Saturday, August 29, 2015

Captain of None

Colleen's 2013 album The Weighing of the Heart is one of my favorite releases of recent years. I finally got around to listening to her latest album, Captain of None. I was originally put off by the noisier direction of some of the songs, but it still maintains the beautifully hypnotic quality of her earlier work. highly recommended.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Ego Death

Originally posted on RapReviews
The Internet
Ego Death

By all indications, the Odd Future collective (AKA Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All) is no more. It’s not all that surprising since they haven’t really been appearing on one another’s albums for two years, and were never much of a group to begin with. The loose collection of artists, which included Earl Sweatshirt, Vic Mensa, Frank Ocean, Syd the Kid, and ringleader Tyler the Creator, were united more in their outsider status than because they shared an artistic vision. They were a group of musicians who didn’t quite fit into any world, so they made up one of their own. Their early work was intentionally shocking, a series of homophobic and misogynistic inside jokes that weren’t intended to be taken at face value. The irony was that two of their members were gay or bisexual, so even though Tyler and Earl filled their rhymes with homophobic slurs, the collective has done more to advance gay rights and gay visibility in hip-hop and R&B than any other rapper, with the possible exception of Macklemore. How’s that for a bunch of foul-mouthed kids?

“Ego Death” is the third record by The Internet, which features Syd the Kid and Matt Martians, along with Jameel Bruner, Patrick Page, Christopher A. Smith, and Steve Lacy. That is the first thing that sets The Internet apart from some of their musical peers: they are a band, rather than a vocalist working with other producers or doing the bulk of production themselves. As such, there is a cohesiveness to “Ego Death” that you don’t always get in contemporary R&B. Syd may do almost all of the singing here (minus a few guest spots, notably Janelle Monae), but it is a group effort. Like the rest of the Odd Future crew, The Internet has done a good job of transforming from a group of kids making music for one another to actual artists with something to say. “Ego Death” is their best record yet.

Musically, The Internet mixes R&B, soul, hip-hop, and jazz, with an emphasis on smooth and sleepy grooves. Some songs, like “Under Control,” feature an analog sound, with live drum, guitars, bass, and keyboards. Others, like “Just Sayin/I Tried” have heavier hip-hop beat, while a song like ‘Girl” could almost be chillwave. The one constant is that things stay subdued and mellow. There are no bangers on this one, no tracks for the clubs, no attempts at a Top-10 hit. The downside is that the album can sound samey at parts. The upside is that it is consistently good and doesn’t drastically jump around to different styles or tempos.

Lyrically, Syd sings about what she’s been singing about since her 2011 debut, and what R&B singers have been singing about since the genre was invented: love, sex, partying, and annoying ex’s. The difference is that all of Syd’s lovers share the same pronoun as her. Her lesbianism is front and center in the album, but it is also no big thing. She dates women, so the people she is chasing after or trying to dump in her songs are all women. I’m mentioning it in this review only because it is notable, but it is notable only because it rarely happens in popular music. I think someone could make a powerful R&B album about being a gay woman of color, but that’s not Syd’s goal. She’s making music about her life, and not spending too much time dwelling on anything heavier than ex girlfriends.

“Penthouse Cloud” stands out on the album in its naked emotion and direct engagement with racism. For most of “Ego Death,” Syd maintains a pose of cool detachment. When she’s telling someone she’s about to blow up on “Under Control” or telling a lover “You fucked up” on “Just Saying/I Tried,” she sounds like she could take it or leave it. On “Penthouse Cloud,” she lets that facade drop and sings about how heartbreaking the world can be. 

“Did you see the news last night?
They shot another one down
Does it even matter why?
Or is it all for nothing?

Father, oh Lord in heaven, is this how you saw it?
When you made your creation, is this what you wanted?”

People often complain that the lyrics in hip-hop and R&B are too hedonistic, too focused on sex and partying. “Penthouse Cloud” is the reason why there are so many songs about getting high and partying: because real life is too depressing. 

“Rather watch the world burn down from a penthouse cloud, real talk
But if this is what you want I’ll fight ’til the smoke-filled skies make the days turn night, then what?
Maybe when the world burns down and the clouds turns black and the sky turns white and the days turn night
It’s a war outside
Or maybe we’ll find paradise in the sky
When we die”

“Ego Death” is the perfect summer record. Breezy, smooth, lazy, and meant for warm nights. The Internet have developed into a full-fledged band, and Syd’s singing and songwriting have matured as well. Odd Future may be no more, but if its former members keeping turning out material like this, I don’t think we’ll miss the demise of the Wolfpack.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

What I've Been Listening to

I've been enjoying VHOL's 2012 self-titled album. They are a psychedelic thrash band that features the singer from YOB and a bassist from Hammers of Misfortune who also teaches music at my alma mater.

...and Vince Staples' video for "Norf Norf," which shouts out my wife's high school.

...and Joanna Gruesome's "Peanut Butter," which improves on their debut. Melodic punk with female vocals that is the perfect mix of pretty and noisy.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

At Long Last A$AP Review

I reviewed A$AP Rocky's At.Long.Last.A$AP at RapReviews.

I'm enjoying Vince Staples album Summertime 06, although it's a little short of being great.

I'm also loving the video for Kendrick's "Alright."

I really think that we are in the midst of a flourishing of African-American art, the likes of which hasn't been seen for years.

I've also been listening to Judas Priest a lot lately. I love them, both ironically and unironically.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Malcolm's Theme

From Ossie Davis's eulogy for Malcolm X, 1965:

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What I'm Digging: Krieg and Inquisition

I've been listening to two bands a lot lately on my noisy commute to and from work.

Inquisition is a duo of Portland-based Columbians who play an interesting take on black metal. The singer has the same croaked vocals as Immortal's Abbath, and the lyrics are all about worshipping Satan. What I like about the band is the warped guitar sound he has. There's almost an experimental edge to them. So even though their politics suck (they have a Nazi-themed side project, their early albums were put out on a label that distributes racist metal, etc.)and they are Satan-worshippers, I still really like this. I think the fact that they are Columbian makes their shitty politics a bit easier to take.

So on to a band that aren't Nazi-flirting Satanists....Krieg. (Well, shit, except their name is German for "war").  I really enjoy their 2014 album Transient, which to me sounds like a hardcore record with growled vocals. It's brutal and pummeling and all in the red, and then there will be moments of melody. A really powerful, melancholy record.

I've also been listening to a lot of jazz, so it isn't all latently racist white dude rage music for me, fyi.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Kamasi Washington Review

Kamasi Washington
The Epic 
Brainfeeder, 2015

According to a 2014 Nielsen report, jazz is the least popular genre in America. Jazz made up just 1.4% of all albums sold in 2014, compared with 17% for hip-hop, 30% for rock, and 14% for pop. To put that in perspective, the 5.2 million jazz albums sold in the U.S. in 2014 is only a little more than the total sales of the “Frozen” soundtrack alone. To most people, jazz is background music that all sounds the same, music you might hear at a reception or cafe, but certainly wouldn’t pay to listen to. From my own perspective as a jazz fan who doesn’t listen to contemporary jazz, I think there are a few reasons for this. Jazz has struggled with finding a broader voice in the past twenty years. Unlike metal, another genre that has faded from mainstream favor, there isn’t a robust jazz underground. The jazz that is out there is either avant-garde noise, easy listening smooth jazz, or fiercely traditionalist. It hasn’t found a way to connect with younger audiences, or audiences beyond dedicated jazz heads. Music tastemaker Pitchfork covers experimental music, modern classical music, but almost no jazz. Myself, I am a huge jazz fan, but I almost never listen to anything contemporary. I have hundreds of jazz albums, but only two of them were recorded within the last thirty years. 

And yet jazz has the potential to speak to current audiences. People still have an appetite for instrumental music, as the success of EDM in recent years proves. People also have an appetite for music that challenges traditional song structures, whether it be in the form of composers like Max Richter, electronic artists like Oneohtrix Never, or extreme metal artists like Liturgy. There is also still an audience for music that swings and grooves, both from the jam band end of the spectrum and the funk and R&B end.

Enter Kamasi Washington and the West Coast Get Down. They are a group of 10 L.A.-based jazz performers who all grew up together playing in high school. Many of them had parents or music teachers who were session musicians in funk and R&B bands, so grew up surrounded by music. I heard of Kamasi for the same reason most people heard of him: he played on Kendrick Lamar’s new album, and his album came out on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label. (It’s no coincidence that Kamasi is co-signed by Flying Lotus; “You’re Dead!” was basically a jazz album).  From that background, I was expecting “The Epic” to have a heavy hip-hop or electronica influence. It doesn’t. What it does have is a scope and power that is beyond almost any jazz album I’ve heard since John Coltrane’s later work or MIles Davis’s fusion albums in the 70s. In short, it is one of the best jazz albums I’ve ever heard.

The music on “Epic” was recorded in December 2011. Kamasi and the other musicians did a month of recording sessions, focusing on different band leaders, which resulted in 190 songs. 45 of these were Kamasi’s, which he in turn pared down to the 17 that appear on the three-disc and aptly named “The Epic.” This is a long, intense album. Many of the songs are over ten minutes long, and none of them are under six minutes. The band excels at building to climactic crescendos, and the longer songs often have multiple builds and releases. It is a dense, layered album. There’s a 32-piece orchestra. There’s a choir. Vocalist Patrice Quinn sings on several songs. It’s a huge album, and a lot of music to try to digest at once. 

Musically, “The Epic” has almost nothing to do with electronica or hip-hop, and a lot to do with funk, 70s jazz fusion, and late 60s jazz by the likes of Pharoah Sanders. It has the audacity and grandness of jazz at the turn of the 70s, when Miles was doing “Bitches Brew” and 30-minute long songs about the nature of the universe were de rigeur, only without the acid-damaged sloppiness of that period. “The Epic” is long, but it is also focused. It rarely devolves into noise, although Kamasi’s tenor saxophone occasionally screeches or squawks during solos. There is a strong melodic imprint throughout the album, and even at its most chaotic it never goes into free jazz territory. It’s at times reminiscent of John Coltrane’s “Ascension” only in its unrelenting intensity.  

Kamasi has played with Chaka Khan and Raphael Saadiq, and there is a heavy funk and R&B swing to “The Epic.” This grounds the album and makes it more accessible for a non-jazz audience, while still being jazz. “The Epic” is funky, it’s groovy, and it has a solid rhythm section. There’s a rock aggression to to the drums, although they maintain the swing of jazz. There’s also a playfulness to the music that makes it constantly inviting. “The Epic” is in many ways a protest album, but it maintains a sense of joy and hope that keeps the listener rooting for it.  “Leroy and Lanisha,” for example, has a nice easy groove that is contrasted by Kamasi’s almost angry solos. “Re Run Home” has a latin feel, with some funky bass thrown in for good measure. Then they fall back into the nice easy swing of the standard “Cherokee.” 

The size of the album, while daunting, is also to its advantage. With two drummers, two bassists (including Thundercat), and a whole mess of other musicians and singers, “The Epic” has an incredibly full and rich sound. The band is under no pressure to truncate their solos, or trim down their ideas. Remarkably, there is very little fat or filler on the three discs. None of the songs feel like they could have been left off, and the songs don’t drag on, even when they are approaching the fourteen-minute mark. 

As I mentioned before, “The Epic” is to some extent a protest album. It feels part of a thematic, sonic, and aesthetic whole with D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” and Kendrick’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” from the references to 70s African-American culture to the black-and-white album covers. The music is often angry and sad, but always maintains a sense of hope and celebration. The few songs with lyrics on “The Epic” are celebratory. “Cherokee” is about a Native American warrior. “Henrietta Our Hero,” possibly about Henrietta Lacks, celebrates “our hero, shining fearless and bright.” “Malcom’s Theme” turns Ozzie Davis’s eulogy for Malcom X into a song, and ends it with a quote from Malcolm himself calling for religious and racial tolerance. On “The Rhythm Changes,” Quinn sings:

Our love, our beauty, our genius
Our work, our triumph, our glory
Won't worry what happened before me
I'm here”

What I love about “The Epic” is how successfully it builds on the history of jazz music while making it contemporary. It is an album that pushes boundaries and yet is always listenable and relatable, even at its most intricate and complex. It never feels too smooth, too noisy, too noodly, or too traditional. It takes chances and succeeds at every attempt. It’s a jazz album for people that think they don’t like jazz albums, and one that I hope will help revitalize the genre.

Blog Archive