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Flying Lotus Explores Death and Corrupts Jazz With ‘You’re Dead’

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This review was originally written for antiquiet.com, you can read the original here.

You’re Dead! is not your typical album. It’s more or less a progressive jazz document from a musician who’s either transcended electronic music, or is pulling it kicking and screaming into his own universe. Feet equally planted in jazz, electronic, hip-hop, and R&B, it’s far ranging enough to make any purist cringe in disgust (always a good thing). The record is bewildering and brief on a casual listen. Meditative and astonishingly deep on closer inspection. Depending on how you listen, it could be constantly transitioning to itself, like being lost on baggage claim. Or a grander statement, each piece subtly connected to every other.

The record, it should be said, is a concept record. As he’s explained in interviews the idea was to document the moment of death. Each song (perhaps movement would be more fitting) a look from a different perspective. Putting music to the transcendence, the confusion, the ascent, the dissipating, the descent that we’ll all eventually share.

You’re Dead! starts with a suite of otherworldly jazz, four tracks blending into a swirling vortex. It features the musical aid of none other than one Herbie Hancock, but it’s a far cry from Head Hunters. Flying Lotus seems more interested in chopping up the component parts and reassembling them in haphazard fashion. A hip-hop producer’s approach to full band direction perhaps: drums swing as atonal saxophone shredding pans from ear to ear, the whole arrangement swells to the pulse of Thundercat’s ever wandering, frenetic bass work. The groove is hinted at, but it’s hiding under the entire group’s insistence to run in every direction at once while tethered to a shared center of gravity, inevitably snapping back into either mass hysteria or a gorgeous but temporary universal truce.

And after all that sonic chaos Flying Lotus presents to you: probably the best damn hip-hop song of the year. First single Never Catch Me initially fooled me into thinking that You’re Dead! would finally be Flying Lotus’ first complete step into accessibility. Instead (and in context), it’s a respite of expertly crafted conventional wisdom in a record marked by existential questions. Both a detour and a centerpiece, with a killer bass solo and a robot Kendrick Lamar.

I could continue trying to describe complex and nuanced expression with mere words, but suffice to say the rest of the record delivers, a thrilling exploration both sonically and thematically. Whether through ethereal sighs, demented rants, skyward pleas, or universal protests, You’re Dead! is 19 gasps at a shared fate. And one collective shout into the void.

Quick Hits Volume 4: Bahamas, White Laces, Benjamin Booker, Flying Lotus

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Quick Hits is a column where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on (relatively) new releases.

Bahamas – “All the Time”

“All the Time” starts off unassuming enough. Gentle acoustic guitar picking, a steady rhythm with fluttering hi-hats, backed by coos and aahs. And, for some reason, a squelching two note bass line. It’s the last thing you’d expect here, but it takes what could have easily been a trifling breeze of a song and gives it an unusual edge. Something is clearly not right with this picture. “I’ve got all the time in the world/Don’t you want some of that?” The call and response vocals take on the demented quirkiness that modern indie rock loves to affect when stealing from R&B and hip-hop. Then the lead guitar screams in and the picture is set. At first a simple slide line stating the melody, layers are carefully poured on, precision-placed muted clucks next to frantic spirals of distortion, weaving together to form a lattice around the squelching bass grid. Bahamas’ previous album showed an artist content to bask in lilting amiability, but here we have contentedness laced with nervous energy and a foreboding but hopeful darkness. Unfortunately the rest of the album reverts to Jack Johnson-esque beach-side-front-porch pickin’ (fellow single “Stronger Than That” being the notable exception), but it’s hard to take exception when an artist can hit at least one song this far out of the park.

White Laces – “Nothing Clicks”

Richmond’s White Laces make the kind of new wave-y shoegaze I typically approach with some kind of combination of shrug, eye-roll, and a half-hearted attempt at an open minded listen. These guys are different though. Their first album was a strong debut showing a knack for making insidiously sticky hooks out of piercing guitar lines, elongated choruses, and reverb applied in heaping spoonfuls. “Nothing Clicks” is one of our first looks at their much anticipated sophomore effort, Trance, and like the first single “Skate Or Die” it’s probably the best song they’ve put out yet. The building blocks are more of the same, swirling synths are laid down as a canvas before a trebly guitar melody gets bowled over by a sure-footed drum beat barreling down as frontman Landis Wine languidly pours out reverbed vocals. Meanwhile the bass line alternates between self churning propulsion system and loping counter melody to top off the concoction. The sound is familiar, but it’s executed so well and fucked with in just the right places to sound fresh and suggest that the band is ready to take a big step forward with their next record.

Benjamin Booker – “Have You Seen My Son?”

Punk and blues have always felt like kindred spirits to me. Bare bones frameworks that allow raw expression to trump technical proficiency. In lesser hands it degrades to aggressiveness or traditionalism trumping songcraft. There’s no shortage of bands in their garages and bedrooms trying to wrangle these inspirations into something that resembles what came before, but if you haven’t put in the work to develop your voice (as in songwriting, not vocals), if you don’t have anything meaningful to say, the whole purpose is lost. Simple frameworks like these exist and are effective artistically because they offer the shortest path from idea to passionate delivery. Benjamin Booker’s debut album is breathtaking because unlike so many others making music in this vein, he has a story that he desperately needs to tell, and “Have You Seen My Son” does it in an exhilarating, frantic rush. Opened with the gale force winds of drummer Max Norton and capped off with coda that moves from noise-rock annihilation to headbanging blues-stomp, the record’s highlight is the perfect summation of everything Booker does so damn well on his debut.

Flying Lotus – “Never Catch Me”

I already wrote about this one at reasonable length for Antiquiet, but to sum up: Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar are unquestionably at the top of their respective fields, and this track might be one of the best things either one has done. CHECK IT OUT.

Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires – Dereconstructed

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I also happened to write a slightly altered, less review-ish version of this piece for antiquiet.com.  Check it out here.

Some albums sneak up on you.  You listen once, and shades of appreciation creep in, but the record’s true worth doesn’t come across until much later.  Until you’ve listened to it over and over again, and suddenly you come to an understanding of what it’s about and how it works. Dereconstructed by Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires is not that kind of record. Dereconstructed starts with a blistering riff, grabs you by the throat, and proceeds to kick your ass for roughly 35 minutes. Don’t be alarmed, this is a good thing.

Not that the album doesn’t have depth as well though. Sure, the intrinsic thrill of layers of fuzz and distortion oozing out of the speakers as two guitars grapple for supremacy is undeniable.  Yes, the rhythm section is both forceful and nimble, with frenetic beats merging southern blues and punk supporting the low-end rummaging of the bass that’s both relentlessly physical and melodically graceful when it’s called for (check out the precision wrecking ball underpinning “What’s Good and Gone” especially which I’m pretty sure features Matt Patton of the Drive-By Truckers).  Then there’s the visceral joy of the sound taken together, a maxed out affair with a ragged production that gives every song a palpable grit.  It sounds as if the album wasn’t recorded so much as melted down to a toxic sludge and smeared against your ears.  It sounds sloppy, but as it’s done with an expert’s hand.  Anyways, that’s all well and good, but what makes the album feel really special is how it sticks around with you.

Lyrically, Lee Bains proves himself an expert at balancing erudite and considered writing that sounds surprisingly natural.  Listening to the impassioned and ragged delivery you wouldn’t expect striking imagery such as

But just consider the weeds downtown, and how they grow/How the Queen Anne’s Lace covers hot parking lots like snow”.

It’s even more fun when the waxing poetic turns vitriolic, like in “Flags!”,

Senior year, you could go deaf from all the talk of terrorists and Muslim fundamentalists/And I thought it strange in a town where so-called believers blew up women’s clinics we had the gall to act so offended/And when it would come time to say the Pledge in class, I would sit my ass down at that desk/And the only words of it I said were “under God,” I figured we were beyond the help of anybody else.

The album is both seething indictment and impassioned support for the culture of the South and America at large, as it’s perceived, as it is, and as it’s warped and twisted for monetary gain.  Not that you need to dig that deep to find something to like here, as I said, it’s thrilling on its own merits as a quality rock & roll album.

As I write this I’m listening to the record again and a lightning storm is terrorizing the Richmond skyline.  The torrential downpour, anchored by growls of thunder, pounding relentlessly on the metal roof sounds a lot like what’s coming out of the speakers.  Guitar fuzz like barbed wire wreathed in electricity smothering a swinging backbeat, anchored by a guttural low-end rumble.  The sky’s dark, and some sub-logical part of me is afraid for my city and the people in it, trying to get home.  But there’s light emerging off to the West; and it’s a glorious fire.

Shedding a Tentative, Rambling Light on Old Smokey’s ‘Wester Easter’

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A bit of a confession.  I don’t know much about this record.  I only vaguely know who’s responsible (some occasional members of Olivia Tremor Control and Vic Chesnutt’s band, according to the handy sticker on my record jacket).  I’m mostly unfamiliar with the myriad influences here, and honestly feel unqualified to speak much about an album filled with music that has only tenuous connections to the worlds I typically deal in.  I bought this record on a whim while in Athens, Georgia’s wonderful Wuxtry Records, and only did that because the giant wooden dancer on the cover spoke to me in ways I didn’t fully comprehend (this is a wonderful way to buy records by the way, it has never steered me wrong).

The music here occasionally sounds like folk and classic country.  It occasionally sounds like a New Orleans funeral procession, and often like a long lost pre-rock Psychedelic album.  Some of it sounds vaguely Native American, but that could be the cover coloring my perceptions.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard an album with so much clarinet.  I’m reminded of Modest Mouse at times, at their freakiest and folkiest, but I think that says more about my lack of knowledge than it does about the music itself.

Remarkably this mix never feels disjointed from song to song, each shrouded in mystery with influences bleeding together like watercolors.  The disparate parts form a heady mix as a banjo-led, middle eastern dirge dives into unconventional yet familiar folk rock.  The sharp left turns shouldn’t work on paper, but the album leaves the impression that an underlying presence is at work, and it comes across in the details more than the aesthetic signifiers.

What drives these songs is the sense of barely contained chaos and brooding existentialism in the instrumentation.  Banjo riffs attack frenzied and heavy, pedal steel adds a wistful lightness that’s more heartbreaking than uplifting, the percussion, in it’s many forms, plods with a creeping inevitability, while fiddles buzz menacingly.  The music is often bracing, even when it’s completely off kilter, but the effect is belied by the coying fullness of the clarinet and horn parts.

These unconventional instruments anchor most of the songs here, thick beams of light teasing out melodies pitched somewhere between schoolyard chants and childish lullabies.  They’re the parts most likely to push away casual listeners while being the easiest pieces to get lodged into your skull.  It makes for an intriguing dynamic throughout the record.  As the base arrangements and lyrics boil over with churning anxiousness and guarded catharsis the horn parts serve to pervert and amplify whatever feeling is at work.  They serve as the helping hand in times of need; the unrealistic perceptions we measure ourselves against; the hollow promise behind a tired cliche; a reliable slice of illogical but much needed optimism.  The back and forth is fought throughout the record,  the end result an uneasy existential truce that feels hard won but well earned.

And yet, after all that poetic waxing, the showstopper of the album does away with that dynamic entirely.  “Everyday I’m Building a Fool” has everything a great folk ballad could want; tinges of regret and loss, a self deprecating wit balanced with a slice of unknowable oddness; harmonies suitably gorgeous, coming when least expected but most needed;  fiddle playing that is not to be fucked with, and a stomp that hits like the weight of the world falling on your chest at every beat.

Wester Easter is a record that feels like a place to explore.  It manages that tricky feat where it brings together the emotions underlying the songs and the details propelling them together to feel like a realized whole, even when the songs feel as if they’re falling apart.  Simply put, Wester Easter is a fantastic place to be lost.

The Black Keys Continue Their Arena Dominance with ‘Turn Blue’

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This review was originally published at antiquiet.com. You can read it in its original form here.

The Black Keys have never been good at playing the part they’ve been cast in.  Starting out in the clubs of Akron, Ohio,  Dan Auerbach was fond of saying the bad was too bluesy for the punk crowd, too punk for the blues crowd.  Now he’s the frontman for the sorta-two-piece blues-rock-soul outfit that happens to be among the biggest rock bands in the world.  They’ve been characterized as rigid traditionalists and crass sellouts.  A quick perusal of customer reviews will show accusations from long-time fans and blues purists deriding the synthesizers, disco-heavy beats, and Danger Mouse’s atmospheric fluff.  At every turn the band has managed to find a new set of complaints to be levied against them.  And with Turn Blue, the group’s 8th album, they manage to plant themselves in every detractors cross-hairs, coming away gloriously with one of their strongest records to date, one that solidifies every strength they’ve been honing for years since turning away from their early two-man riff rock.

This wonderful mess of contradictions is made apparent from the get go as “Weight of Love” starts with a country-blues-esque acoustic guitar before being joined by piano melodies and crashing drum fills.  And then, an honest-to-god, skyward-reaching, guitar solo comes in.  Fuzz drenched and emerging from a low rumble, more David Gilmour than Junior Kimbrough.  They’ve never sounded so much like a classic rock band, yet they sound as vital as ever.  The song ends in twin guitar carnage, left and right matching each other note for note, building to a thrilling climax.

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And from there they proceed to roll through every trick in their ever-growing arsenal.  “In Time” starts with a crooked railroad spike beat before turning into a horn fueled New Orleans-ian stomp.  “Fever” takes the currently omnipresent disco back beat and turns it into the sort of arena rock stomp the Black Keys have perfected of late (albeit with a synthesizer lead where distorted guitars once reigned for them). Meanwhile the title-track disassembles the four-on-the-floor approach into a pulsing bass line and crashing symbols, turning down the bravado and upping the sultry quotient by several times.  It’s the sound of falling into quicksand, being pulled under, and falling out the bottom into a pit of recently fluffed pillows waiting below.   It’s an intriguing track, and a testament to how far the group has come in their songwriting, being able to apply their tried-and-true approaches to new sounds.

And the new sounds are brought in by the bus load compliments of producer Danger Mouse.  From the horn fueled fanfare that spell the verses on “In Time” to the crystalline harmonies that overtake and power “Year in Review” or the encroaching wall of fuzz in “10 Lovers”, the details are exquisitely rendered, and I’ll admit to getting a bit giddy at some of the hidden gems tucked behind Auerbach’s full voice.

A voice which is also the star of the show here.  From the beginning of their career, he’s sounded most at home with a ragged bellowing over top Patrick Carney’s oversize beats.  The biggest treat here though is the falsetto that came as such a shock on Brothers’ opener, “Everlasting Love”.  What once was a new trick is now a favorite weapon, deployed strategically throughout the album as either a buoyant ray of light on the bass heavy beats or for a disarming turn of phrase.

What’s most impressive, though, is that his growth as a singer is matched by his growth as a songwriter.  I’ve never so thoroughly enjoyed watching a band delve into the mainstream consciousness as I have the Black Keys, and a large part of that is due to the growth in Dan Auerbach’s songwriting.  Where he once relied on matching tried-and-true blues boilerplates with big riffs, his obsession with soul and R&B paired with a knack for surprisingly catchy melodies allow a wider variety.  Of the many bands mining classic soul and blues, few make it theirs like the Black Keys do.

And even fewer, it should be said, have the likes of Danger Mouse to give their songs a psychedelic depth and Carney’s facility at turning a slow burner into a low-end heavy, radio-friendly blaze.  Almost-closer “In Our Prime” is a perfect example of that growth, the emotional centerpiece of the record that starts as a standard R&B ballad until the first verse ends and you’re thrown into a see-sawing trapdoor; deceptively upbeat and subtly disconcerting.  The chorus offers the emotional payoff the beginning promised while never really offering the catharsis you’d expect, “we made our mark when we were in our prime”.

It’s a relatable lament, but one that doesn’t quite ring true for the Black Keys.  Whether they’re in their prime or not is debatable, but regardless, Turn Blue is among the strongest offerings yet from a band that is slowly but surely solidifying themselves among the greats.

Black Girls Continue Their Psych-Funk Reign of RVA with ‘Claire Sinclaire’

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Two bass hits. Kick drum. Snare.  Again.  Hi-hats slot themselves in between.  REPEAT! Richmond, Virginia’s  Black Girls have never been a subtle band and not yet half a dozen seconds into their second album, Claire Sinclaire, they’ve established what your next 35 minutes are going to be about.  Funk and soul had always been an influence, but now it’s a mandate.  There’s swagger and energy, a groove that pretends to accidentally bump into you then grinds into your hips.  You’re not sure if you want to join, but you probably will.  Singer Drew Gilham slides in with a whisper.  He exhales the next line, doesn’t even sing it.  Coos to you next.  Guitars descend and suddenly it’s no longer a suggestion, “You’ve got to get your hands up..if I survive, I will supply!”

“On the First Night” suggests Black Girls is narrowing its focus to the soul funk inflections that made their last album, 2011’s Hell Dragon such a danceable affair, and to a certain extent that’s true.  “Soul Tornado” is propelled with spiked jazz chords and a disco beat, “Waltz” kicks its feet up again drapes of piano and a Stax-esque hi-hat and cymbal ride, and “Del Mar” would be a disco ballad if not for the fuzzed out guitar lines.  The touches share a common theme but the album’s most fun when they stretch themselves out of that box.

“Bangin’ LA” grinds, but not the kind the band typically deals in.  This is more of a slow motion jackhammer dismantling a lawn mower as a tiny war elephant looks on (and that ripping sax solo is the sound of said war elephant fighting said lawn mower as a nearby bonfire is fed a crate of worn-out Sticky Fingers records).   First single “Buyin’ Time” nestles surf-rock guitars next  to jaunty indie pop and buckets of reverb (while not my favorite piece of work here here, it seems directly targeted to indie-blogs who eat up anything described by the words surf and pop and slathered in reverb), and “Waltz” has a literal countdown to the solo while the coda to “Sometimes” allows the shimmying psych-soul nugget to soar away on guitar-solo wings.

 

And then there’s “Lover”, a staple of their live set for some time and a perfect distillation of the funk, soul, and psychedelics that Black Girls likes to call snuff rock.  As pop songcraft it’s as effortless as it is masterful.  The kind of song that walks up to you to hold your hand but cops a feel instead.  Guitars wah, the beat struts, a trumpet circles in from above, all grinding to a halt for the chorus.  Sung slightly differently every time, yet always pitched with an indelible mix of resentment, determination, lament,  and wistful hope, “If I was your lover/You should know/I’d treat you better”.

As sophmore albums go, it’s hard to do better than Claire Sinclaire does here.  The record shows a further refinement of their sound while branching out enough to bring in new fans.  It’s weird but accessible, danceable but complex.  It’s an exciting next step for a band that seems to be getting better and better.

Drive-By Truckers Continue Their Run of Thoughtful Songwriting and Straight-Up Rock & Roll with ‘English Oceans’

This review was originally published at antiquiet.com. You can read it in its original form here.

English Oceans has a few dead bodies. The album has some strippers, asshole politicians, broken relationships, girls making clowns of men, and people in small towns working jobs they hate. Which is to say, it’s a Drive-By Truckers album. And a damn good one at that. While their last record, 2011’s Go-Go Boots saw the band tip-toeing into R&B and Southern soul, English Oceans is a more focused effort that finds them eager to lay into their latest cast of motley characters over stomping, crunching riffs.

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In general, I’ll admit to being skeptical of the storytelling style of songwriting. There are a lot of songwriters that throw in a handful of proper nouns, add some folksy wisdom, and tie it together with a facile ending. What separates a truly skilled songwriter from the rest is when those details add up to something meaningful, when a songwriter is able to turn a collection of stories into a cast of characters so that the situations, disconnected as they may be, are able to play off of each other to say something bigger than what any one individual story line can offer.

Patterson Hood’s songs on this record pull this off masterfully, examining relationships from differing points of view. Though the stories don’t appear to be connected, they work together to create something larger than themselves. There’s the woman in “Pauline Hawkins” resisting the bonds of genuine connection (“Love is like cancer / And I am immune”) pressed against the one in “When He’s Gone” clinging to a relationship that’s gone south (“She can’t stand him when he’s around / But she always misses him when he’s gone…”) The protagonist in “Hanging On” exhausts her familial relationship and ends up a wanderer searching for a replacement while “Walter Went Crazy” details a man driven mad by suburban life who burns down the house with his wife inside, “Matlock on the TV screen and her mama on the phone.” The album ends with “Grand Canyon”, written for a recently deceased friend of the band. Where most songwriters would try to wring every bit of pathos they could from such heavy subject matter, Hood opts for a more understated route, so that when the line “And I wonder how a life so sturdy / Could just one day cease to be” slips in it hits all the harder for it. After case studies on relationships broken, breaking, and doomed, we’re left with one that continues on even after they’re gone.

Cooley’s songs, on the other hand, don’t aspire for such thematic continuity, but lyrically this might be his best batch of songs to date. He has a talent for hiding profound wisdom in the most mundane situations and no where is that more apparent than the first verse of “Shit Shots Count”. What starts as small town scene setting, “Put your cigarette out and put your hat back on / Don’t mix up which is which” turns pensive quick, “Suburban four lanes move like blood through an old man’s dying heart / Nothing but time to keep hope alive at the speed of a stream of tar…” Not that you need a lyric sheet to fully appreciate it, the song’s a shit kicker in it’s own right with a riff that sounds like churning a bucket of nails while lead guitar pierces through the mesh and the ascending bass line on the changes emerges from behind the clatter, lays down legs and barrels the whole thing over. “First Air Of Autumn”, on the other hand, is a slice of gentle folk with a quick heartbeat, not so much a story as scene setting with the occasional jab for the gut, “First air of autumn up your nose / Popcorn, heavy hairspray, nylon pantyhose / Please stand and bow your heads and pray you don’t get old…”

But it’s the almost-title-track “Made Up English Oceans” that proves to be the crux of the record. Based around an incessant acoustic guitar strum, Cooley lets out quick witted venom against backwards politics and the ones who believe it “See, once you grab them by the pride their hearts are bound to follow / Their natural fear of anything less manly or less natural… ‘Cause only simple men can see the logic in whatever / Smarter men can whittle down so you can fit it on a sticker… They’ll live it like it’s gospel and they’ll quote it like it’s scripture…” It’s followed by Hood’s “Part Of Him”, a scathing take down set to the catchiest riff on the record and a jaunty beat. The wistful delivery belies the anger in lines like “He was elected / wing-nut raised and corn fed / tea bags dragging on the chamber floor.”

Now all that isn’t to say the album’s without fault. Most songs are a little too willing to find a riff and ride it through until the end of the song, coming and going without offering the kinds of dynamics and hooks that attract non-believers.

But that’s kind of missing the point. English Oceans thrives on the confidence of the songwriting. It’s a record whose stories, lyrics, and riffs construct a world meant to be lost in and experienced. There’s not a whole lot of bands who continue to show growth and refinement 10 albums in, but with English Oceans, the Drive-By Truckers show they have a lot more to offer.