Album Review: Put the Shine On by CocoRosie


Album: Put the Shine On
Artist: CocoRosie
Release Date: March 13, 2020
Label: Marathon Artists
Favorite Tracks:

  • High Road
  • Restless
  • Lamb and the Wolf
  • Slow Down Sun Down
  • Ruby Red

Thoughts:

Sisters Bianca “Coco” Casady and Sierra “Rosie” Casady have been creating weird and eclectic music for nearly twenty years.  Their style is basically Americana with electronic instruments and has been classified as New Weird America. This is their first album in five years.  I find it hit or miss, or maybe it’s just that CocoRosie is better in small doses. Listening to the entire album all the way through and their weirdness starts to feel like an act.  I particularly don’t like it much when the Casady sisters rap, but I do like their punk rock vocals.  Nevertheless there are some good moments on this album when they achieve their peak fun and creativity.

Rating: ***

 

Album Review: Temple by Thao & The Get Down Stay Down


Album: Temple
Artist: Thao & The Get Down Stay Down
Release Date: May 15, 2020
Label: Ribbon Music
Favorite Tracks:

  • Temple
  • Phenom
  • Pure Cinema
  • How Could I
  • I’ve Got Something

Thoughts:

I’m a long-time fan of the work of fellow William & Mary alum Thao Nguyen, so I was excited when Thao & The Get Down Stay Down released their newest album in May.  Doubly so when I saw that Thao Nguyen and her many collaborators put together the first great pandemic music video, filmed on Zoom, for the lead single “Phenom.”

Lyrically, the album explores Nguyen’s recently outed queer identity and reconciles it with her Vietnamese-American heritage.  Musically, the songs sound different from the band’s earlier works. The sound draws on a variety of influences from blues rock to 80s post-punk to jazz to indie pop with some tracks incorporating hip-hop elements.  It’s creative and original, and a little bit quirky but also very catchy. It’s a great grab bag that rewards multiple listens.

Rating: ***1/2

Album Review: RTJ4 by Run the Jewels


Album: RTJ4
Artist: Run the Jewels
Release Date: June 3, 2020
Label: Jewel Runners | BMG
Favorite Tracks:

  • ooh la la (feat. Greg Nice and DJ Premier)
  • walking in the snow
  • JU$T (feat. Pharrell Williams and Zach de la Rocha)
  • a few words for the firing squad (radiation)

Thoughts:

This album hits like a ton of bricks.  Killer Mike and El-P rap on a variety of issues including police brutality, mass incarceration, capitalism, the legacy of slavery, and the school-to-prison pipeline. These tracks seem so relevant to the current Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police protests that they may have been written a couple of weeks ago.  But of course, these issues have deep roots. Lest you think this album is all social consciousness, Run the Jewels find room for some party tracks, as well. The album reflects the confidence Run the Jewels have built up over four albums, as well as the personal friendship of El-P and Killer Mike.

Rating: ****

 

Album Review: Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple


Album: Fetch the Bolt Cutters
Artist: Fiona Apple
Release Date: April 17, 2020
Label: Epic
Favorite Tracks:

  • Shameika
  • Under the Table
  • Relay
  • Rack of His
  • Cosmonauts
  • For Her

Thoughts:

I remember Fiona Apple as the tiny woman with the big, bold voice who had a hit with the song “Criminal” (and its unsettling video) back in the 1990s. I’ve heard whispers that Apple continued to have a great career, and I should’ve listened to them since this new album is absolutely brilliant.  In a way, it’s surprising that Apple has returned to widespread acclaim with this album because it’s very experimental with a heavy emphasis on percussion, only holding onto vestiges of pop music around the edges. Apple sings repetitive lyrics in a variety of chants, using her voice like Yoko Ono to become another percussion instrument.  As the title implies, this album is about release, and there’s anger there, but there’s also catharsis and humor.  It has to be heard to be believed.

Rating: ****1/2

Album Reviews: A Sampling of Songs


A couple of weeks ago I posted a list of albums released in 2020 that had been recommended to me from various sources.  I’ve listened to them all, and starting next week I will begin posting full album reviews.  Today, though, I’m going to post a few songs I liked from albums that didn’t make the cut for an album review.  Kind of like a Monthly Mixtape, but kind of not.

In the meantime, if you have any albums or songs or EPs or rock operas or anything else from 2020 you think I should listen to, let me know in the comments.

Selections from A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip by Sparks:

“Lawnmower”

“All That”

Selections from Agitprop Alterna by Peel Dream Magazine:

“Emotional Devotion Creator”

“It’s My Body”

Selection from Manic by Halsey:

“Finally // beautiful stranger”

Selections from Future Nostalgia by Dua Lipa:

“Don’t Start Now”

“Break My Heart”

Selections from Walking Like We Do by The Big Moon:

“Take A Piece”

“It’s Easy Then”

 

 

 

2019 Year in Review: Favorite Albums


Here are five albums from 2019 that I really loved. Check out my lists of favorite albums from 20142016, 2017 and 2018 as well.

The New Normal by STL GLD

The Boston hip hop act STL GLD is well-regarded as one of the best groups in the area by local media. Boston isn’t a notable location on the hip hop map compared with other cities, but The New Normal should draw attention to our city. Moe Pope, Christopher Talken, and Jonathan Ulman perform songs that speak to the present moment of the Trump era, and all the political and personal turmoil that entails, but also offering a positive alternative vision. And STL GLD is not shy about getting their message out, including holding a listening party for the album’s premier in the unlikely setting of the Museum of Fine Arts. I admit that I don’t know enough about hip hop to write a thorough review, but I know what I like, and The New Normal, lyrically and musically, is worth listening to.

It’s Real by Ex Hex

This is the second album (following 2014’s Rips) from the Washington, DC based trio of Mary Timony on guitar, bassist Betsy Wright and drummer Laura Harris.  It’s got a mix of 80s punk and hardrock with touches of power pop and 60s girl groups thrown in.  There’s nothing quite original here, but it is a well-crafted collection of raging guitar solos and sweet harmonies.

The Best of Luck Club by Alex Lahey

Do you like 1980s power pop, but want to hear it from a young, contemporary artist? Australia’s Alex Lahey fits the bill on this album that just totally rocks.  She even rips out a sax solo on “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself.” A year ago this week, I reviewed an album by Lahey’s fellow Australian Courtney Barnett, which I completely loved, and I feel just as strongly for The Best of Luck Club.  Lahey is maybe a bit less edgy musically than Barnett, but her lyrics are empowering and uplifting.  And even on the ballads the pair of ballads that close out the album – “Black RMs” and “I Want to Live With You” – Lahey express the contended domesticity of a loving relationship while still being a rock & roller.

Cut & Stitch by Petrol Girls

I have a soft spot for punk rock that features women’s voices shouting over shredding guitars.  The Petrol Girls website bears the tagline “Raging Feminist Post Hardcore from the UK and Austria” which about sums it up.  And while the shouted lyrics may not always be easy to understand, I appreciate that they’re saying important things, the emotion behind them is clear.

Cuz I Love You by Lizzo

Lizzo is one of those artists that excels in making music that fits into multiple genres – pop, hip hop, soul, funk, & R&B – so much so that her music is kind of it’s own Lizzo genre.  I was going to compare the music on Cuz I Love You to the work of Prince, and that was before I learned that Lizzo is from Minneapolis (in fact she appeared on the Prince and 3rdeyegirl album Plectrumelectrum).  The other obvious comparison is Janelle Monáe, and again there’s a direct connection as the pair performed together at Coachella last week and Lizzo interviewed Monáe for them. magazine.  What sets Lizzo apart is her joyful exuberance.  A large, black woman gets discriminated at from every angle, but Lizzo has embraced self-love, and much of the theme of this album is sharing the message of empowerment.  And she sounds she’s having so much fun while doing it.

Album Reviews: Quick Thoughts


What if I didn’t review any albums for some time and then did a bunch at once?  Again?

AlbumThe Competition
Artist: Lower Dens
Release Date: September 6, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “Two Faced Love” and “Young Republicans”
Thoughts: These songs have a lush sound reminiscent of the 1980s New Romantics.  Which is fine, if you’ve listened to all of that 35+ year old music and yearn for more. The big twist is that lyrically it is much more political than romantic.
Rating: **1/2


Album: Close It Quietly
Artist: Frankie Cosmos
Release Date: September 6, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “41st,” “So Blue,”
Thoughts: Greta Kline follows up on 2018’s Vessel with another collection of lo-fi folk rock tunes.  Her sweet voice clearly sings ruminative lyrics about growing into adulthood.
Rating: ***


Album: Crush
Artist: Floating Points
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Thoughts: This collection of minimalist electronic music from UK musician Sam Shepherd was just what I needed to hear right now.
Rating: ****

 


Album: There Existed an Addiction to Blood
Artist: clipping.
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “Nothing is Safe,” “The Show, and “Blood of the Fang”
Thoughts: This the third album from this experimental hip-hop act from Los Angeles, and first since 2016’s Splendor & Money.  There are two great things about this album: 1. the rapid rhymes of Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame) and 2. the deep-textured synth sounds he raps over.  The lyrics are grim and gory, making it an appropriate addition to your Halloween party playlist.
Rating: ****

Album Review: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights by The New Pornographers


Album: In the Morse Code of Brake Lights
Artist: The New Pornographers
Release Date: September 27, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “You’ll Need A New Backseat Driver,” “The Surprise Knock,” and “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile”
Thoughts:

I’ve been a longtime fan of The New Pornographers but finding my enthusiasm for the Canadian band dwindling over there past few releases. This new album has everything one would expect of the New Pornographers, the unique mix of power pop and folk rock, harmonies, virtuoso instrumentation, and clever titles.  The first three songs on the album are good, but there are no standout gems like “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” “Challengers,” or “Crash Years.”  The remainder of the album is just boring.  I guess The New Pornographers and I have just drifted apart.

Rating: **

Related:

Album Review: The Center Won’t Hold by Sleater Kinney


Album: The Center Won’t Hold
Artist: Sleater Kinney
Release Date: August 16, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • Hurry on Home
  • Bad Dance
  • The Dog/The Body

Thoughts:

This is a new sound for the band, one that incorporates electronic instruments and an industrial music sound to its raging guitar riffs. The producer is Annie Clark of St. Vincent and her stamp on the sound is clear, although not overwhelming.  It’s not without controversy as drummer Janet Weiss announced her departure from the band over the change in direction.

The lyrics touch on the politics of being women continuing to perform as they age, defying the expectations that women in the public eye always be young and beautiful.  Similarly, these songs are steeped in the experiences being women and identifying as queer in the Trump Era even if the lyrics aren’t always explicit on that point as they are on the album’s finale “Broken.”

An experienced band and a big name producer bring with it a lot of expectations.  I’m not sure if The Center Won’t Hold lives up to those expectations, but its worth listening on its own terms.

Rating: ***

Album Reviews: 80s Flashbacks


Today I will review three recently-released albums by artists who were 1980s superstars.

AlbumWestern Stars
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Release Date: June 14, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • Western Stars
  • Chasin’ Wild Horses
  • Moonlight Motel

Thoughts:

I’ve always liked Springsteen well enough, although my knowledge of his work is fairly superficial.  This album reminds me of the Rolling Stones’ Blue & Lonesome in the sense that Springsteen is at an age where he has nothing left to prove, and has the leisure to dive into his roots.  Nonetheless, it’s a different sound for him, especially the string arrangements. Strings can be cheezy if done poorly, but they’re are well-integrated into the songs and the stories they’re telling and complement Springsteen’s voice which is as strong and expressive as ever. Springsteen is famously from New Jersey, but here is voice is baked in the Americana of the West.

Rating: ***


Album: Absolute Zero
Artist: Bruce Hornsby
Release Date: April 12, 2019
Favorite Tracks: none stand out, but they’re all decent
Thoughts:

The less-famous Bruce had his biggest hits at the beginning of his career in the 1980s, and probably for most people that’s all they know about him.  In the 1990s, Hornsby toured with the Grateful Dead and created new albums with a jazz fusion sound.  When I lived in Williamsburg, VA, his hometown, he was a local celebrity and people exchanged stories of Bruce sightings.  I saw him in concert several times and have always thought his music sounds far better in live performace than on an album.  Neverthless, over the past 15 years or so I’ve failed to keep up with his career – until now.  This album uses elements of classical, jazz, and avant-garde music with Hornsby’s virtuosic style.  Jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette guests on some tracks as does Justin Vernon of Bon Iver which gives it some NPR Music cred.  It’s a creative experiment with dissonant sounds and juxtapositions, but I don’t think it’s something I’ll want to return to.

Rating: **1/2


Album: Originals
Artist: Prince
Release Date: June 7, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • 100 MPH
  • Holly Rock
  • The Glamorous Life
  • Wouldn’t You Love to Love Me?
  • Nothing Compares 2 U

Thoughts:

Prince, of course, is deceased and will no longer be releasing new music.  But his famous vault will be mined for music for the forseeable future. Following up on Piano and a Microphone, 1983, and collects mostly unreleased versions of songs Prince wrote as demos for other artists. So now we can hear Prince’s take on songs like “Jungle Love,” “Manic Monday,” and “The Glamorous Life,” which were hits for The Time, The Bangles, and Sheila E.  A number of these songs were crafted by Prince for his proteges in the Minneapolis scene so they’re not familiar to me, although the most bizarre of the songs that are new to me is “You’re My Love,” which Prince wrote for Kenny Rogers!  The demos exude Prince’s hard work and musicianship and would’ve been good enough for Prince to release himself.  On the other hand, there are things the other artists brought to these songs that I think Prince was aware was needed.  This album is enjoyable, but I think it’s worth more for historical/musicological study than for just listening for fun

Rating: ***1/2