Album Reviews

Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2

runthejewels2

Grade: A+

It’s good enough Killer Mike and El-P are at it again as Run the Jewels, but it’s clear they’re so much more than just back in the game with their sophomore album. From start to finish Run the Jewels 2 breaks all the rules and accomplishes things unheard of because neither Mike nor El refuse to be meek.

Both have become brazenly good at delivering raps that are parts autobiographical and socially aware. They also get vulgar at times, but that’s the last thing that matters when listening to a Run the Jewels album – there’s too much good stuff going on to get hung up on something as trivial as that. In fact, it’s best if you plug your headphones in to hear this record for the first time, to catch all that’s happening. A lot of genius is at work in this 39 minutes of unskippable music, and it’s heavily layered with irresistible beats.

But if you wanna talk vulgar, let’s talk about the brilliance of “Love Again (Akinyele Back)”. While the song might offend with its frequent reference of putting his “dick in her mouth all day”, it’s former Three 6 Mafia virtuoso Gangsta Boo that flips the script midway through and turns the track into one for the ladies. Especially when she steps in and says, “That’s what ya want, huh? Well lemme tell ya a little story” and proceeds on with a wonderful tale about sexin’ with a boy she turned into a “motherfuckin’ man”.

The guest appearances are thundering throughout: there’s Blink 182’s Travis Barker, flat out crushing the drums on “All Due Respect”, not to mention ZACK DE LA ROCHA rapping poetic on “Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)”. That last one is chill-inducing, with de la Rocha announcing “I’m miles ahead of you” as he rips savagely into each word just as he’s always done. It only complements him further that the song surrounding his verses is full of electro hip hop meets short burts of rock bass riffs.

Much of RTJ2 comes off as a party album, especially with spectacular tracks such as “Blockbuster Night Part 1”. With a rad backbeat chugging along, Mike defiantly tells it like it is: “murder mayhem melodic music”. There’s also plenty of EDM’esque sounds infiltrating the album, as well, and it amplifies the party appeal to nearly untouched levels.

It’s not all a party, though, as the beats darken with the lyrics for “Lie Cheat Steal” or “Crown”. The latter is a tale Mike shares of his sordid past, when he once dealt cocaine to a pregnant woman, and the music chosen for it is perfect: slow, with a commanding beat, and occasional inclusion of gospel sounds.

All told, this is easily one of the best albums of the year, and the duo behind it have broken lots of ground putting it together. It’ll be super exciting to see what’s ahead for Run the Jewels, because the back and forth between El-P and Killer Mike is as impressive as I’ve seen with Outkast. Obviously Big Boi and André 3000 have uniquely defined individualities when they rap together, and RTJ doesn’t have that just yet, but that shouldn’t discredit how well they work together. Especially since they’re already establishing profound identities with their work.

Maybe one of the most fantastic attributes the duo has so far is their confidence in what they’re doing, which is shown in just the first few minutes of their second album. Mike proclaims “history (is) being made” with this recording, and El-P explains Run the Jewels is the answer. To what? Everything, obviously.

The 2 Bears – The Night Is Young

the2bears

Grade: B+

Hot Chip, in all their electrofied glory, are just plain awesome, and that’s all there is to it. Thankfully the members of this UK group have launched into other side projects to spread their talent, and this includes The 2 Bears, a wonderful duo of Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard and DJ/producer Raf Rundell. Somehow I missed their 2012 debut Be Strong (check out the hilarious “Bear Hug” from that one, as soon as you can), but Pitchfork currently happens to be streaming their upcoming album, The Night Is Young, before it is released on Fatboy Slim’s label Southern Fried on October 13th.

It’s a great LP, one that frequently hints at old school house music and thrums along with the catchiest of melodies. It occasionally feels like the type of album no one else is doing right now, maybe because everyone else is trying to push forward with the way they write their dance music. That is how it should be, but the way The 2 Bears stop and pay homage to retro sounds, while carving them into something funky and new, is fun as hell.

The duo spent some time in South Africa last year, taking part in a project put together by the magazine Live, and songs “Money Man” and “Son of the Sun” were recorded while there. Goddard and Rundell collaborated with local singers Sbussio and Kwaito icon Senyaka for these songs, and they definitely have a retro reggae feel to them. Not my favorites on the album, but props to The 2 Bears for paying respect to UK’s dance music past with a couple of songs that have got both a bouncy rhythm and a political edge. “Son of the Sun” also does have a couple of really great moments, including some solid rap delivery.

It’s songs like “Angel (Touch Me)”, “Not This Time” and “See You” that really do it for me, though, and it’s unashamedly because it reminds me of UK pop house beats from my high school years. All three of them are also extremely catchy, and place Rundell’s smooth and nicely accented vocals at the forefront. Get a perfect look at, and listen of, what I’m talking about in The 2 Bears fantastic, drag-based video for “Not This Time” below:

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Royal Blood – Royal Blood

royalbood

Grade: B+

Rock ‘n’ roll has reached an age where it gets tougher and tougher to decide whether it’s a “problem” when a new band “copies” the greats. UK’s Royal Blood is an interesting case study in this matter because the duo has turned to rock bands from within the last 10-15 years for their inspiration, rather than digging deep for influence from, say, The Kinks, or The Who.

What they’ve created with their debut full-length comes off sounding like a stockpile of the styles and beats the likes of Wolfmother and Jack White have established as their own in the oughts. That’s not to fully discredit this new album, however, because approval should be laid at Royal Blood’s feet for the mere quality of the music they’ve put together for their first recording. It’s encouraging to know drummer Ben Thatcher and bassist/singer Mike Kerr wrote this entire album all on their own. And it’s not like they straight ripped off another band’s album – there are bits and pieces in there that feel solely Royal Blood, and hint this duo may impress the hell out of us with new material over the next few years.

‘Til that time has come there are plenty of tracks on their self-titled worth spending some time with. “Figure It Out” is just plain fantastic, with the guitar chugging along until it gets the cymbal ting and drum beat it was looking for, while Kerr flaunts a sexy and swaggering ‘tude to match the tune perfectly. The song is complete with the necessary dose of ballsy riffage that plumps it up toward the end.

Royal Blood also treats love just as any rockin’ outfit should, putting up a front and faking indifference toward it. “Blood Hands”, which features almost metal undertones of rhythm, fits this bill nicely, while “You Can Be So Cruel” actually lets it guard down over the woman, and surrounds itself with haughty beats to try and disguise its hurt feelings.

Then there’s “Loose Change”, which sounds like Jack White is actually guesting, vocally, on the track. It’s got more of that dark rhythm to it, however, which doesn’t quite fit with the idea of a White song, and that’s to Royal Blood’s advantage. If they want to keep borrowing ideas from their recent forefathers, they have got to at least toss them up with music scraps of their own.

We’ll see what these Brits can put together on their next few albums, but for now, I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. They’ve got powerful friends in Arctic Monkeys, who share management with them under Wildlife Entertainment. AM were the first to bring Royal Blood’s name to the table, as their drummer wore an RB shirt while they played Glastonbury in 2013. Fast forward a year, and Royal Blood plays Glastonbury. Sometimes it really is all about who you know, but for this new duo, it looks like it will end up being about how good they are at what they do.

Ty Segall – Manipulator

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Grade: A

This time around, Ty Segall decided to slow down and actually take some time to make a record. So instead of following his usual break-neck speed routine, Segall spent almost a year writing and recording Manipulator, and of course it paid off. The album is by far his most polished and satisfyingly vivacious work to date.

Don’t mistake the idea of polished to mean Segall’s latest is soft, or conservatively constructed. There’s still plenty of erratic shift in style and sound in almost every song on there, and the number of surprise riffs featured are enough to make you feel like a kid at Christmas.

Manipulator, which shuffles its way through British Invasion rock to the early days of heavy metal and glittery glam, is also nice and hook-heavy, leaving its catchy tunes bopping around in your mind for days.

This is especially true for its title track, which Segall just released an interactive video for this week. Directed by Matt Yoka, who Segall met while the two were freshmen at the University of California, “Manipulator” allows its viewers to assemble Segall’s surroundings to their liking as the video plays out. While watching you can even change the channel on the TV in the singer’s bedroom, and the fact that Timothy Leary is an option on the screen further perpetuates the psychedelic nature of the vibrant video.

There’s also “The Faker”, an assuredly rockin’ number that almost hints at early Queens of the Stone Age. And don’t skip the sonic charm of “It’s Over” and “Susie Thumb”, both featuring strong instrument breaks made up of the sexiest in drum vs. guitar battles.

On the more mellow side is the album’s closer, “Stick Around”, a track that feels a slight evolution from Segall’s last solo effort, the acoustic-driven Sleeper. The track is made up of precise riffage backed by piano, and lyrics such as “Well come on/come on down/yeah stick around/we are here/let’s make a sound/you know we gonna stick around”. Yes, yes you are, Segall. We couldn’t be happier for it.

It’s exciting to add this this jewel of an album to my always growing Segall collection, and it seems the doors are wide open for his next move. Maybe his extremely prolific personality will kick back in and we’ll get three or more greats from him in the next couple years. For now, I’ll just remain deeply content with the rewarding enormity of Manipulator.

In the meantime, watch below as Segall and his devoted backup band of Mikal Cronin (bass), Emily Rose Epstein (drums) and Charles Mootheart (guitar) slay “Feel” during their performance on Conan last month:

Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

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Grade: A

In 2011 Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett released the fantastic EP I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris, then began her own label, Milk! Records, in 2012. The following year she would release the equally terrific How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose EP and would smartly decide to combine her first two EPs into The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Somehow, someway, I knew nothing of these magical releases until about three weeks ago. Better late than never, I guess, because Barnett’s brilliant lyricism and instrumentation have renewed my faith in the songwriting of today.

The first half of the double EP is comprised of the six tracks from How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose, and it reveals Barnett to be the aloof and melancholic songstress that she is. So many of the songs come off as rambling tales, delivered in a whimsically deadpan way that absolutely calls Dylan to mind. Maybe the best of these is “Avant Gardener”, which starts off as the retelling of her Monday, and slowly detours off into directions only Barnett can probably understand, with lyrics like “Anaphylactic and super hypocondriactic/should’ve stayed in bed today”. Also attractive to the song is that while its lovely rhythm remains the same for much of its duration, squawking guitar nicely breaks up the monotony midway through.

Another great one from the first half of the album comes in “History Eraser”, a barroom tune full of lyrics just as wonderful as the drums/guitar/piano behind them. Barnett sings lovingly of being drunk in love: “We drank green margaritas/danced with sweet senoritas/and we all went home as winners of a kind.”

Then there’s “Anonymous Club”, which has Barnett’s voice at its highest, most expressive octave, and “Canned Tomatoes (Whole)”, which also offers a more melodious version of her pipes. Both songs are wonderful alternates to the slightly woozy level her voice takes on in most songs, but that’s not saying Barnett ever sounds unsatisfactory on this release. No, no – she almost always sounds entrancing.

It’s especially appealing that the two EPs segue seamlessly into each other. The I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris segment of the double EP does feel a little more lighthearted, but it’s still as exciting and rousing as the first half. It also features some tasty instrumentation, particularly in the beautiful interplay between the guitar and piano of “Porcelain”.

And so I’m really excited for future material from Barnett, and cannot wait to catch her when she comes to my neck of the woods this fall. Be sure to check her out if she ends up touring near you!

Hear “Are You Looking After Yourself” on this week’s playlist.

Twin Peaks – Wild Onion

 

wildonion

Grade: B

As their sophomore album kicks off, with the charging “I Found A New Way”, Chicago’s Twin Peaks ignite hope rock ‘n’ roll has found itself a new and extremely adequate conveyor. There’s some impressive punk to those first couple of songs, as well as a bit of swagger that almost suggests Mick Jagger.

It’s not long before Wild Onion backpedals into something more out of mid-90s rock, though, and this includes their use of more pop driven melodies and occasional kooky beats. Twin Peaks likes to refer to this as “heavy pop” on their Facebook page, and I couldn’t agree more. Every time this album starts to veer a little too close to pop music, the singer begins shrieking again and the instruments drop their sound low. Heavy pop it is.

This definitely works for the band, especially in songs like “Making Breakfast”, which reminded me of Elvis Costello with a more pompous attitude. There’s also “Sweet Thing”, a song that casually pleads for love and is probably just interested in a one-night stand, anyways. It’s a guarantee that night will be a good time, though.

Twin Peaks step into weirder territory with “Strange World” and “Ordinary People”, both of which feel unnecessary to the album, and out of place with the rest of their rockin’ tunes. The former ties together with “Stranger World”, two tracks later, but it still ends up sounding like a poor attempt to branch out of their style and into something more artistic. Why would you wanna do such a thing when you’re still working to establish what exactly you are? “Ordinary People” is much in the same – while it does show the band is willing to overstep their style boundaries, they don’t seem to have the capabilities just yet to effectively do so.

My opinion is that they should stick to what they’re great at for now – howling, glam-based rock – and hone it into something completely their own. In the meantime I commend Twin Peaks for Wild Onion, which is definitely a pretty irresistible album, and for creating something that fully strays from the David Lynch-esque sound I nervously anticipated it would be.

Stay tuned for this week’s playlist (comes out Sunday, September 7th), which will feature a track off the newest from Twin Peaks!

FKA twigs – LP1

fkatwigs

Grade: A

On her first official full-length, English singer-songwriter Tahliah Debrett Barnett, or FKA twigs, delivers a nearly supernatural kind of R&B, and it’s absolutely mesmerizing at times. In truth, though, it took me nearly three complete listens of the album to determine whether I even liked the sounds she was producing. This is definitely an artist that has created a style wholly her own, and it can feel strange and alien at times. In the end, though, it’s as starkly beautiful as can be.

LP1 is one of the most unique albums I’ve ever listened to, and it’s thanks to the use of Barnett’s hypnotic and sensual voice, meshed with futuristic slow jams. There’s so much feeling and emotion as she reworks the question “Was I just a number to you?” in “Numbers”, a tune that pushes every door of the musical landscape wide open. But that’s almost the story for every song on this experimental album, and that’s why it’s such an impressive one.

Maybe you should just hear it for yourself to understand the alluring appeal of FKA twigs. Then please – let me know what you think!

 

Also check out this week’s playlist to hear “Video Girl” from this debut album by FKA twigs.

Benjamin Booker – Benjamin Booker

benjaminbooker

 Grade: A+

This bombshell of a debut album ain’t no stereotypical anything. It’s a gorgeous mix of blues and punk and soul and rock ‘n’ roll, and while it was made in New Orleans, it comes from a man raised by a religious, military-based family in Florida. Booker’s tale isn’t one of triumphing out of the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina, rather it’s one of emerging slightly unscathed from a life of drugs and doubt, and with a talent that is about to shake the world of music.

Deciding which is more entrancing, 25-year-old Booker’s haggard, blues-soaked voice, or his exemplary shredding skills, is tough as hell. Together they create a rock record that hasn’t been made in decades. But Benjamin Booker, released August 19th via ATO Records, is far from a rewrite from the past – it’s full of an updated energy that easily distinguishes it as a modern-day masterpiece.

There’s a lot of uptempo boogie to songs such as “Violent Shiver” and “Wicked Waters”, but definitely pay attention to the lyrics of the record, as they often reveal a darker side of things. This is especially true with slowed down numbers like “I Thought I Heard You Screaming”, a song Booker explains in a recent Noisey interview as being inspired by hallucinations he was having during one of the worst periods of his life.

Maybe the most indelible of the debut, however, is the mesmerizing “Have You Seen My Son?”, a charging rocker that teases you with a stop not once, but twice, and lays out a different kind of song both times it gets back up and going. It’s a sadness when the track actually does come to an end. Well played, Booker.

See Booker tear through “Have You Seen My Son?” below, on his recent Conan appearance, and know the guitarist has also picked up notice this year by touring alongside Jack White, playing plenty of major festivals and guesting on other late nights such as Letterman.

We all should be at the edge of our seat for this new guy and everything he’s about to offer us.

 

Check out this week’s playlist to hear “Chippewa” from Benjamin Booker’s self-titled debut.

Spoon – They Want My Soul

Spoon-They-Want-My-Soul

Grade: B+

It’s the first track off Spoon’s latest that gives lifelong fans hope for a resurrection of the band’s signature sound. Now, what that sound is can be debated, but to those who’ve been around since Telephono, or say Girls Can Tell, there’s no question. It’s a style that’s inimitable, and rightfully based on the twitching guitar and stretched out vocals of lead singer Britt Daniel, not to mention the poundingly melodic drumming of Jim Eno.

And that’s exactly what album opener “Rent I Pay” offers. It’s a terrific song, and sounds very much like Spoon at its best. Daniel pushes his vocals to the limit, pulling the lyrics from the murky bottom of his throat and sputtering them out with indie fervor. It’s quite lovely.

The rest of They Want My Soul then plays out in a match-up of old vs. new, as the band appealingly plucks at rhythms and stylings of their past recordings and meld them together with updated ideas that nicely modernize their sound. Sometimes it doesn’t work, like with the album’s title track, a song that feels as if Spoon didn’t want to try too hard with it. Instead, it’s a rehash of literally every song they’ve ever done, and it’s almost cheeky. There’s also “Let Me Be Mine”, another lackluster tune that doesn’t pack much effort.

“Outlier,” on the other hand, is a great build-up of a tune, and incorporates the kind of dark lit dance beat that makes you wanna solemnly shake it by yourself, no dance partner needed.

Another great one comes in the way “I Just Don’t Understand”, a cover of an old Ann-Margret hit – yes, THE Ann-Margret, ’60s sexpot from such films as Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas – that was also once covered by The Beatles. It’s lush with spot-on piano, and Daniel comes off like a ’90s Brit rocker, maybe Liam Gallagher or Damon Albarn. Really fun song Spoon should definitely be proud of.

They Want My Soul is, surprisingly, Spoon’s first with a major label, Loma Vista Recordings. They’ve done their last five with Merge Records, all of which were indie groundbreakers in their own right. It’s nice to hear the band with a bit more polish and production, but I still consider the more gritty work from Kill the Moonlight and Gimme Fiction to be Spoon at their prime. We’ll see where this step away from their indie-based roots will take them.

Check out this week’s playlist to hear “Knock Knock Knock” from Spoon’s newest.