The Roundup: December 2015
One more for 2015. With all my traveling in December I eventually decided to make my life a bit easier and put the new albums to a minimum. Comfort music ran supreme in December as I flew across the United States. Despite this I opted to try out a few new things to keep my ears engaged to new possibilities. For the last time in 2015, this is the Roundup.
Common – Can I Borrow A Dollar
Chicago native Common has a way with words, blending bullish braggadocio with aged wisdom. His 1992 release Can I Borrow A Dollar is a successful template from which he was able to build his music success story. Typical for 1992 the music end of the album plays strong homage to 60’s and 70’s funk and soul music, looping classic funk riffs and layering new drums patterns on top. Returning to these albums from 2015 where things have long evolved can make some older hip-hop albums feel a bit dated and repetitive, but Common ensures that your experience will remain engaging and daring throughout the listen. Although not considered a true classic compared to its peers, Can I Borrow A Dollar is still a strong album that exemplifies a classic era of rap music.
Common – The Dreamer / The Believer
Good, but not great. The struggle of the veteran musician is whether to dive into bold new territories, or tow a pre-established line. Here, neither really is happening, as we got something that isn’t exactly ‘classic’, but it definitely does not veer too far from his traditional work. The end result is something rather average. It is not bad, but you will quickly forget the majority of the album aside from a few choice singles. The production feels rather safe, and although the vocal work is still impeccable, Common has had significantly better work.
Chicago Afrobeat Project – (A) Move To Silent Unrest
There is something about the poly-rhythmic free flow nature of afrobeat that is so pleasant to listen to. Even better is that Chicago Afrobeat Project honors the originators of the genre, but then also opts for some modern directions. A heavier emphasis on electric instruments and a more aggressive approach (especially in the second half) opens up new ideas as to what this genre can become. That’s important because there is an unfortunate tendency to play it too safe when it comes to more ‘worldly’ music, honoring origins, but not stepping beyond them. This is a step in this genre’s evolution and considering it came out 8 years ago I’m curious what has been happening since.
PLANET COGNAC – BETA
This is, without a doubt, the worst thing I heard this year. It may one of the worst albums I have ever heard. Sloppy drunk dub-step smashed together with the laziest trap style verbiage about getting intoxicated makes for irritating bed-fellows. Suddenly, Vaporwave feels like high art.
File a Cease and Desist Against This Band
Niagara – Afire
Niagara didn’t stray too far from their initial formula with follow-up Afire; loads of percussion loops intertwining together to make seemingly formless dance patterns. This time, however, the songs themselves are significantly shorter, going from 20 minutes to 4, and feature little hints of bass and other instruments. It gives everything just enough extra liveliness to make this outing feel fresh and unique. Each song has this sprightliness to it too, having a strolling on the street funk vibe that brings you to a sunny day on the streets of some city n the summertime.
Bobby Womack – The Poet I & II
Two separate albums, and although they have modestly distinct voices, their pairing makes for a wonderful 80’s infused soul and blues romp. Many songs forgo traditional song structure in favor of just playing with a single riff over and over and adding and subtracting new layers as things progress. Hints of gospel music take certain moments and give them a grander scale that makes even the challenging subject matter of some of the songs uplifting. Poet I feels a bit more traditional while Poet II is definitely more influenced by 80’s pop music. Together they make a rather dynamic and pleasant whole.
St. Vincent – Actor
Who could have imagined St. Vincent’s, the stage name of Annie Clark, departure from Polyphonic Spree would have led to such a sizable impact on the indie rock world. St. Vincent‘s eclectic and elastic guitar work has grown and evolved over the course of her three albums. Her self-titled debut is a bit more pop-focused than her later albums, but still radiates with her quirk and charm that will continue to permeate. Some more dance focused numbers keep things buoyant and bubbly although with wicked guitar tones. There is a reason this album has been considered an indie classic since its release. Annie Clark is a modern guitar legend in the making that will hopefully be recognized for her reimagining of what the guitar can do for generations to come.
Jay-Z – Reasonable Doubt
In 2015 with his involvement in Tidal, raising his kids, being in the shadow of Beyonce’, and recently releasing mediocre albums it is easy to forget that back in the 90’s Jay-Z was the king of hip-hop being one of the forerunners of the self-congratulatory style of rap, bragging about his money, ability to hustle, and how much Cristal champagne he can consume (before ‘that shit’ was racist). He does have a tendency to say ‘Rock-A-Fella Records’ way too much, but beyond that this is a classic album which set a trend for artists to follow for years, and also set the stage for Jay-Z’s rise to success. His style would become more solid and his talent would continue to grow, but even at this point it was easy to see how he ended up at the top of the rap pedestal for quite some time.
Run The Jewels – Meow The Jewels
At first this seemed a cute idea, remix the momentous RTJ2 with cat sounds, taking what was originally a joke and going all the way with it because the internet demanded it. The end result lacked any of the charm and cuteness of the concept, coming across as an annoying collection of detuned purring and disjointed meows with Killer Mike and El-P‘s voices placed on top which feel oddly distant and out of place. I never expected this to go beyond novelty, but it is completely joyless and not fun at all. Probably a good reason I found 20 copies sitting in bins at Amoeba Records.
Toyah & Fripp – The Lady And The Tiger
Toyah Wilcox reads a short story out loud and Robert Fripp plays a soundscape.
The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up
The gristly dream-like nature of Surf’s Up is reminiscent of the depressing end of Summer. Slow, cooing numbers paint a picture of a beach too cold to play in and school buses warming their engines. Honestly I preferred this album to the fabled Pet Sounds. While Pet Sounds may be the more sonically experimental (Thanks to Brian Wilson’s genius studio work), Surf’s Up has better songs, and is more thematically whole. It is the band evolved beyond schlocky songs about surfing and girls in bikini’s which may seem shocking to those who only know the band from their radio hits. The Beach Boys often get the short end of the musical stick compared to peers like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, they were nearly equal in the bold musical directions, but are remembered for garbage like Kokomo.
Mothers Cake – Creations Finest
‘Hard Rock’ as a genre is often strangled by lazy song-writing and ego stroking guitar solos. There is plenty of good to be had, but the big names of the genre (I.E. Dave Grohl) often reduce the formula to its most basic concepts and prevent any consideration for moving forward. Mothers Cake play respect to those heavy, but not TOO heavy, riffs while adding nice unique touches of experimentation either through atypical time signatures or musical tones. They aren’t reinventing the wheel, but they are at least trying something new, and a shot of energy is desperately needed in one of the stalest genres in rock music.
Mono – Rays of Darkness
Post-Rock, like the previously mentioned Hard Rock, also often struggles with creativity and fresh approach, often being a collection of guitar strums with mountains of delay and echo attached, creating haunting, but glacial songs that take 10 minutes to get anywhere. Mono had already proved their mastery of the subject with Hymn to the Immortal Wind and have made successful albums following, but never as significant. Rays of Darkness proves they can be more than just post-rock adding elements of black and doom metal, with harrowing screeches and aggressive musical tones blended into their more standard affair. Also unlike most post-rock albums it is rather brief, barely going beyond the thirty minute mark. It is a good shake-up of the formula and in a more digestible bite-size portion.
Kanye West- 808s & Heartbreak
I give Kanye West endless kudos for this album. His brave decision to go well beyond anything he had ever done is both bold and financially suicidal. The shift from his then iconic hip-hop style into mellow electronic R&B took a lot of gall. Unfortunately, the end result is a bit of a disaster and not a particularly interesting one to boot. Many of the songs are bland, repetitive, or just not well thought out. It is a shame too because his intentions seemed quite genuine with this adventure. The lyrics seem personal and self-revealing and the production itself is not bad either. It feels like he is out of his comfort zone, unable to really capture the magic of the genre he was trying to break into, and not fully aware of what makes it great. The over-zealous use of auto-tune becomes a massive detraction as well. His follow-up album would cement his dominance of hip-hop. This will remain a strange footnote in his musical career.
John Legend & The Roots – Wake Up!
The Roots are not strangers to collaborations, working with various guest MC’s and even backing up completely different front-men such as Elvis Costello, so a work with John Legend should not seem too strange to those familiar with the legendary group. This time around the band shifts towards a more gospel and blues sound, swapping sharp hooks with uplifting soul with a positive end result. Legend’s rich voice is matched brilliantly by the backing band, nearly sounding like a completely new band. Their is still plenty to remind you that this is The Roots, however, such as ?uestlove’s iconic sharp drum work and appearances from more guest MC’s. It is a little experiment with rather positive results.
Jay-Z & Nujabes – Japanese Gangster
On paper this makes a lot of sense, take the A Capella’s of Jay-Z and mix them with the nature infused beats of Nujabes. This should, theoretically, lead to some sort of brilliant marriage, but unfortunately it actually is a dysfunctional train wreck that never leaves the station. Things just don’t line-up very well with songs feeling off-sync or just generally awkward in presentation. Jay-Z’s self-congratulatory verbiage never lines up well with Nujabes earth toned pulse. It is a shame too because for all intents and purposes this should be an idea that works rather well. Instead its just the smashing of two ideas that are great independently, but not together, like steak and skydiving.