Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Sunpools (Single) - Death & His Couch Band

Death & His Couch Band is a project by Charles Crowley, a friend from college who has been very busy with his music career since graduating a few years ago. He was part of Yume, of which I did a review of their EP A Violet Light & a Hum last year.

While "Sunpools" is not the first release from this project, it is distinctly different from the previous singles Charles has put out under the DTHCOBA name. I will say that I had heard some of the other material before, and some of it wasn't quite my taste (however, I did just discover how great the song "Biting Lips" is, a perfect mix of 90's and angst). The new release differs from these songs in the vibe and sonic pallet used; while many of the other songs were in the same vein of "Biting Lips" in being loud, distorted and more on the aggressive side, "Sunpools" moves in a much more dreamy, drawn out direction (similarly to Yume's sound). It takes it's time building up, utilizing repeating stanzas of lyrics and melodies to grow and grow into this echoing, pulsing piece of art. It's definitely not traditional in terms of the structure or sound; it's not something you're going to hear on most radio stations soon, but that's not a bad thing. These are the kinds of songs that help push the boundaries and experiment in ways that popular music doesn't.

I think what draws me most to the song is the way that it draws the listener in and lets you get lost in it. The vocals are fairly buried under the other elements, the guitar probably being the most prominent aspect, and it takes quite a few listens to really understand the lyrics (or you could avoid the trouble I had and see them written out on the project's Bandcamp page). I spent some time looking over the words, as well as talking to Charles a bit about what it meant to him and the ideas that inspired the song. His answer was something I really, thoroughly enjoyed:

"It's about damage and coping and the endless search for lightness."

 I asked him to expand a bit on the idea of an "endless search for lightness", as I found the phrase really intriguing, and he described it as:

"feeling good in this way where things don't feel heavy anymore...a hopeful, bright, weightlessness".

Which was interesting to me, because my initial thought was lightness in terms of the light that we see (brightness), not a light that we feel (weight or a lack thereof), especially given the references to the sun and light in the song (Charles stated that he also likes how the image of light does come along with the kind of language he uses, so I wasn't too far off)  When you look at the lyrics, you can definitely see the idea of weightlessness present, as well as in the instrumental and the way you can lose the sense of feeling and weight that can so easily bog people down.

If you haven't heard anything that Charles has done yet, then I promise that you're missing out on some really spectacular talent. Don't sleep on it anymore; support local talent, and show it some love!

Rating: 4/5

Death & His Couch Band's Website: dthcoba.com/

Friday, February 23, 2018

Thought Contagion (Single) - Muse

Muse's last release was the single "Dig Down", which came out in May of 2017 - quite a large gap in-between singles that are supposed to be connected. As with that song, there are heavy electronic elements present in "Thought Contagion", the latest single in preparation for what will be Muse's eighth studio album (and which is currently nameless and has no set release date yet).

The song kicks things off with a high soaring synth line over some slightly distorted guitar, sounding like somewhat familiar territory for Muse. However, when the verse kicks in, it's a bit of a directional change - 808 drum beats and trap-influenced high-hats lead the way for Matt Bellamy's vocals in what still managed to feel stripped down, which is odd for a band who is known for their bigger than life sounds. The chorus comes in with a bit of the more signature sound for the band, with a chorus of voices singing as Bellamy sings (repeatedly) "Thought Contagion".

The problem I have with this song is that it doesn't feel like it does anything significant or go anywhere musically. Muse songs tend to have a bit of a wow factor - those boys are gifted in terms of crafting very unique sounds and tones. However, with this song, it feels like a moulding of their skills to current trends in music: electronic elements and trap sounds. While the former is something Muse has done in the past, and done very well, the later is not something that I think they needed to dabble in. Trap is a trend that I am very, very ready for it to be gone. It's shown up in everything, much like dubstep did before it 4 or 5 years ago (something that Muse also tapped into, but did in a really cool and unique way).

This song is, in all honesty, forgettable. Compared against their other music, even against the similarly electronic "Dig Down" (which I liked, for the record), it falls flat. The one part that feels like it could be leading somewhere, the bridge, gets you going until the guitar solo comes in to just play a more distorted version of the synth melody line. The song doesn't feel like it utilizes the talents of the bands, and the result is lackluster.

I hope that what else we will see from the band will be of more substance, and less playing into the popular trends for the sake of being current.

Rating: 2/5

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Void (Single) - The Neighbourhood

The Neighbourhood has had a busy past few months. Since September, they've released two EPs - Hard & To Imagine, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed & previously reviewed (click each EP name for links). Much to my surprise, they announced that they have a full length album coming out next month, which is self-titled (The Neighbourhood) and released a new single, "Void". This track is in the same veins as the previous two EPs, containing lots of synths and drum machines with Jesse Rutherford's vocals slowly coming in and taking the spotlight. There's definite 80's vibes, but it's also got a pulsing, sensual feel to it that differs it from the other single they released for To Imagine, "Scary Love". I much prefer "Void" to "Scary Love", as it has a bit more of a dark feeling, (not necessarily ominous but borderline for sure), mostly due to the bass synth that looms in the background. The vocals definitely take the focus of the song, with Rutherford utilizing the soft and vulnerable side of his voice that is one of the reasons I continue coming back to this band. I also very much enjoy the lyrics of the chorus:

"And now I need you to feel the vibe
I need you to see the point
I need you to feel alive
I need you to fill the void"

utilizing simple language to convey a very deep sense of struggle and need. Upon first listen, I thought the song was about a person or relationship, but I also realized it could be about an addiction, be it drugs, sex, or something else. And that realization made me think about how frightening that prospect is. That someone could be talking about a person or about an addiction (or even both things in one), and it's hard to discern what the real subject is. That a person or an addiction to sex or drugs could fill the same space within us, or that we could become so delusional or fixated to the point where we replace the love of someone with substance abuse, or with an idea of the person that replaces the person themselves. There's some definite postmodern ideas thrown around in there, a representation of something replacing the thing itself - something that can be all too common in our world still, despite postmodernism being more prevalent during the mid to late 20th century.

The song is a definite sign that the band is trying to move a different direction than their previous release, Wiped Out!, which largely consisted of these echoing sounds that built on each other to create huge soundscapes in the same way a rock band might riff and jam into big, open sections of songs. They managed to do this, however, with lots of electronic elements, which gave them a wider variety of tones and vibes that they could use and focus on. With this release, however, it's a more stripped down, more focused on smaller elements and giving them their own time instead of letting the sounds all mix together and create one huge, layered sound. I enjoyed Wiped Out! very much, but I also really have been enjoying the new sound and direction the band has been pursuing. I'm definitely looking forward to hearing the rest of the album, besides the songs from the EP's that I've already heard and know I enjoy.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Black Panther: The Album (Music From And Inspired By)

When I first heard that Kendrick Lamar would be one of the main producers and contributors to this soundtrack, I knew I was going to be excited about it. I talk about how incredible I think he is just about every chance I get, whether it's his performances at awards shows or his continually intricate and profound music releases. I knew a soundtrack, for what is shaping to be a boundary-pushing superhero movie, produced by one of the greatest artists of our time, would not be something I would want to miss.

However, the closer it grew, the more I felt apprehensive about doing any sort of review of it, much for the same reasons that I ended up not doing a review of Kendrick's 2017 DAMN. I felt that, being white, I wasn't really in a position to review work that clearly speaks of and to the experience of being black in America. It made me uncomfortable to try and tackle a subject that I have absolutely no experience with or true understanding of, and I didn't want to make any sort of comment that would not be correct or come off as ignorant.

After listening to the album, I found myself thinking about the music and the way it came about, and found myself wanting to write my thoughts on it, despite my apprehension. I realized the difference it makes, giving the creative reigns of the soundtrack for a superhero movie about an African superhero to people of color. The authenticity of the sound, the vibes, the movement and feeling of the album are leaps and bounds beyond anything a typical movie soundtrack would have. I've recently been reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, and there's a scene that reminded me of my realization. The narrator points out to a filmmaker that it would seem logical for a movie about Vietnam to have actual speaking parts for Vietnamese people. Proper representation and input for people who are the subject matter of a movie or story makes a big difference in the final product.

Even though Kendrick is a huge name right now and was guaranteed to draw people in, they could have given it to someone who would have played things safe, who would have washed it down just enough to make people, (specifically white people like me), feel comfortable and sell more records. But the people at Marvel didn't; they made a more risque move and the result couldn't have been more appropriate for what I'm sure we will soon see with the movie this coming weekend.

Just from looking at the artists involved, you can see the diversity in terms of genres and influences. Hip-hop and R&B have the most presence, but even then, you get a variety of sounds within the genres. Trap rears its head on tracks like "X", "King's Dead", and "Big Shot", with "X" feeling more syrupy smooth to fit with featuring artists Schoolboy Q and 2 Chainz and "Big Shot" having the signature big-bass-with a-high-flute-hook sound of Travis Scott. "King's Dead" utilizes very minimal melodic elements in favor of lots of drums and bass, giving an almost detached vibe. "Paramedic!" brings me back to growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, with the kind of underground hip-hop sound that's bad but in a good way, taking it's time as opposed to the more popular trap sound (sadly, there were no featuring of my old favorite NorCal slang, "hella"). "Opps" takes things in a completely different direction with a more house, electronic base to the instrumental that leaves lots of room for Vince Staples and Yugen Blakrok (and an uncredited Kendrick) to spit fire over the pulsating beat. "Redemption" and "Seasons" take different approaches to featuring African (specifically South African) artists and sound palates. "Redemption" utilizes a more tribal sounding beat with lyrics in Zulu, a commonly spoken language in South Africa, as does "Seasons", although over a more modern beat and feel instead of the tribal. "I Am" and "The Ways" both lean R&B, but with very different results. "The Ways" has Khalid's free flowing sound to it as moves along through subdued trap, while "I Am" uses gritty, guitar over a slow yet steady beat to create a much darker, more sensual vibe that grooves.

There's also some really interesting lyrical elements to this album. Kendrick specifically raps from the prespective of two of the characters from the movie, T'Challa and Killmonger (the protagonist and [one of?] the antagonist). I doubt this is the first time an artist has done this for a movie soundtrack, but Kendrick does it in such a believable manner, showcasing both the hero and the villain and their perspective on aspects.  At the very beginning of "Paramedic!", Kendrick says "I am Killmonger", indicating that the song is supposed to be from his perspective or inspired by his character (which I find is interesting, given that it's probably the grittiest, more underground sounding track, which might be seen as showing him as being more rough or less noble, as what we have seen of T'Challa in Captain America: Civil War was a very regal character, although he isn't afraid to get in the middle of the fight). "Bloody Waters" starts with the line "meet the man in the mask", which might indicate this one is from the perspective of T'Challa, and shows a very different feeling and vibe than "Paramedic!" reveals of Killmonger. The two come together at the end of "Seasons" with Kendrick's outro:

"I am T'Challa
I am Killmonger
One world, one God, one family

which then brings the point of duality, of good and bad existing together. I haven't seen the movie (obviously, since it isn't out), but I would imagine that we will probably find T'Challa and Killmonger working together at some point.

Beyond the movie tie-in lyrics, the majority of the lyrics fall in line with some of the more established and dominant themes found in rap music. A lot of the rappers featured on the album discuss their struggles growing up in dangerous and poor neighborhoods, of struggling and working incredibly hard to get where they are. There's also talk about the various material things they have now acquired through their new status and position in the world, but if you take that in the context of coming from poverty, coming from being in unsafe households and schools and cities, then it makes perfect sense. These people have come from a hard, hard place, one that I personally have not been in and cannot say that I understand what they've experienced. And now they've gotten themselves to a place where they don't have those same problems and worries, where they can provide for themselves and their families and those around them. So while I don't always find the lyrics that rotate around all their material perks of being wealthy and successful, I can understand the reasons for them and appreciate what they mean.

All in all, I found myself more and more impressed with this album the more I listened to it and did research. This is not your standard soundtrack; it was truly inspired by the movie and made as a part of it, not just another way to make more revenue on a product. These artists resonated with the movie they were creating sounds for, and the result is evident, it's authentic.

Rating: 4.5/5

Recommended: "Opps", "Paramedic!", "I Am", "Seasons", "All The Stars"

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Man of the Woods - Justin Timberlake

Up until his announcement, I didn't know Justin Timberlake was gearing up for an album release this year. I was very intrigued by the singles, with "Filthy" and "Supplies" being instant hits in my books. And right before he took one of the biggest stages in the world, he dropped the whole album, Man of the Woods. Being a big fan of The 20/20 Experience and FutureSex/LoveSounds, I was very much looking forward to the new album and his exploration of a different set of sounds and inspirations.

As I've listened through the album a few times now and have really given me enough time to avoid a knee-jerk reaction, I find that what I'm left with is...disappointment. Don't get me wrong, there are some really, really good songs on here. Songs that show his ability to explore and expand and mix his pop roots with a variety of sounds. "Filthy" and "Supplies" are easily my favorite songs off the record, both having swagger and grooving in different ways (click either song to see my full reviews).

Other songs showcased the Americana/Country sounds he worked with throughout the album, like "Say Something (feat. Chris Stapleton)", "Man of the Woods", or "Livin Off The Land". These ones all were a fairly even balance of pop/hip-hop sounds with his southern roots, not leaning too far one direction or the other.

"Say Something" manages to feel big and sweeping without being overwhelming, building acoustic elements with the back and forth of the vocals between Timberlake and Stapleton never overtaking each other. The mood created is emotionally binding without being too specific or over the top, as a lot of country music can be.

"Man of the Woods" brings the lightheartedness country music can have over an 808 beat, which seems like it wouldn't work so well (and there are other tracks where this doesn't work) but slides along in a smooth and laid back manner. "Livin Off the Land" feels a bit more pulled back in terms of the pace and tone, a bit darker and more earthy, fitting with the subject matter. The beat on this song also feels like something from a hip-hop track, but mixes with the richness of the bass and the guitar in a way that makes you realize, as Timberlake said in an interview, "you just didn't know you could dance to the mountains" (see the whole interview here).

"Higher Higher" and "Morning Light (feat. Alicia Keys)" both play more on the RnB sound, which Timberlake has delved into before, but in a more mature and grown-up manner, focusing on the love of his life and not seducing a random woman. Both of these songs are good, but it's that approach to the lyrical content and focus that help them to stand out.

However, I can't say that the whole album hit the mark. Songs like "Midnight Summer Jam", "Sauce",  and "Flannel" were all further attempts to mix americana with pop and hip-hop sounds that just didn't quite land. They feel too jumbled, too much going on at once for anything to blend smoothly. The first two songs feel like they could be even more sensual, but instead, the bright tones of the country and americana influences give it too much twang to really create a mood.

These songs feel like Timberlake is trying to go a direction that ends up being forced instead of a natural, creative project. He wanted to explore his roots and homeland with this album, but the main issue is that these were sounds and musical ideas that he really never utilized in his music before (apart from "Drink You Away" from his last release, which combined country with his signature pop/hip-hop sound in a way that felt good and smooth). In the same interview I referenced earlier, he talks about how being from the South, he and those around him felt he was a good fit to explore the sounds of where he's from with where he has gone in life (see that here). I feel like it just didn't mesh like he had hoped. The soul searching, the "introspective" aspect of the album that he discusses, ends up feeling too scattered, too lost in different directions to go far any one way. At times, Man of the Woods feels like a man who isn't quite sure of himself, at least in terms of the musical sound he wants to put out. It's a bit ironic - an album that is rooted in nature and being at home in the woods and mountains that ends up feeling forced and unnatural.

In the end, this record will make a splash, but not a big enough ripple to upset the music scene for too long. It's a good pop record - it's definitely got some songs that will get radio time and "Filthy" will most definitely end up somewhere high in my top songs for the year. But the album won't make it, I know that much; hopefully the 5 or so years of waiting for Timberlake's next record will produce an album that feels a bit more natural.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended: "Filthy", "Supplies", "Montana", "Say Something (feat. Chris Stapleton)"