Music Reviews

Music Roundup 1/29/18

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This article previously appeared on Crossfader

We’re here to tell you what’s hot and what’s not in this week’s music roundup

music roundup Hollie Cook

Hollie Cook – VESSEL OF LOVE

Genre: Lovers Rock, Pop Reggae

Favorite Tracks:  “Together,” “Lunar Addiction,” “Far From Me,” “Stay Alive”

Love songs are a dime a dozen, but few albums have so many dreamy ones. Hollie Cook was born into the music industry: her mom sang for Culture Club and her dad was the drummer for the Sex Pistols. Considering the rock and punk influences she inherited from her family, it’s amazing how she has become a queen of tropical pop. VESSEL OF LOVE, her third album, is a collection of hypnotic, at times cosmic, love ballads.

The London native takes you on a journey of love with good vibes and hypnotic vocals. Though the beats are reggae worthy, she adds her own pop-fairy touch to create the perfect tropical blend. “Survive” is the dreamiest cut on the 10-track album and sounds as if you’re already a few piña coladas in. Featuring lyrics like, “The stars in the sky are falling for your smile / Boy over you I swear I may be losing my mind / Without your love boy I just don’t know how to survive,” I wouldn’t be surprised if a music director snatches it up for a cinematic dream sequence. The album starts out with more pop influence before developing an interstellar vibe in “Lunar Addiction” and progressing into more electronica, ending with “Far From Me,” which feels most influenced by producer Youth (of Killing Joke), who’s worked with many greats like Guns N’ Roses, Depeche Mode, Pink Floyd, and even Dido.

Cook’s career started with strong reggae roots, and she would later collaborate with Prince Fatty and delve into dub reggae, with her 2014 release TWICE featuring more of a Caribbean influence with steel drums. VESSEL OF LOVE is the evolution of these first experiences and her confidence as an artist shows. It helps to have released a summery album in the middle of winter when you long for trips to the beach, and until then, you can tap your feet and nod your heads to Cook’s latest. [Liliane Neubecker]

Verdict: Recommend

music roundup Chris Dave and the Drumhedz

Chris Dave and the Drumhedz – S/T

Genre: Nu-Jazz, Instrumental Hip Hop

Favorite Tracks: “Universal Language,” “Dat Feelin’ (featuring SiR),” “Sensitive Granite (featuring Kendra Foster),” “Atlanta, Texas (featuring Goapele and Shafiq Husayn),” “Lady Jane”

What a treat! Although its general aesthetic and marketing strategy has leaned into its existence as a jazz album, CHRIS DAVE AND THE DRUMHEDZ is an innovative and refreshingly experimental odyssey that reflects and refracts the multiple genres of music that career studio drummer Chris Dave has dabbled in over the years. Simultaneously existing in the same sphere as BADBADNOTGOOD but carrying a much more loose, conversational, organic tone, Chris Dave’s technical prowess and authorial capabilities are firing on all cylinders here, effortlessly cycling through a menagerie of styles and fitting each featured guest like a glove. R&B and soul are the most obvious entry points, with regular contributions from Anderson .Paak and buzzworthy newcomer SiR, but everything from gospel to Afrobeat can be sussed out amongst the psychedelic, stargazing compositions. What elevates CHRIS DAVE AND THE DRUMHEDZ above its peers is the willingness to operate with such fluid and amorphous structures. Despite being fundamentally improvisatory, jazz can often feel rigidly locked into a standard set of chord progressions, but that’s nowhere near the case here; Dave finesses an exhaustive tapas platter of cues and influences from the expansive history of black music to consistently subvert and surprise. After 25-plus years of artistry, he fully earns his time in the spotlight. [Thomas Seraydarian]

Verdict: Recommend

music roundup Django Django

Django Django – MARBLE SKIES

Genre: Indie Pop

Favorite Tracks: “Marble Skies,” “Champagne,” “Further”

Apparently all you have to do to be considered art rock these days is haphazardly throw together heady, atmospheric styles into a blender and top it off with unengaging vocals that sound like a robot doing a Beach Boys impression. Django Django’s core schtick of wispy ‘60s folk mixed with ‘80s synthpop has never grabbed my attention for more than a few songs, let alone a whole album. Much like fellow Brits alt-J, they can create some strange yet hypnotic melodies and use some interesting instrumentation, but neither band’s quirkiness adds up to anything noteworthy and their records often turn into turgid slogs. The vocal harmonies and folk influences that anchored their debut record have been put on the backburner as Django Django stumble through even more genres like acid house, twangy country, and piano-based jazz to diminishing returns, simultaneously creating some of their most nondescript material, such as “In Your Beat.” The programmed beats aren’t as punchy, and the guitars are buried under hazy synths with far too simplistic progressions. There are moments when Vincent Neff becomes a little more expressive and a solid bassline or guitar riff helps to anchor a tune, but it’s hard to tell where MARBLE SKIES is supposed to fit in their larger discography. Their debut was more lean and danceable, while BORN UNDER SATURN was a better atmospheric, trippy experience. It ends up falling into many of the same pitfalls that Temples did on VOLCANO: too bloated to be simple pop fun, too flavorless and slow to create addicting soundscapes, and better served by having no vocals at all. [Blake Michelle]

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

music roundup Dream Wife

Dream Wife – S/T

Genre: Garage Punk, Power Pop

Favorites: “Hey Heartbreaker,” “Kids,” “Right Now”

You’d think two years would be enough time to go from an EP to a full album’s worth of material that builds off the potential of said EP, but that is sadly not the case with Dream Wife. An all-female trio of two Brits and an Icelandic vocalist, their poppy melodies, buzzing guitars, and combination of wistful sentiment and fiery rage was quite charming on 2016’s EP01. Sadly, writer’s block seems to have set in, because so much of the writing on DREAM WIFE is inexcusably thin. “Love Without Reason” has about three lines recycled ad nauseum, while “Taste” must have been made after the band was challenged to make a song where the only lyrics were variations on “I’ve got a taste.” The main themes of relationships with a hint of danger and yearning for the past are repeated as well; without enough lyrical details to give each story its own character, they quickly gain the unfortunate sense of been there, done that. On the musical side, the distorted guitar work is a blast and there are some addictive riffs on “Fire” and “F.U.U.,” but Rakel Mjöll’s frail, wispy voice doesn’t bring the charisma to make up for what she has to work with. Her odd inflections and enunciation grate over the course of the album—“somebody” does not have a T in it—and her Courtney Love-esque shouts aren’t used in the right spots. The fact that two of DREAM WIFE’s best, most lyrically fulfilling songs, “Hey Heartbreaker” and “Kids,” were first featured on the EP is a good indicator of how much this thing drops the ball. Give EP01 a relisten and hope the next project is a better follow-up than this one. [Blake Michelle]

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

music roundup Semicircle

The Go! Team – SEMICIRCLE

Genre: Indie Rock, Plunderphonics

Favorite Tracks: “Hey,” “All The Way Live,” “She’s Got Guns”

The Go! Team’s music is exactly as frivolously chaotic as you’d expect for a band with an exclamation point in the middle of their name. Frontman and, at times, sole operator of The Go! Team collective, Ian Parton, created the band’s newest record, SEMICIRCLE, in Detroit, using The Detroit Youth Choir’s spry energy and lack of emotional baggage as a framework for an album that regurgitates that sprightly spirit in the form of joyful and over-the-top experimental pop music. Known for being an outfit that overextends its indulgence through intensifying various genre and musical styles, SEMICIRCLE hits all the messy pratfalls and exuberant triumphs of the group’s other releases, placing future iPhone commercial music (“All The Way Live”) next to steel drum-centric island ballads (“If There’s One Thing You Should Know”) and ‘70s network sitcom themes (“Chico’s Radical Decade”) with gleeful abandon. This newest album pops with more immediate shimmer than their 2015 release, THE SCENE BETWEEN, an album that certainly has its own fair share of quirks but nothing quite as off-the-wall as what Parton has created here. SEMICIRCLE falls in line with the canon of work that precedes it, providing cartoonish recklessness of the highest order and offering music that is tons of fun but genuinely overwhelming at times. The Go! Team have created an album that really works best when dissected and picked apart, as the songs’ biggest throughline is a sense of optimism and Parton’s warming disposition—a feeling that is communicated just as well in an individual track as it is from the entire album. How you feel about a song that fires off bubbly vocal samples of a girl shouting “Hey!” while a horn-heavy Matt & Kim-meets-K-Pop remix pounds on in the background will say a lot about whether you enjoy this record (I was perfectly happy with it). While this kind of happiness is almost grating at times, SEMICIRCLE comes from a place of genuine joy and has enough solidly made sugar-fueled pixie dream indie rock in it for anyone to at least appreciate. [CJ Simonson]

Verdict: Recommend

music roundup Jonny Jewel

Johnny Jewel – DIGITAL RAIN

Genre: Ambient, Progressive Electronic

Favorite Tracks: “Digital Rain,” “Liquid Lucite,” “Houston”

Overall I have really enjoyed my past year as a music blogger. One of the few downsides (aside from a shameful drag on the vaporwave subreddit) is the fact that I am now no longer able to dismiss things as pretentious without risking being called out for enjoying one of the internet’s most affected pastimes. After listening to Johnny Jewel’s latest collection of half-baked ambient instrumentals, DIGITAL RAIN, I am willing to risk hypocrisy and disregard the album as arty filler. This is not a dismissal of Jewel’s artistic talent or credibility; as the mastermind behind both Glass Candy and Chromatics, on top of playing a pivotal role soundtracking DRIVE and the latest season of TWIN PEAKS, Jewel is one of the unsung heroes of indie electronica. The reason DIGITAL RAIN is severely underwhelming is because it very clearly does not live up to the potential Jewel has exhibited in his previous artistic endeavors, despite coming almost four years after Chromatics first promised their (still unreleased) fifth studio album, DEAR TOMMY. Although there are some pretty cool synthscapes on DIGITAL RAIN, it was frustrating to devote 41 minutes of my day to what is essentially a Chromatics album stripped of everything except for a few synths. Were the record Jewel’s debut it would display strong potential, but 13 years into Johnny Jewel’s career we’ve heard the good stuff, and this just simply feels disposable. I am extremely excited to hear new material from Chromatics and Glass Candy and to see where Jewel’s soundtracking career leads him, but DIGITAL RAIN is monotonous, low-effort, and nothing to write home about. [Ted Davis]

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

music roundup Mimicking Birds

Mimicking Birds – LAYERS OF US

Genre: Indie Rock

Favorite Tracks: “One Eyed Jack,” “Belongings,” “Lumens”

While breakups make for common songwriting material, Nate Lacy of Mimicking Birds draws instead from “the infinite and the infinitesimal” for LAYERS OF US. So it comes as a bit of a disappointment that such a boundless (and mildly pretentious) theme is met with moderate, semi-enjoyable indie rock. Pushing towards a more synthesized sound but not anywhere near its boundaries, we find ourselves in a sort of sonic purgatory, listening without direction. LAYERS OF US gains some forward momentum in its second half, resonating the most when Mimicking Birds embraces their lighter, more melodic side. “Lumens” calls attention with its natural imagery: “There are nice days in the winter where the shadows freeze / The stubborn fog stuck in the valley with an afternoon sun tease.” In addition, the closing track, “One Eyed Jack,” comes across as coolly ambient. But besides these few highlights, LAYERS OF US takes itself too seriously. The guitar lines are understated and sophisticated and each track is mixed with discretion. The vocals, while creating consistency between tracks, sound as if they exist behind a glass wall, unable to fully evoke the intended emotional response. It’s obvious Mimicking Birds know what they’re doing, but it doesn’t sound like they’re having a ton of fun. [Claire Epting]

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

music roundup Nightmares on Wax

Nightmares on Wax – SHAPE THE FUTURE

Genre: Downtempo

Favorite Tracks: “On It Maestro,” “Gotta Smile” 

Boooooring. Having released music since 1991, there is absolutely nothing presented over the course of SHAPE THE FUTURE that makes a strong case for Nightmares on Wax’s continued existence. SHAPE THE FUTURE brings to mind the worst kind of DJ night imaginable: a coffee shop/bar in Silverlake open after hours, full to the brim with bearded has-beens in their early 40s drinking tropical fruit-infused sours and talking about artisanal cheese as they poke at a charcuterie board. I can’t look you in the eyes and tell you that the music is bad necessarily, it’s perfectly serviceable jazz-indebted downtempo, but it’s so uncharacteristic and unassuming that it just becomes background noise, not an atmosphere to get yourself lost in. There is a vague message of spirituality and unity present via several spoken-word intros that’s ostensibly included to give the project a sort of cohesion and presence, but it only registers as inane ex-hippie babble instead of anything with an evocative message. For such an aggressive band name, it’s a shame that Nightmares on Wax seems firmly relegated to the realm of “lo-fi instrumental hip hop” YouTube mixes. [Thomas Seraydarian]

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

No Age Snares Like a Haircut

No Age – SNARES LIKE A HAIRCUT

Genre: Noise Pop

Favorite Tracks: “Cruise Control,” “Send Me,” “Soft Collar Fad”

On paper, the 2012 Los Angeles noise punk circuit seemed like the coolest music scene in America. With artists like Wavves, Best Coast, and Ty Segall emerging in the national spotlight, the SoCal revival felt fresh, innovative, and rebellious. At the heart of this scene lay fiery noise pop duo No Age. With feedback like broken glass, effectively heart-wrenching, emo-reminiscent vocals, and propulsive percussion, No Age felt like a cheese-less remedy for My Bloody Valentine. Now, five years after their last release, they’re back and true to their roots with SNARES LIKE A HAIRCUT. Even though half a decade has passed since we last heard from the duo, they sound just like they did in their heyday. Their consistency is not necessarily a strength, but it also ensures that the release doesn’t disappoint. Listening to the album for the first time (after paying the unavoidable $9 download thanks to Drag City), I was admittedly bored listening to songs that sound like the ones on the band’s four prior releases. Moments on “Cruise Control” and “Soft Collar Fad” are engaging, but overall, the record dodesn’t sound like it necessitated a five year wait to perfect. But hey, if you’re an active No Age listener then by all means buy the record and give it a listen, but for those of you looking to hear the band at their prime, go listen to EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN. [Ted Davis]

 Verdict: Recommend

music roundup Caitlyn Smith

Caitlyn Smith – STARFIRE

Genre: Contemporary Country

Favorite Tracks: “St. Paul,” “Tacoma,” “This Town Is Killing Me,” “Starfire”

From the songwriter who brought you “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” (Meghan Trainor and John Legend), STARFIRE is Caitlyn Smith’s first major label record. The Minnesotan native sounds like a Nashville-born singer, bringing more of a rock sensibility than the quadri-platinum hit she wrote for Trainor. Smith’s career is a picture perfect story: a young, talented woman dreams of making it big. She starts gigging around Minneapolis and eventually finds herself writing songs for other artists until it’s finally her turn to shine. On STARFIRE Smith sings with just the right amount of twang, knowing how to belt just long enough to blow you away, and the 506 songs she’s written give the album a confident tone. Her debut EP, EVERYTHING TO YOU, painted a much sweeter, younger Southern belle, channeling Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, but almost four years down the line, she is now presenting herself as a more mature singer, telling her story as rich as it is honest.

Smith doesn’t like to be boxed in by genres and labels, blending grit with pop, twang with blues, and embracing part of a larger movement in Nashville in which the music community is showing it’s more than the country music it’s known for (eg. the launching of The Other Nashville Society). Each song is unique as she adapts the style to match the feelings or stories, but what brings it all together are her vocals. She’s able to take any emotion or detail, no matter how simple, and turn it into a masterpiece. Take “House Of Cards,” where Smith is exploring vulnerability and feeling lost. Sure, the violins add to the sad, slow lyrics, but the magic takes place when the final chorus slows to a crawling pace and the music cuts down to just a short guitar strum as she almost whispers, “And I don’t know why it’s gotta be so damn hard?

Caitlyn Smith seems to have been born to make music, emotionally grabbing you with the tone of her voice but also with her prose, capable of painting the big picture with just a few lyrics. Though I’ll be listening to the album in a different order (“Cheap Date” should not be the closer), STARFIRE is a wonderful breakthrough album for Smith, who has been working towards this moment since she was 12 years old. [Liliane Neubecker]

Verdict: Recommend

music roundup Tribulation

Tribulation – DOWN BELOW

Genre: Gothic Metal

Favorite Tracks: “Nightbound,” “Lacrimosa,” “Here Be Dragons”

It’s rare that I come across a metal band I’ve never even heard of, especially one as apparently respected as Sweden’s Tribulation. First described to me as a “gothic-ish metal act,” a whole damn color guard of red flags shot up, my mind immediately going to a dark place reserved for bands like Dimmu Borgir and Nightwish. And, after taking a look at them on the cover of the February 2018 issue of Decibel, I wasn’t exactly reassured. Thankfully, as far as gothicness is concerned, Tribulation is much more, say, Hammer Films, than they are mid-2000s Hot Topic T-shirt fodder. Metal has always been about extremes, and its purveyors have always sought to outdo each other (and themselves) through image, attitude, or simply the amount of noise made. However, there are still bands out there toiling away to make music for the sake of making music. Delivering the arena sensibilities of Iron Maiden with a zeal somewhere between a more snarling Mercyful Fate and a toned-down Bathory, Tribulation’s fourth album, DOWN BELOW, offers grand, sweeping gestures from across metal’s canon without ever concerning itself with coming across as overblown or cheesy. That might seem like a bit of a backhanded compliment, but no: when I want a burger, I want a burger, I don’t give a damn about craft-this or artisan-that. But what’s more is that Tribulation sidesteps what could have easily been a throwaway throwback by weaving enough grit into their melodic hooks to set them apart from similar acts. Yes, there is a touch of bombast here and there (Is that a synth arpeggio I hear? Gregorian chanting?!), but it’s never enough to distract from an otherwise cohesive work. And while I can’t speak to where it fits within the context of their other albums, DOWN BELOW is a familiar yet fresh work, and one that does what it sets out to do earnestly, without paying mind to the elitism that cuts across much of the metal world. [Joseph Simpson]

Verdict: Recommend

music roundup Xylouris White

Xylouris White – MOTHER

Genre: Avant-Folk, Kritika

Favorite Tracks: “Only Love,” “Motorcycle Kondilies,” “Achilles Heel”

If nothing else, the third release from Greek folk singer Giorgis Xylouris and versatile drummer Jim White promises to contribute to one Hell of a live performance. Assessed as an album in and of itself, however, the returns are slightly more diminishing. MOTHER certainly sounds different than most of the folk music we’re exposed to in the states, yes, but that’s also inherently due to the fact that it’s really just a straightforward entry in the canon of a foreign genre we rarely hear. As such, it feels less trendsetting and more like a pleasant oddity to pop on every once in awhile to impress your friends. But hey, at the end of the day, there’s really nothing wrong with it. Xylouris demonstrates his mastery over the Cretan lyra and his mournful voice is mature, feeling like it comes from a time and place not entirely our own. White’s drumming, meanwhile, is inquisitive and charismatic while still making sure to highlight Xylouris as the star of the show, building into a free jazz-referencing frenzy at just the right moments. The first half is notably more fun and fusion-oriented, but Xylouris’s merits as a kritika singer are best showcased in the last four tracks, White providing only the most skeletal of rhythmic backbone. It all feels a little World Music 101, but you could certainly do worse if you’re clicking around 2018 albums. [Thomas Seraydarian]

 Verdict: Recommend

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