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From Venice to Ventura, what you see (and hear) is what you get with Anderson .Paak. Such is the life of a genre-straddler in the modern music world; you can't please everyone. If .Paak goes hard on his hip-hop credentials, the people want to experience more of his softer, soulful side. And vice versa, ad lib to fade.
The Dr. Dre-produced Ventura — an ode to the town outside the stomping grounds of his gritty Oxnard hometown that fuelled his more soulful sensibilities — was apparently conceived around the same time as the adequate Oxnard. It functions as the "pretty" to Oxnard's "gritty," as he said in a recent interview.
Ventura is clearly fuelled on star power — scooping Pharrell, André 3000 and Nate Dogg on a single record in 2019 is no small feat. "Make It Better"comes through with its Quiet Storm OG co-sign in Smokey Robinson, the always on-point songstress Lalah Hathaway gives her own smoke with the classy "Reachin' 2 Much," as does Jazmine Sullivan, playing the side chick gig for "Good Heels." Much will be made of the Nate Dogg collab "What Can We Do?" but it's not that uplifting, outside of the initial nostalgia feels.
The smooth opener "Come Home" offers up a typically strong verse by André 3000, who can toss these A-plus lyrics in his sleep at this point (and probably did). "Winner's Circle" barely suppresses the rawer version of .Paak, but hits the mark and the Sonyae Elisa featured "Chosen One" slaps, its Prince-ly influences displayed on its silky electronic boutonnière.
It is just good enough to be good? That's the existential question for .Paak and fans to suss out. Ventura is super but not superb, a statement that could apply to a lot of .Paak's recent output. It's a super-charged R&B record, laced with throwback Motown/Philly grooves, that hits hard but fails to land a knockout blow. It seems to be a case of not being able to fully satisfy the hip-hop heads, the R&B fans and the amorphous genre-less Venn diagram in between.
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I find that this beat goes pretty well with the clip, I'm going to make a song on it. Boy with luv broke all records, he is not about to be beaten, that's really impressive!🔥🥇🔥
There’s something about Maggie Rogers: something rare and something wonderful.
Not only in her voice, but in the way she pieces together her work and tugs at you. And three years after she was plastered across your friends’ social media feeds and was being talked about in breathy tones on radio programmes and at the back of gigs, Rogers is here with her first major-label album.
On first listen, Heard It In A Past Life takes shape before you as a solid debut pop record - but maybe not the one that was expected. If you go in expecting Rogers to give you that rare tingle of a thing you felt in the first few seconds of her music before you’ll likely be a bit disappointed, at least at first. But if you put that to one side it’s perfectly possible to listen on a new plane where the beat rarely relents. A lingering worry grows throughout that first listen – that sometimes the music industry takes that found-sound strewn little pebble and shines it up until it’s bright enough and loud enough to fill a stadium. But actually as you cycle through again and again, as you break it in, and the gleam wears off, you start to see Rogers really come through, standing on the shoulders of Patti Smith, Kim Gordon, and Joni Mitchell, all the while making something entirely new.
“The Knife” is a clawing, ravenous track pumping through veins and dancing in corners on its own while “Light On” evokes Adele in both the parochial sense as well as in the lungs full of pain and lost love shouting into a majestic void. “Fallingwater” feels like a natural next step from “Alaska” and is built on the power of Rogers' vocals, which almost get overlooked thanks to the sheer breadth of other ideas present here. While tracks like "Back in My Body," "Overnight" and "Light On" are filled with the gut-wrenching weight of being alive that many of us go through, grounding the many levels of the record in real life.
The magic by which we were all spellbound in those early days remains, now augmented by a newfound range of diverse influences. Rogers writes anthems for the modern age, with all the paradoxical feelings of empowerment, anxiety, heartbreak and the growth that entails.
When she first emerged in 2016 with her viral Soundcloud hit "Ocean Eyes," the moody, silver-haired Eilish seemed like just another dreamy teenage LA singer/songwriter. The trickle of songs that led to her follow-up EP Don’t Smile At Me, however, proved that Eilish was made of darker stuff. Combining text and Instagram word-speak with bold electropop, she was busily crafting a girl-positive emotional world for the Netflix generation, and she has slowly become an alternative icon.
For her long-awaited debut album, 17 year-old Eilish has gone deeper into the weirdo-pop trench. Together with co-collaborator brother and producer Finneas O’Connell, she has drawn on trap and industrial pop to create a darkly humorous record about romance, rejection and addiction.
Raised by a family of actor/musicians, Eilish and her brother lace the songs with pop culture references and a sense of drama. "Xanny," for instance, reprises Bacharach’s "Alfie," in a soporific, distorted showtune, while "Wish You Were Gay" links Joan Jett-style glam footstomping to a delicate chorus. “To spare my pride/Don’t say I’m not your type/Just not your preferred sexual orientation,” Eilish sings, with mournful deliberation. "Bury A Friend," the album’s stand-out track, develops the theme of darkly, dysfunctional friendship, with her vocodered voice looped through effects and filters.
Just when you think that the clever, lugubrious tone is getting slightly wearisome ("Listen Before I Go"), Eilish breaks out into a track of clear, melodic beauty with "I Love You." Here she links the Lana Del Rey dreaminess of her early songs with the savvy, hip-hop inspired artist that she has become. And this is just the start.
Andrew Bird may be tongue-in-cheek about the title, My Finest Work Yet, but it’s a little humor, a wink of sorts, in our struggle to find the moral compass in these troubling times. The renowned multi-instrumental singer-songwriter, and indie favorite brings plenty of raw emotion in this album recorded live off the floor with no overdubs, no headphones, and no separation.
It’s tempting to go right to the title when describing or comparing this to his earlier work, but let's try to resist that temptation.
The soaring first track on the album, “Sisyphus,” the single, with Bird’s signature whistling, describes the internal struggle of suffering and being addicted to that struggle of the creative process. Of course it takes its title from the Greek king punished by Zeus for trying to outsmart the gods and cheat death. Bird elaborates on it, “is about being addicted to your own suffering and the moral consequences of letting the rock roll.” There’s optimism in the last verse as there is punctuating the recording – “Take my hand and we’ll claim the land/Take my hand and we’ll let the rock roll.”
The previously issued single, “Bloodless,” may be the linchpin track. Bird sings to empathize with those around him, “I know it’s hard to be an optimist / When you trust least the ones who claim to have the answers.” The track debuted shortly after the 2016 presidential election when the U.S. seemed to be as impossibly divided. The most recent single released is “Manifest,” a soft, ethereal, classically sounding track with Bird’s whistling, posing questions about truth-telling and why are we here with lines like – “I’m coming to the edge of the widest canyon/My companions dear/I’m starting to question my/Manifest destiny/My claim to this frontier.
The musical highlight may well be “Don the Struggle,” which begins slow, flirts with an Irish reel and makes way for a gorgeous Bird violin solo. The closer, “Bellevue Bridge Club,” provides harmonious calm that belies the disturbing lyrics set to playing cards in a psych ward, reflecting on the aftermath of the carnage.
My Finest Work is a strong addition to Bird's catalog, but whether it's his finest work is still up for debate.
Jenny Lewis is a storyteller, first and foremost. She captures people and places – out of control, out of place and searching for answers and solutions – permanent, temporary, or for one night only. Yet she has always had a remarkable buffering ability with the sweet and the light. In her happiest moments, you search for the storm on the horizon. And in the throes of pity and self-doubt, it is the inflected sadness of her voice clashing against the spirit of her character that provides the will to hurtle on and stand up again. On the Line is another Technicolor collection of tales that straddle the twin facades of Hollywood - the false glamour, the grime and the steps and stages in between. It’s an album filled with lost moments, faded romances and things that could otherwise have been, but the key to it all is that Lewis is in control throughout.
The best moments of On the Line are found within the sweet confessionalism of these tales – cinematic and vivid. "Heads Gonna Roll" is a sweeping and grandiose journey of bitter reflection and hedonistic compensation with memories of a former lover still imprinted into the back of her mind. It’s all gorgeous Lennon-piano draped in strings that swing between dizzy swoops of emotion and pizzicato uncertainty and doubt. "Little White Dove" is a delectably slinky and seductively sparse bass-lead groove and the melodrama of "Red Bull and Hennessey" is intoxicating in deftly portraying its clash between desire, frustration and emotion. In songs such as this that require a delicate balance between seductiveness and vulnerability, there are few better than Jenny Lewis.
The album rarely puts a foot wrong forward, especially in its closing stretch when the sweet West-Coast pop of the title track and the lilting and deftly-executed kiss-off "Rabbit Hole" bring the album home in a swirl of colour and charm. On the Line is all about Jenny Lewis. There are few who can capture your heart – the dark and the light - like she can. On the Line is yet another beautifully-realised and impeccably-delivered effort from a songwriter who revels and beguiles us from floorboards and pavements that few other songwriters would dream to tread.
Whereas last year's MASSEDUCTION was an a Friday night out - all-encompassing, all-consuming, and all-arousing. MassEducation, however, is the complete opposite – despite being constructed of exactly the same songs. Annie Clark. MassEducation is an evening drive, a neon-light in the darkness, a cocktail bar on a Wednesday. It’s the aloof, debonair younger sibling to its bloody-minded, red-blooded sister. MassEducation smokes outside. It prefers white wine to red. It’s an antidote to modernity where the original adhered to all of the rules of ‘now’. There’s no confusion: MassEducation is pure, emphatic. Clark strips all of the excess from MASSEDUCTION and bestows upon the new versions her own, sincere power.
Let’s talk about the new versions. “Los Ageless” is the standout on both records. On this record, it’s a dainty, soulful piano ballad that doesn’t mess with that brain-tickling hook. By resisting the urge to change it completely, Clark shows that her instincts have remained just as sharp despite the fact that she’s spent the last year touring the hell out of these songs.
The “Savior” here is, surprisingly, sexier than the original. It starts slowly, longing and aching, before building to an incredibly intense crescendo. “Pills” takes on a frazzled, deranged angle that makes you think of the earlier St. Vincent material – specifically the drugged-up Disney of Actor.
On the cover of this new version, we see Clark with her back to the camera, seemingly naked: Look a bit deeper and it’s more than that. It’s actually her this time: the legs and ass on the cover of MASSEDUCTION belonged to her friend. This is Annie telling us that this version is closer to the real her, but she’s still keeping something back. She’s nude, but covered. The photo is revealing, but not necessarily erotic. It’s a magnificent cover to a magnificent record.
MassEducation hangs together better than its predecessor. It’s precise where MASSEDUCTION was deliciously sloppy. However, they’re both as near to perfect as a record is going to get these days – incredibly perceptive, personal and inviting with clever lyrics sitting on beautifully inventive melodies.
Listen to Love Is Magic, John Grant’s fourth solo record released exactly three years after the last, and you experience his customary level of brutal honesty, irresistible vulnerability and wit – but with the electronics dialled way up.
The sound is razor sharp: deep, rib-shaking synths and tingling sequencers mix with punchy percussion and feather-like melodies. And, as you’d expect, the words don’t take a back seat in this ‘80s-inspired soundscape; it wouldn’t be a John Grant record without his signature storytelling.
Little can prepare you for the sonic assault of the first minute of opening track “Metamorphosis." Arcade game meets rap meets ring master showmanship, it’s a surreal and disturbing list of phrases and questions – “earthquakes, forest fires, hot Brazilian boys” and “Who created Isis?” – all delivered in various straight and novelty versions of Grant’s speaking voice. Within seconds, this morphs into a sultry, reflective dream ballad about not having properly mourned the death of a loved one – and then back again. You’re disorientated and intrigued. You’ve been warned.
His humour is evident even in the track listings: “Preppy Boy” precedes “Smug Cunt”. The former is a digital disco come-on, complete with seductive funk twang with winks and nudges a-plenty; the chorus begs, "Come on now, pretty boy/ If you’ve got an opening, I am unemployed". The latter is darker – even though it starts off scathingly describing the subject’s obsession with their own chest hair, it turns into a question of control and entitlement: “You don’t want things you cannot own."
Towards the end of the album, slower and softer songs “Is He Strange” and “The Common Snipe” sit still and powerful next to the beats and bleeps of neighbouring songs. If Grant’s talking to his younger self in “Is He Strange”, it’s with palpable warmth, openness, and a degree of comfort with who he is now.
Somehow stories that are deeply personal and unique to Grant become relatable life lessons. The specificity of the lyrics and the boldness of the electronic orchestration should preclude this – but Grant lets the emotions that drive them show through enough that you can’t help but connect.
With Us, Empress Of—née Lorely Rodriguez—maintains her distinctive knack for crisp production, unguarded lyricism, and artful melodies. But where the alt-R&B auteur’s 2015 debut, Me, was mired in tricky and at times blinkered introspection, the aptly titled Us‘s scope is decidedly more universal. Even Rodriguez’s posture—sitting spread-eagled, her arms open—on the album cover suggests a less insular stance, a stark contrast to the black-and-white figure posing with one hand shielding her mouth on the cover of Me.
What’s striking about Us is how blissful the music is. Cuts like Me‘s “How Do You Do It” and “To Get By” featured charging BPMs and house flourishes, but the synths were so blistering, even menacing, that they scanned as post-apocalyptic. By contrast, the tropical “Just the Same” goes down like frothy root beer float. She imbues a similar wonder to the space-age disco stomp “I’ve Got Love.” For Rodriguez, love is a lot like electricity, transmittable and galvanizing: “I’ve got love running through my fingers and my bones.”
Elsewhere, Rodriguez complicates this euphoric depiction of love, turning her attention to more thorny topics. “This love is draining us dry,” she laments on the jittery “All for Nothing,” a chronicle of a relationship in limbo. On the bilingual “Trust Me Baby,” she confronts an insecure lover about his trust issues, recounting a heated fight in a car. Even in the midst of the maelstrom, though, Rodriguez musters up some optimism for love: “We could do each other more love than harm, if you just trust me baby,” she croons earnestly.
Us‘s enduring charm lies in its articulation of the giddy uncertainty that comes from fully trusting someone, of having your world depend precariously on the whims of another person. With Us, Rodriguez candidly approaches the barbs of relationships but still manages to come out with a rose-colored vision of pair-bonding in all its reckless thrills. Considerably brighter, both thematically and tonally, than its predecessor, the album ascertains the guileless exhilaration of love.
Julia Holter isn't prone to small, easy statements. Baroque and oblique in equal measure, her music teases out obscure details and ineffable moods through lush orchestral arrangements and expansive structures. She's a purposeful songwriter whose work demands patience.
That's never been more apparent than on her fifth studio album. Clocking in at a whopping 90 minutes, and offering up relatively few hooks before the halfway mark, Aviary doesn't make concessions to passive listeners. But those who stick with it will be treated to Holter's most touching work yet: a lyrical, meticulously composed album that treasures empathy and togetherness amid turbulence and uncertainty.
Achieving that harmony isn't simple, though. The first-person narratives that Holter used to great effect on tracks like "World" and "How Long?" are largely absent on Aviary. Instead, she leaves listeners to pick through impressionistic fragments and reconstitute them into something meaningful. "Les Jeux to You" sees her joyously tossing out a mishmash of verbs, while "Words I Heard" refutes chaos with a pure declaration of love. It's a potent fulfillment of "I Shall Love 2," a centrepiece that turns a simple declaration into a triumphant refrain.
As exultant as Holter's lyrics can be, the compositions on Aviary lift them even higher. This is her most synthetic album since 2012's Ekstasis, but its electronic flourishes never overwhelm the naturalism of traditional instruments. Synthesizers bob steadily over a bed of strings on "Whether," burble like a creek on "Another Dream," and ring out notes like bells on "Colligere." Everything feels cohesive, even as Holter channels everything from a sombre lament on "In Gardens' Muteness" to a celebratory chant on "I Shall Love 1."
Sweeping and intimate all at once, Aviary never settles for comforting platitudes or dour resignation. It's honest, it's hopeful, and it's surely among Holter's finest achievements.
MASSEDUCTION's opening track “Hang on Me” presents Annie Clark as the restless consumer on a come down, a prologue to the excesses of thought and sex and substance that populate the record. Her voice is uncharacteristically cracked but still hopeful, begging for someone to cling to while everything crashes around her.
Her fifth record, MASSEDUCTION is maximalist by definition: Lyrically, aesthetically – the all-caps, the clashing red and pink and leopard of its cover art – and musically; with Clark’s virtuosic guitar playing crashing into layer upon layer of synths and programmed beats. Every song contains sounds or ideas for ten others, as though the record might suddenly burst and multiply like spiders running from a nest. There is a complete sense of Clark at the centre: and she knows from experience that loneliness lives at the core of excess.
“Los Ageless” is a near-future fable of eternal youth, its accompanying video a pastel-coloured plastic surgery nightmare. Nestled between the depictions of cage-dancing girls and endless artificial summer is the repeated refrain, “How could anybody have you and lose you and not lose their minds too?”, an explanation or an excuse: People don’t just destroy themselves – or let others destroy them – for nothing, you know. As the song fades out, her usually assured voice laments, “I tried to write you a love song,” a kind of epilogue or correction.
Gender and sexuality are presented as experimental, unfixed: On “Sugarboy”, Clark proclaims, “BOYS! I am a lot like you / GIRLS! I am a lot like you,” an update of Prince’s promise that “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never comprehend.” The title track’s refrain of “I can’t turn off what turns me on,” is Clark embracing the unhinged elements of her sexuality, as one who has shed all the urges of adolescence, and whose control stems from her acting like a man. Instead, Clark prizes adolescent urges as part of her spectrum of sexual experience, wrestling back uninhibited, self-serving female pleasure.
MASSEDUCTION defies explanation and critique, rendering the critic a dead weight in the dust of its ever-accelerating sucker-punch of ideas.
James Blake deduced that "music can't be everything" after the emotional heavy lifting and self-examination of 2016's The Colour In Anything, and the press that followed pointed to an artist more open and in touch with himself. Blake's personal development is the primary driver of fourth LP, Assume Form, a tight 12 tracks that show the artist at his most approachable, romantic and optimistic.
These feelings are apparent from the opening verse of the album's title track. "I hope this is the first day / That I connect motion to feeling," Blake sings, adding, in the chorus: "I will be touchable by her, I will be reachable." Further on, they're undeniable. "You waive my fear of self," he expresses on "Can't Believe the Way We Flow." "I've thrown my hat in the ring, I've got nothing to lose with you," he sings on "I'll Come Too," backed by a lovelorn vocal sample and sweeping strings.
Major keys aren't new to Blake's repertoire, but he has never expressed joy and feeling so plainly. To suggest he has entirely abandoned the dour moods of his earlier work would be wrong; now he's using them as juxtaposition against the album's uplifting moments. It's best captured in "Don't Miss It," which finds Blake recounting anxious, cyclical thoughts in slight vibrato.
Blake's continued openness has also crept further into his creative process, with Assume Form boasting the largest number of credited collaborators to date. On "Mile High," a reserved Travis Scott leaves ASTROWORLD behind for a graceful turn in Blake's world, ceding the rap star power to a wound-up André 3000 on "Where's the Catch?" Moses Sumney pushes his range for a haunting hook on "Tell Them," while Rosalía lends both harmony and Spanish vocals to "Barefoot in the Park."
The cover art finds Blake in repose, hands behind his head, staring into the camera. No longer masked by double exposure, deep blues and greys, Assume Form is Blake coming into focus.