RIP to a real American hero, Aretha Franklin; I feel satisfied with stuff I've said here over the years about her, and I feel incapable of approaching her legend properly, but I'll most likely post something modest in a few days at my other blog.
Beyoncé & Jay-Z: Everything Is Love (Roc Nation) [hr]
Love, as usual, as an act of salesmanship with a strange sense of brand responsibility -- they only escape coming across as plastic because half the couple is so talented and charismatic and the other half generates nostalgia for the talent and charisma he once emitted. It's not exactly Ashford & Simpson; Jay-Z is a bit player, and in contrast to the closing track "All Night" on the record's narrative predecessor Lemonade, they're belaboring all these points about their infallible relationship -- and the continued lyrical redemption of a now-legendary infidelity -- with such intensity it's as though they're really trying to convince themselves. Still, how can you help but love them? They are America's true first couple, and the millions pay for the best beats in the business. Cool & Dre's "Summer" and "Black Effect" return to the well of classic soul production and the appeal is instantaneous, which may be ironic when laid against lyrics declaring uncharted territory ("never been this far from the shore") but truly can give a sense of relief when you realize some powerful people in this business are out to give the people what they want, and in a healthy dose. Jay is hit and miss, as he's been for fifteen years; "Apeshit" contains his best verse in a while, but he's awkward when interpolating modern club music that's beyond his grasp ("and I'm nice nice nice nice nice nice nice") and evidently his notebook isn't stuffed with enough ideas to prevent him interpolating a whole verse of Common's "The Light." (And why the fuck does he talk about his will so much?) His wife, of course, is light years beyond him and this is her album: she out-Migoses Migos on the black album-like "Apeshit," crafts characters and moods from a voice that contains multitudes, freestyles credibly on "Nice," and on the whole demonstrates a control and authority that remain something to behold. In less well-practiced hands, the specially ordained glimpses into Jay and Yoncé's world could be embarrassing or misguided, but they have a way of making you feel like they're inviting you to share a private moment with them, even though the entire subject of "Heard About Us" is the fact that we really none of us know jackshit about 'em -- which is one of the two statements on the entire record, however delightful it is, that I'm fully inclined to believe. (The other is when Jay announces that being a celebrity "has its perks.")
Kamasi Washington: Heaven & Earth (Young Turks)
Isn't the rattle of your neighbor's garbage can lids enough without having to listen to freaked-out music? Pull yourself out of your old radio routine and get into something nice and sweet. They say many young people will be deaf by the time they're 30. Their own music is doing them in. Life has gotten louder for the rest of us, too. The song bird, the cricket, the soft crunch of snow underfoot are all becoming lost in the roar of the Seventies... Fortunately, there's still one place where you can hear something Beautiful. Hours and hours of it.
The Wave Pictures: Brushes with Happiness (Moshi Moshi) [hr]
Possessed of an eerie calm that can make it seem underwhelming (likely because they're issuing another album in a few months presumed to contain rockers), this almost silenced-to-a-hush cycle of ballads nevertheless gives vent to the usual secrets and passions, gorgeously articulated. It's music of patience: requiring it and dispensing it. Like their vinyl-only A Season in Hull, the album was recorded in a single night live to tape, with all the inherent flaws and distortions, and rarely was the character of an evening so persuasively captured. Catchiest: "Jim," which sings of music itself and slightly bounces; "The Burnt Match," with builds into a singalong. Most atmospheric: "Rise Up," "Volcano," whose stillness is tense and alluring but also completely calming. Best: "The Little Window," a spoken ramble about a wandering through town to recover something lost and an encounter with women boxers in the ring, as evocative as a Hopper sketch, as lonely and full of life as film noir, as grimy as Jerry Lee Lewis live and dangerous.
Let's Eat Grandma: I'm All Ears (Transgressive)
Experimental duo -- childhood besties -- from Norwich, UK who are worth a glance in part because of their association with SOPHIE, who coproduces and cowrites two songs on their sophomore LP, and both are excellent: "Hot Pink" is a balls-to-the-wall triumph, "It's Not Just Me" is moodier, and both are a strong complement to Oil of Every Pearl's Un-Insides with the skittering, charmingly tentative and unfiltered vocals an intriguing contrast to the producer's own vocal work. The rest is much more ordinary dance stuff, most charming when it goes for Berlin-style atmospherics but often sludgy, annoying and slightly on the wrong side of being excessively radio-friendly. "Donnie Darko" is an eleven-minute synth piece peaking with a tranced-out hook that will either be the saving grace or will finally cause you to move on. The whole affair feels like two mismatched records, the first and shorter one more interesting by far.
Lotic: Power (Tri Angle) [hr]
At the current moment it's difficult not to see every piece of fractured electronica in the light of SOPHIE's remarkable breakthrough a few months ago; that's the kind of record that reassigns the role of everything that surrounds it, including music (like the most recent efforts of Jlin and Iglooghost) that appeared prior to it. Lotic is a great example, a Berlin-based producer and DJ whose thoughtful, challenging blend of genres has defined the decade in the dance underground of the German capital. Their debut -- after a few EPs and mixes -- scratches a similar itch to SOPHIE's record, but the differences are telling, namely that Lotic's record is less manic, more focused, more generous but altogether no less impassioned. It is the brilliant, adventurous professional architect to SOPHIE's unpredictable abstract painter. Power gets more accessible as it goes on, bowing out with a group of softly persuasive ballads that are justified wholly by the puzzlingly instinctive rhythms and fragmented eccentricity of what comes before. Its intensity is knowing, complex, intimate, but it will still blow you up and put you back together again differently, no matter what else you've been grooving on this year.
Luluc: Sculptor (Sub Pop)
Third album from this folk-rock duo out of Melbourne, heavy on melody and meaning, low on variance and vitality, but the songs strike you as more felt and crafty than the work of most similar groups that are presently active. I love the very short opening track and admire the pleasantness of the rest, even if I don't really have a place in my life for more of this sort of thing.
Deafheaven: Ordinary Corrupt Human Love (Anti-) [c]
Has no business being reviewed here; another metal band that's strangely often classified as something else, presumably because they're thought to have crossover appeal to non-headbangers, but nah.
Laurel Halo: Raw Silk Uncut Wood (Latency) [r]
Am I allowed to be disappointed here, verging on a sense of betrayal? Laurel Halo's Dust now sounds like it was trying to tell us something, and this is a complete sidestep: an album-length ambient dirge. But its suddenness, its appearance off her regular label, and the description of it as a "mini-album" probably speaks to the possibility it just has a totally different narrative, and it's certainly above-average as atmospherics, full of intrigue... but I hope there is more brain-melting wild shit in her future.
The Internet: Hive Mind (Columbia)
It's not just acoustic strumming singer-songwriters who know how to simultaneously impress us with their competence and bore us to death! The vibe serves its purpose for the most part, but it's in one ear out the other and as Neil Tennant sang long ago, I want to wake up.
Black Thought: Streams of Thought: Vol. 1 (Human Re Sources EP) [hr]
My friends get kind of quiet when I say this out loud but I've long thought Black Thought may still be the best MC currently working: his lyrics and delivery are tough, mature, confident, and wide-ranging -- in fact it's hard to listen to this seventeen-minute download and not just fawn over his flow on a purely technical basis. It's been frustrating as a fan of rap itself how the musical arrangements and, frankly, showboating have overtaken the last several Roots albums -- I often just wanted to hear Thought spit. And this gives him a perfect opportunity, intermingled with a great verse from Rapsody and a reasonably good one from Styles P, but mostly just offering rapid-fire, unstoppable insight and rhythm from Thought himself. The best lyric is on the first cut "Twofifteen" (Philly's area code), with a wizened "what does it all mean" exploration of Kim and Kanye, the election, some references to Hunter Thompson and Sarah Vaughn served with breathless mastery, and the chilly last lines: "So smile and say cheese, we in 2018 / in a pyramid scheme, nightmares and day dreams / from the runaway slave to a modern day king." Musically the standout is "9th vs Thought," half-named for the record's unmistakable producer 9th Wonder; this is heavy jazz, and has some of the first braggadocio Thought's been allowed to expend in a decent while, sick as he's ever been, still speakin' his mind in a different dialect. There's apocalypse in this, as always, but it's an immense relief and a thrill to hear.
Angelique Kidjo: Remain in Light (Kravenworks) [hr]
To my knowledge, the first full-on cover of an album that completely works, thanks to its radical but sympathetic rearrangements of the eight songs on Talking Heads' (and Brian Eno's) most ambitious LP, bringing them -- as if by magic -- back to their roots of African influence while sending them skyrocketing into the present, the future. My first thought is, my god, I hope the band's heard this and realizes how much it affirms what they were going for all along. Few white rock bands' work is as exhilarating and liberating as theirs, largely because of its gradually broadening range of ideas and influences, and the tracks they wrote in 1980 prove durable and gain an extra layer of passion from Kidjo's tough, impassioned performances. Her work on "Crosseyed and Painless" is perhaps the most striking, while her band does their deepest dive into the pure mechanics of "Once in a Lifetime" and "Born Under Punches," and the song that gives you a chill you just can't shake is the prophetic, terrifying, deeply humanistic "Listening Wind." It feels like there couldn't possibly be a more ideal moment for this to exist; shifting David Byrne's words, reinterpreting them, translating them, standing on top of them and exploring them, Kidjo proves herself a maverick and pushes the music in completely new directions, affirming the seriousness and durability of the band's work while wholly recasting it into a new work of art. Simply extraordinary.
- Tracyanne & Danny (Merge) [it's just like a Camera Obscura record: swooning melodies, gorgeous singing, and the perfect opportunity for bathroom breaks when the dude starts singing; "Alabama"/"Home & Dry"/"It Can't Be Love Unless It Hurts"]
- Jenny Hval: The Long Sleep (Sacred Bones EP) [flooded out with beauty; "Spells"/"The Dreamer Is Everyone in Her Dream"]
- Shannon Shaw: Shannon in Nashville (Easy Eye Sound) [premature grandeur; "Freddies 'n' Teddies"/"I Might Consider"/"Goodbye Summer"]
- Lykke Li: so sad so sexy (RCA) [hot '97; "Deep End"/"Hard Rain"]
ALSO RECOMMENDED FOR THE AMBIENT FILES
- Proc Fiskal: Insula (Hyperdub)
- Tangents: New Bodies (Temporary Residence)
FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME
* Teyana Taylor: KTSE
* The Essex Green: Hardly Electronic
* Pram: Across the Median
* Buddy: Harlan & Alondra
Blawan: Wet Will Always Dry
R+R=Now: Collagically Speaking
The Innocence Mission: Sun on the Square
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels: Vanished Gardens
RP Boo: I'll Tell You What!
Miss Red: K.O.
Pariah: Here from Where We Are
Chvrches: Love Is Dead
J Balvin: Vibras
Aisha Burns: Argonauta
Norma Waterson & Eliza Carthy: Anchor [NYIM]
Jamie Isaac: (4:30) Idler
Erin Rae: Putting on Airs
Lily Allen: No Shame
John Parish: Bird Dog Dante
Olivia Chaney: Shelter
Christina Aguilera: Liberation [NYIM]
Melody's Echo Chamber: Bon Voyage [NYIM]
Sami Baha: Free for All
Nine Inch Nails: Bad Witch
Gang Gang Dance: Kazuashita
Self Defense Family: Have You Considered Punk Music
The Rock*A*Teens: Sixth House
Florence + the Machine: High as Hope [NYIM]
Gorillaz: The Now Now
Jim James: Uniform Distortion
Years & Years: Palo Santo [NYIM]
Bodega: Endless Scroll
Body/Head: The Switch
Cowboy Junkies: All That Reckoning [NYIM]
Lori McKenna: The Tree [NYIM]
Luluc "Spring" [Sculptor]
Chvrches "Get Out" [Love Is Dead]
J Balvin "Mi Gente" [Vibras]
Jamie Isaac "Maybe" [(4:30) Idler]