Albums of the Week 24th February - 3rd April
Thundercat - Drunk
Stephen Bruner is only 32 years old, yet Drunk presents a wise, street-smart view of youth music culture in 2017. After stunning us with the controlled Jazz-Funk of "Complexion" and "Wesley's Theory" from Kendrick's 2015 classic To Pimp A Butterfly, the wings are well and truly spread on this album, allowing Bruner to indulge his every whim. On the Coltrane-esque jazz of "Uh Uh" he starts mournfully with a washed piano loop that could have been recorded in 1923. The very next song, "Bus In These Streets", has a carol-like quality to it, with sprinklings of festive synth and an underrated bass line controlling the mood. There's little rhyme or reason to the sonic transitions, and even if he finds a delicious groove, such as "Friend Zone" and "Them Changes", he discards it almost immediately, a mind apparently working as fast as the BPM on "Where I'm Going".
There's a delightful video-game quality to some of these songs too. "Tokyo" could have been lifted straight from Gran Turismo, and Blackkk is a caricature of every cool sound that's even been hidden in a dusty Japanese arcade game. While Pharrell Williams' appearance is absolutely no surprise (both artists seem intent on spending their time above the stratosphere), the inclusion of Wiz Khalifa for the out-of-place and dull "Drink Dat" is the only real misstep. Kendrick drops by for an obligatory verse on "Walk On By", and in typical Kendrick fashion, it's difficult to decode and takes multiple listens to catch the full meaning.
Overall, Drunk is just damn good fun. I was driving home on Sunday, with an hour of boring freeway to kill, and every twist and turn in this record more than made up for the arrow-straight road I had my eyes glued on. I even managed a little jig. Great record.
Stormzy - Gang Signs & Prayers
The brutal opener "First Things First" is incredibly promising. Grime could have a break out year in 2017, despite 2016 being arguably the greatest in terms of quality in the history of the genre. Wiley has already dropped the Grime blueprint in Godftaher, and Stormzy is one of the brightest stars in the UK scene. Unfortunately, he slips into the mid-2000s major label record trap. This album is a complete mess, a lot like Jadakiss' solo joints, although Stormzy can't quite pull off the double act of pop-friendly and street-centric.
We can start with the woeful "Cigarettes & Cush" with Kehlani. There have been some ill-advised attempts to pair rappers with pop stars in the past, and on paper Kehlani's "Savage" persona might hold her in good stead, but they have absolutely no chemistry, with Stormzy's distinct accent and underground rep clashing spectacularly with Kehlani's over-produced and crisp vocals. He doubles down on the chart-chasing with the weak "Blinded By Your Grace, Pt. 2", a track that wouldn't be out of place in the horrid Australian hip-hop scene of giant choruses and cynical, insurance advertisement production. Yuck.
So then he hits us with "Return of the Rucksack", a brutal bar-filled explosion of aggression underpinned by a disquieting beat and all the menace that South London can conjure. "100 Bags" is a nice, heartfelt, street-focused message, the kind of thing Scarface has perfected. Then it drops off again with "Don't Cry For Me"....
Look, it's not that we don't want Stormzy to show his emotional range. Part of his appeal, over someone like Wiley, is his ability to translate difficult feelings and situations into songs that everyone, from South London to Washington DC, can relate to. You don't need to force the sap down our throats with huge choruses sung by manufactured pop stars, and production that sounds like it was created by an app. Just give us Stormzy!
Dope Lemon - Hounds Tooth
DOPE LEMON is the side-project of Angus Stone, and it's an absolute delight. His new EP marries everything we love about the Stones (those slide guitars, incredible chilled vibe, and a wicked gift for melody) with a tiny touch of danger, of the unknown. The flutes (?) on opener "Home Soon" showcase a budding ability to arrange music, and the dub influence on "Lovers Left To Die" will doubtless interest our New Zealand friends. He wraps it up and brings it home with the suitably epic "Where Do You Go", complete with heavily altered vocals and a lighters-up piano riff at the end. This is such a highly listenable project, and it breaks free of the slightly more pop-focused aspects of his collaboration with his sister. This bodes very well for their work together, and future DOPE LEMON projects. If Angus is this capable of experimentation, and surely he will only continue to improve, his future output could be really special.
Dirty Projectors - Dirty Projectors
This record is an absolute joy, which is odd, because it's a break-up album. Dave is going to confuse the hell out of you. "Death Spiral" sounds like he's reached the acceptance phase, until you get to the pre-chorus, which states:
Tailspin, nose down
Now it's a race to the bottom
Tailspin, nose down
Now it's a race to the bottom
Before the chorus:
You spin me around
In a wild death spiral
We're hitting the ground
In a fiery pile
So... Not really over it then. It's actually interesting to watch him work within the confines of a loose-concept lyrically, because the music is at times revolutionary. "Ascent Through The Clouds" takes inspiration from the end part of The Beatles' "A Day In The Life" and welds this weird, glitchy funk to it, as if Autechre and Brian Eno collaborated. The piano ballad of "Work Together" is a horrible dystopia, the beat jumping around wildly, almost mimicking the heartbeat of a hopeful and irrational lover trying to win back their world.
It's way too disjointed to place in the same category as For Emma, Forever Ago or Rumours, and therein lies the appeal. Some break-ups might happen as if a Hollywood script writer was in charge of every move, and spit-shined emotional outbursts that are socially acceptable can be captured in perfect album packages. But Dirty Projectors have tapped in to the messy, unconventional, human way that we deal with grief and loss. Hell, the last time I went through heartbreak I went and ran a half marathon, then spent 6 months eating 2 litres of ice cream every single day, and nothing else. There's no movie depicting that. Embrace the chaos and individuality of the human spirit!
Holy Holy - Paint
I spoke last week about Middle Kids, who decided to take the jangly-guitar path to Australian music success, and in turn I criticised Flume for chasing pop stardom with huge hooks and epic sounds. Holy Holy decided to split the two right down the middle. Bands like this (World's End Press, Gang of Youths, The Wombats, The Rubens) remind me so much of the opening act for an overseas rock band. You turn up a touch early, you're alone because your concert-buddy is in Bondi walking around without a shirt and doesn't plan on turning up until 3 songs into the main acts set, and you sit down in the middle of the floor and watch a band make every use of the acoustics and expensive gear. They blow you away. I guess it's that elusive quality that authentic bands seek, to make a truly "live" record in the studio. I think Holy Holy have nailed it with Paint.
It's packed to the brim with huge songs. "Gilded Age" is fervent, "Shadow" marries The Smiths with The Pixies, "Amateurs" is such a good impression of We Are Scientists, and "Send My Regards" could actually open the record, a maelstrom of noise that's Shakespearean in effect. This is a wonderfully put together record. It's a bit safe, but it really fills out a quality pair of headphones. Professional they might call it.
Blac Youngsta - Illuminati
Blac Youngsta's interviews have always been infinitely more enjoyable than his music. When he appeared next to Yo Gotti on The Breakfast Club, he decided that spending the entire 30 minutes counting money would be a good idea. It was. His next appearance he had 3 specific, expensive, beautiful chains on, and what looked like a Presidential that was flooded. He has touched the charts occasionally, but he's hardly a household name in hip hop at this point.
Illuminati slays all of the 5th-tier trap records post-2015. Last week I was listening to a truly atrocious record from Fredo Santana, who is a less-enjoyable version of Chief Keef (now that is a bad endorsement) and I was wondering, can anyone in this current crop make a truly listenable trap album? Illuminati isn't on the same level as Jeezy, but it's enjoyable and surprisingly deep. He drags some huge names into it, including Lil Yachty and Slim Jxmmi, and the best collab is probably "Confuse Me" with YFN Lucci, and off-kilter track about street loyalty. This mixtape deserves your attention if you're after some new trap that isn't Future.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre - Don't Get Lost
There's always been, in my mind, a direct comparison between The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Pink Floyd. If Pink Floyd hadn't succumbed to life, I'd imagine in the 90s they'd have become what TBJM are now. Don't Get Lost is a sprawling opus of experiments, psych-rock, straight-rock, southern-rock, ambient, just about every sound they've been pushing since their inception 27 years ago. Songs like "UFO Paycheck" channel a Bonobo-like vibe of melody and movement, and the indicative "Acid 2 Me Is No Worse Than War" is scary to just think about listening to it while under the influence. They're still masters of making you feel something, or setting a mood, or helping you groove out. Check this album out, I daresay there's 5 or 6 songs that might sneak onto your "best of 2017" playlist.
Oddisee - The Iceberg: 5/10
Little Big Town - The Breaker: 3.5/10