at the bridge, replaced by droning violin sounds and Hynes’ voice echoing the song’s title. Each whispered line has a greater intimacy than the last, but what shines through most is the fact that Rodriguez is able to convey the most complex nuances of friendship – the comfort felt by sitting in silence or the joy that comes with small talk – with simplistic lyrics (“In the pouring rain, but we don’t move,” “I hate when you smoke cigarettes/ You hate when I mention it”).
“Just The Same” shifts the spotlight to a more romantic relationship as birds chirp and synths shimmer in the background to Rodriguez’ words. It’s the ecstasy of waking up to someone you love in the morning, adding an extra layer of tenderness to lines like “we never grew out of that ‘too much PDA.” An underappreciated aspect of Rodriguez’ music, however, is how she produces most of it herself, which makes her adept integration of word painting even more admirable: the singer croons, “Make my heartbeat raise,” while the beats of the lone bass bring her words to life. The ambiance is immersive and pure, but not distilled to the point where listeners can’t find themselves sharing Rodriguez’ joy.
Interpersonal relationships aren’t the only things that matter though, and Rodriguez recognizes this fact as she becomes more introspective on “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed” and “Timberlands.” A tremolo of synths begins the prior track before the artist recounts an all-too-familiar social anxiety (“I fuck up everything/ Find myself embarrassing”) while poking fun at the Los Angeles obsession with weed. The chorus – devoid of lyrics and teeming with a flurry of synths – is a detour from Rodriguez’ usual structure, but naturally offsets the self-deprecating thoughts of the verses; you can practically visualize Rodriguez vogueing to the production during her live set. “Timberlands,” on the other hand, is more tempered. Arpeggiated melodies of synths create an elevator-music-like soundtrack as the backdrop for assertions of self-love (“Lace up your Timberlands/ Step on my heart again/ I’ll never let you win,” “A holy trinity/ Me, myself, and I could be”) that can find their way into anyone’s heart.
“I’ve Got Love,” Rodriguez’ reassurance for a friend who confided their thoughts of suicide in the artist, has a soundscape as unique as its backstory. The descending chromaticism of syncopated synths and the light mezzo of Rodriguez’ voice sound cautious, almost enveloped in trepidation, but the chorus bursts into a decisive reassurance (“I’ve got love/ Running through my fingers and my bones”) within a futuristic production which rivals that of Shura and Janelle Monáe. The song is a bit of a paradox, addressing an issue so morbid with a sound so exuberant, but it’s what Rodriguez has been perfecting since her EP.
Contrarily, “All For Nothing” distinguishes itself through its visceral lyricism and melody. The sound is thick with yearning as the echoes of the word “nothing” dissipate into the space between the chorus and second verse, and Rodriguez’ catharsis is tangible as she finally realizes how “dry” her love has become, reiterating her disappointment once more in her higher register. She closes the song with exhaustion and frustration in a simple and unfinished phrase, “All I wanna know…,” showcasing the most potent aspect of Rodriguez’ music: her ability to draw out emotion in the subtlest ways.
A surreal and hopeful promise of love, “Again” is the perfect finale to “Us.” Staccato melodies meet the ebb and flow of synths to create an atmosphere suspended in space with two lovers in the center of it all, dazed by the stars:
I’m sure I’d recognize you if I lost my memory / There’s no voice on Earth that speaks so sweet
It’s a passion that defies the bounds of logic, conquering insurmountable odds, and even though the idea of profound love is nothing new (dozens of singers have sung about a whirlwind romance) and an aspiration held by many, that’s the entire purpose of “Us.” Innovation was made along the way, but the album was never about being avant-garde or expanding Rodriguez’ sound to something more pop or more anything; the only goal was connection. You can sing to any song on the radio, diluted by sterile lyrics and production crafted for catchiness, but you feel something through “Us.” And what a beautiful thing that is: to experience hope, frustration, and everything in between and know that you will never be alone in your struggles despite them.
In the period between 1996 and 2014, Cherry did not release one single studio album under her own name but had featured on a cornucopia of songs and albums by other artists, most notably appearing on the Gorillaz hit song “Kids With Guns”. With her return to the scene with 2014’s “Blank Project” album, came a wave of critical acclaim and a renewed appreciation for her music, however, she still remains an underrated voice in music, even though she is quite recognizable with her delivery and timbre.
“Broken Politics” is one of these political records mentioned earlier, but coming from a veteran in underground music with a voice aged like fine wine and chill instrumentation that works as a great complement to the harsh themes. Produced by Four Tet, the album features some breezy piano-laden beats, featuring also instruments like the kora and harp. The majority of the instrumentals feature these fantastic basslines that would snuggly fit the album in the trip-hop pantheon, but Cherry manages to stay singular in style on this record.
The early single “Kong” is one of the best songs Neneh Cherry has ever put out. Featuring co-production from Massive Attack’s Robert “3D” Del Naja, this album sounds like a descendant of the music featured on the band’s 1997 magnum opus Mezzanine. The bass and drumbeats are punchy and driving, while the chilling piano melody and Cherry’s voice give a visceral, graceful sound despite the grim topic at hand.“Natural Skin Deep” is a Rn’B tune with a lot of warbly sound samples and a simplistic beat, where she delivers this driven vocal about a very personal topic – vulnerability.
“Shot Gun Shack”, as its name suggests, is a song tackling the ever-present gun violence in the world, and is one of the key tracks on the record. Cherry’s lyricism stays sharp, observative and uncompromising on the opener “Fallen Leaves” with the chorus “Is it fallen leaves/The bird shit on my sleeve/With no luck at all/There’ll be no luck for me”, further adding the line we all should take in “Just because I’m down/Don’t step all over me”. It may sound simple, but it conveys the meaning of people abusing the weak just because they can.
“Synchronised Devotion” is another memorable track, with the line “My name is Neneh/March 10/Water sign”, while also delivering the line “I’m a Pisces hanging on a vine”. There might be a clever use of symbolism here, with the Pisces sign being usually shown as two fish facing each other like yin and yang showing synchronicity (hence the title of the track). While most of the lyrics on this song are not really straight to the point, it seems to refer to Cherry remembering a happier time than the one we all currently seem to find ourselves in, also referencing the Garden of Eden. It is almost as if she is Eve who wants to refer to her former life after being cast out.
“Slow Release” is one of those tracks that will stay stuck in your head, due to the catchy hook and gloomy feel of the song. “Soldier”, the closing track, almost has a Björk-ish feel with its instrumental and sparse beat with Cherry singing “Accept me/Everywhere/Everywhere I go”, telling possibly her lover or any other important person in her life that they should accept her for who she is. “Faster Than the Truth” is also a very invigorating listen with Cherry delivering a half-sung, half-rapped verse in her very soothing raspy voice.
All in all, “Broken Politics” may not be an album for everyone, and it might not break any chart records, but it is truly a moving piece of art not only showing that Neneh Cherry still has what it takes, but also touching on heavy topics in a way that makes us stop and think. The instrumentation created in collaboration with Four Tet is also a highlight, giving the perfect juxtaposition to Cherry’s iconic voice and makes it for an essential 2018 listen.
Welcome to the weekly-series “Why You Should Listen to”, where we will discuss great albums worth every music lover’s attention. In today’s society, while we do have all the possible access to everything and anything on the Internet, it can often happen for us to miss some music we would love to hear. That’s why we will try to help you discover some awesome music in this series of articles. The focus will mostly be on studio albums, be it classics or underrated gems and records that have been forgotten by time. Our focus will also stretch out across the world, from the USA and UK to the African continent, Latin America and even the Balkans. The first in the series is Björk’s fantastic sophomore album “Post”. Enjoy!
The Icelandic singer and producer Björk Guðmundsdóttir, who is iconic in the underground and avant-garde music scene, is probably one of the few artists who has reached both critical acclaim and mainstream success. Most of us could agree that she is the type of artist you either “get” or “notget” (reference intended). Her music output over her long career has been nothing but vast and inventive. From an early age, she has been exposed to music via her classical piano and flute classes, and at 12 she had already released her first self-titled album. She was seen as a sort of wunderkind, a fact that her family wanted to use from this early age to their benefit, but Björk would only later reach that targeted level of success. After years of singing in many underground projects such as Spit and Snot, Exodus, JAM80, Tappi Tikarrass, Kukl and the cult Icelandic band The Sugarcubes.
Needless to say, the avant-garde pop queen has been busy with music throughout her life. We strongly recommend listening to her pre-solo work, especially The Sugarcubes, one of the rare instances you’ll hear Björk’s iconic voice paired with typical rock band instrumentation. However, she decided to distance herself from that sound in 1992 when she moved to London in pursuit of a new sound and a proper debut solo album. After being exposed to the sounds of house music, techno and trip-hop and meeting Nellee Hooper, she released her proper fantastic debut album, ironically titled “Debut”. Her new experimental blend of pop, techno, experimental and traditional Icelandic music would start to develop here. Her next album “Post” however, is when she really hit the ball out of the park artistically.
“Post” is a truly interesting listen, not just because of the myriad of influences and sounds, but also because of the stellar songwriting and melodies. The most known two tracks off this album are most definitely “Army of Me” and the cover of an old jazz song “It’s Oh So Quiet”, which Björk quickly made her own. The screams and overall vocal delivery on that song is a show of Björk’s eccentric and lovable personality. Not to mention the iconic music video paired up with the song. While her albums are usually coherent in sound and theme, “Post” sounds more like a fantastic collection of songs, that, despite their differences, gel together perfectly across its runtime. “Army of Me” is the industrial banger that kicks off this masterpiece of an album with a dark, driving synthbass, punchy drums and Björk’s angry delivery of the lyrics that deal with a relative of hers stagnating in life and pestering her for help to get his shit together. This aggressive side of Björk was not very present on “Debut”, so to have this as the opener on “Post” must have been a surprise for first-time listeners.
The song that follows is called “Hyperballad”. Now this, this is truly a musical masterpiece, and for a variety of reasons. Not only is this one of her most classic songs, but is truly timeless and genreless. It is a song with so much power and beauty at the same time, the lyrics of which talk about a situation in which Björk and her lover live on a mountain. One morning she wakes up before him, and pushes random things off and watches them fall, reminding her that life is anything but safe and certain. She then blasts into a super-emotive chorus about how, despite this creeping feeling of uncertainty, she feels safe in her lover’s presence. A truly honest and one-of-a-kind love song. If you listen to nothing off this album, at least give this one a shot.
The song “Isobel” is another powerful, bustling song that combines more traditional instrumentation with Björk’s techno-tinged sound. It was composed by her on a portable Casio keyboard after inventing the melody on a Christmas visit to Iceland. She worked hard on the song, inventing the character of Isobel with the help of Icelandic poet Sjón. It’s a track about the clash of nature and modern civilization, this duality originating from Björk’s early life spent in nature and moving to big cities. Thus, Isobel is portrayed as a second Björk on the single cover art for this song. The sounds coming from the speakers when listening to this put you in a sort-of dark forest and you feeling a strong spirit approaching you, but you are not sure if it’s welcoming or hostile.
One of the most saddest songs I’ve heard in the longest time lands on this album under the title “Possibly Maybe”. It is such a chilling ballad about a break-up, it truly hits hard. It is quite mellow with a simplistic, bassy melody that echoes as Björk reminisces about a break-up with Stephane Sednaoui. Phones ringing in the background and Björk’s beautiful vocal harmonies in the chorus truly give this song its weight. “You’ve Been Flirting Again” is similarly dark-sounding, but a nice breather of a song in the constantly fluctuating tracklist. It is thematically about the playfulness of flirting and the game of push-pull with the person you’re attracted to. It’s a perfectly peaceful interlud between the hard-hitting mammoths that are “Enjoy” and “Isobel”.
Speaking of “Enjoy”, it is one of the heaviest songs on the album, with awesomely weird horn samples and Björk’s soaring vocal delivery. It seems to be about exploration with one’s senses, the ability of sensing things and dealing with what you feel, whether you like it or not. The message seems to be “just enjoy the sensations and explore them without fear”. “The Modern Things”, along with “Army of Me” is one of the first songs Björk created, even before “Debut”. These two songs, along with “Hyperballad” craft such a strong trifecta of intro tracks that will instantly hook you to this album and imprint it in your head and ears. “The Modern Things” combines English and Icelandic into a tune that deals with modernization of society, despite what has happened before. The modern things will always be on the horizon, meaning that humans will always continue to evolve their society, and she seems to be at peace with that.
“I Miss You” is another banger with tribal percussion and driving horn sections. It tackles the topic of knowing your perfect lover, despite meeting them. While the song itself is quite lovely, the animated music video (created by “Ren and Stimpy” creator John Kricfalusi) makes it even more special. “Cover Me” is the quieter moment of the album, dedicated to its co-producer Nellee Hooper, for helping Björk deliver not one, but two masterpieces to the world and leaving her fingerprints on music history. The closing track “Headphones”, co-produced by Björk’s ex Tricky, who is a trip-hop legend in his own right, is one of the most artistic moments on the album. If you want to get the most out of this beautiful song, you have to wear headphones. It is just that detailed and pretty, that it serves as a perfect finish to a near-perfect album.
This record, overall, is perfect for people who are open-minded and love groundbreaking music projects. Björk’s enchanting and unique voice may be the center of the album, but the instrumentation and lyrical themes keep this an amazing front-to-back listen. Sounds best in autumn or winter, especially at night. Hope you will enjoy it!
Brockhampton is raw and energetic on ‘Iridescence’
“I’m so accustomed to flames I couldn’t tell you it’s fire.”
It’s a considerably ambitious line from Brockhampton’s opening track ‘NEW ORLEANS’ for their fourth studio album, iridescence. The highly anticipated record serves as the boyband’s major label debut for RCA, after a whirlwind year following last year’s SATURATION trilogy. Released via Question Everything/RCA, the album spans fifteen tracks, recorded in a window of ten days at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. The real question is, does this body of work actually hold up aside from fan attention and praise?
This record is one that puts you into the band’s mindset. You feel their high points and their low points, and even some non-categorizable points, like the transition from ‘NEW ORLEANS’ to ‘THUG LIFE’. These two songs are practically fraternal twins in sound- the only thing holding theme together is Brockhampton’s self-sample of bearface’s ‘NEW ORLEANS’ verse. The frenetic energy in ‘NEW ORLEANS’ and ‘J’OUVERT’ is practically tangible. ‘J’OUVERT,’ the record’s surprise and singular lead single, takes its name from Caribbean tradition, with the main part of the beat hailing from Grenadian soca song.
Brockhampton’s willingness to make a record that’s experimental and honest both lyrically and emotionally is something that deserves applause. ‘WEIGHT’ serves as the dramatic climax of the album. It follows several high-energy songs, yet throughout its course, it journeys from reflection to genre-bending within its four-minute span. ‘SAN MARCOS’ and the previously introduced ‘TONYA’ also remain in the vein of reflective, raw songs, both of which make good use of quieter instrumental elements.
Much of the record makes use of some elements that don’t initially make sense, like the drilling drums near the end of ‘DISTRICT,’ but iridescence feels more conceptual in nature than purely cohesive at some points. (An example is JOBA’s giddy “Dollars!” refrain on BERLIN, which is followed by an instrumental reminiscent of something from alt-J’s Relaxer.)
Each performer of Brockhampton further displays their abilities and extends it on this record, and we get a few surprises as well. Bearface displays some newfound rapping skills, which is unprecedented considering we’ve only previously heard him sing singular tracks or interludes in songs-like Brockhampton’s summer singles, ‘1998 TRUMAN’ and ‘1999 WILDFIRE’. JOBA and Dom McLennon are the album’s heavy hitters, along with the album’s surprise feature appearances, like serpentwithfeet and Jaden Smith. Dom McLennon has a number of quotable lyrics, and needless to say, JOBA takes no prisoners with his verses- the prime example being J’OUVERT, in which one has little room to be left unimpressed. Surprisingly, Kevin Abstract steps into the background on this record, lending his voice to a few hooks and his ode to Jaden Walker, ‘SOMETHING ABOUT HIM’.
This is Brockhampton shattering expectations in the unique way that they only know how to. They have taken what we expect, what we’re used to, and elevated it. Having established themselves creatively, and also re-centering themselves as well, they’ve gifted us with a taste of their very essence- their driven work ethic, relentless creativity, and lyrical honesty.