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: **

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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

Revenge of the Two-Sentence Album Reviews


Album: Deserted
Artist: Mekons
Release Date: March 29, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • Lawrence of California
  • Mirage

Thoughts: Mekons are an original UK punk rock band from the 1970s who remain fresh and relevant 40 years later.  The folk rock/punk rock sound of Deserted is reminiscent of Billy Bragg, and is inspired by the landscapes of Joshua Tree National Park.
Rating: ***

 

 


Album: Gnomes and Badgers
Artist: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe
Release Date: March 8, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • What if You Knew
  • Millvale, PA
  • Something Sweet
  • Smart Boy

Thoughts: I heard this playing in a coffee shop and through the magic of Shazam, I learned about a new band.  The album is an excellent collection of funk/jazz fusion from a former member of Lenny Kravitz’s backing band (so basically it’s the good part of Lenny Kravitz music without the bad part of Lenny Kravitz music).
Rating: ***


AlbumThe Seduction of Kansas
Artist: Priests
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Favorite Tracks:

  • The Seduction of Kansas
  • Good Time Charlie
  • I’m Clean
  • 68 Screen

Thoughts:

A punk rock epic that draws inspiration from a book by Thomas Frank?  Yes, please!

Rating: ***1/2

 

Two Sentence Album Reviews


Album: Temporal
Artist: Julia Kent
Release Date: January 25, 2019
Favorite Tracks: Last Hour Story, Sheared
Thoughts: Canadian cellist and composer Julia Kent creates atmospheric pieces with repeated melodies, drones, and tape loops.  The result is cinematic scores for films that don’t exist, and an odd ASMR response.
Rating: ****


Album: amo
Artist: Bring Me The Horizon
Release Date: January 25, 2019
Favorite Tracks: Ouch
Thoughts: What if heavy metal was mixed with electronic dance music? Would the result be satisfying to fans of either genre? Also, Grimes.
Rating: **


AlbumSiku
Artist: Nicola Cruz
Release Date: January 25, 2019
Favorite Tracks: Arka, Siete, Señor de las Piedras,

Thoughts: Electronic music may also be combined with folk musics, in this case the music of Ecuador.  Cruz adeptly brings together traditional drums and wind instruments – the siku of the album’s title – with electronic drones and rhythms.
Rating: ****


Album: 7 Directions
Artist: Nkisi
Release Date: January 18, 2019
Favorite Tracks: III, IV
Thoughts: Congolese-born, London-based DJ Nkisi offers another take on electronic music.  Sounds and rhythms build, pulsate, and swirl with no resolution on seven tracks numbered “I” through “VII.”
Rating: ****


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Album Review: The New Normal by STL GLD


AlbumThe New Normal
ArtistSTL GLD
Release Date: February 1, 2019
Favorite Tracks: Burns, Gon’ Shine, Burns
Thoughts:

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 listenin to.

Rating: ****

Two Sentence Album Reviews: The Ones I Missed Edition


NPR recently released their 50 Best Albums of 2018, and while I reviewed several of the albums on that list, there were four I wanted to hear more of. This will probably be my last album review post of the year UNLESS you have a favorite album of 2018 that I absolutely must listen to and post it in the comments.

Album: Blueprint
ArtistAlice Bag
Release Date: March 15, 2018
Favorite Tracks: Turn it Up, Stranger, White Justice
Thoughts:

Alice Bag is a new discovery to me, but she was a member of the Bags, one of the earliest members of the Los Angeles hardcore punk scene in the 70s & 80s.  She remains an activist as well as a musician, her voice now having the wisdom of age to pair with the punk rock hooks.

Rating: ***


AlbumOrquesta Akokán
ArtistOrquesta Akokán
Release Date: March 30, 2018
Favorite Tracks: Mambo Rapidito, Un Tabaco para Elegua
Thoughts: Daptone Records, who revived classic soul music with Sharon Jones, does the same for classic Cuban music.  I don’t know much about mambo but this is a damned good album.
Rating: ****


AlbumWolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa
Artist:  Jeremy Dutcher
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Favorite Tracks: Mehcinut, Ultestakon, Sakomawit
Thoughts: Canadian composer and singer Jeremy Dutcher draws upon First Nations’ music for his classical compositions.  The pieces grow from samples of early 20th-century  wax cylinder recordings of Wolastoqiyik songs.
Rating: ****


Album: Siblings
ArtistColin Self
Release Date: October 30, 2018
Favorite Tracks: Story, Quorum, Stay With the Trouble (For Donna),
Thoughts: Composer and choreographer Self mixes classical arrangements, electronic dance music, and a soaring falsetto.  Collectively the songs work toward the idea of creating family for among people who identify as queer.
Rating: ***

 

 

 

 

Two Sentence Album Reviews Take Two


Some new albums that don’t exactly contain new content, so I’m reviewing them in bulk.


Album: MassEducation
Artist: St. Vincent
Release Date:  October 12, 2018
Favorite Tracks: “Slow Disco,” “Los Ageless,”
Thoughts: A release of Masseduction with everything stripped away except Annie Clarke’s voice and a piano, making her sound more like a chanteuse.  I think I like this version better, although I didn’t really like the original much at all.
Rating: ***


Album: My Way
Artist: Willie Nelson
Release Date: September 14, 2018
Favorite Tracks: “Summer Wind,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “One for My Baby (And One More For the Road,” “What is This Thing Called Love?,” and “My Way”
Thoughts: Willie Nelson sings swinging standards in the style of Frank Sinatra.  What’s not to like?
Rating: ***


Album: Piano and a Microphone 1983
Artist: Prince
Release Date:  September 21, 2018
Favorite Tracks: “17 Days,” “Cold Coffee & Cocaine,” and “Why the Butterflies”
Thoughts: The first posthumous release from Prince’s music vaults is a glimpse of an artist at work.  Just Prince tooling around on a piano, working on several songs, and being amazingly talented.
Rating: ***1/2

 

Two Sentence Album Reviews


Got a backlog of albums from recent months, so here’s a collection of quick reviews.

 


Album: re:member
ArtistÓlafur Arnalds
Release Date: 24 August 2018
Favorite Tracks: “re:member,” “undir,” and “ekki hugsa”
Thoughts: Piano-based ambient music, reminiscent of Sigur Ros.  Very soothing.
Rating: ****


AlbumMarauder
Artist: Interpol
Release Date: 24 August 2018
Favorite Tracks: “If You Really Love Nothing” and “The Rover”
Thoughts: I’ve liked Interpol’s previous recordings, and this is an acceptable addition to their oeuvre.  But it feels a bit redundant and uninspired
Rating: ***


Album: Negro Swan
Artist: Blood Orange
Release Date: August 24, 2018
Favorite Tracks: “Charcoal Baby,” “Holy Will,” “Daenham Dream,” and “Out of Your League”
Thoughts: Dev Hynes fourth album recording as Blood Orange is smooooooooooth.  The music is chill, but the lyrics examine depression and anxiety through an intersectional lens of political consciousness.
Rating: ***


Album: The Now Now
Artist: Gorillaz
Release Date: June 29, 2018
Favorite Tracks: “Humility (feat. George Benson),” “Hollywood,”
Thoughts: Damon Albarn’s second band – a “virtual band” at that – is now a veteran band of 20 years.  It features a stripped-down sound with fewer guest artists and I think it benefits from that even as it falls a bit short of Gorillaz best work.
Rating: ***1/2

Album Review: Remain in Light by Angélique Kidjo


Album: Remain in Light
ArtistAngélique Kidjo
Release Date: June 8, 2018
Favorite Tracks:

  • Born Under Punches
  • Crosseyed and Painless
  • Once in a Lifetime
  • Houses in Motion
  • but really, the whole album

Thoughts:

In 1980, the Talking Heads released the seminal New Wave album Remain in Light which incorporated African rhythms and instrumentation into post-punk rock music.  Angélique Kidjo takes the music back to Africa by covering the entire album.  And, wow, it’s absolutely breathtaking! Even if you’ve listened to the Talking Heads album again and again, these feel like fresh, brand-new songs!

Rating: ****1/2