Tricky – False Idols album review

Almost by happy mistake, English artist Tricky is pleasantly bearable as an international lyricist, and his musical direction seems to luckily work for him—what’s so boldly been the crux of his uniqueness as an artist is that he isn’t a virtuoso (he openly refuses to call his fans ‘fans’ as he says anyone can make the music he does) and he doesn’t subsist under the pretense that he is. His music just somehow falls into place even though it’s quite atypical. On False Idols, Tricky returns to the musical aesthetics of Maxinquaye, his debut album, and the decade that marked his coming of age. Even though it’s been almost 10 years, his latest project may serve as a follow up and continues to shine a light on his self-actualized experience.

False Idols feels like a thirst quencher from experimental music’s past. His existentialism draws heavily from the grainy sounds of 1997 Portishead (bet Tricky is tired of the uncanny comparison) and you can even find some elements of Jewel circa “Who Will Save Your Soul?” (this is especially transparent on “Nothing Matters”), all of which presents the air of darkness, contemplation, and trivialism through such instrumentation. False Idols sticks firmly within the frame of trip-hop, even when we thought no one was making it anymore.

Any trace of a concept is masked by Tricky’s ambiguity. With this album, he is about questioning the figments of his reality, though at times his queries (at least the ones we can determine) do come off as a bit banal for someone who is so deeply examining the verity of his reality (On “Somebody’s Sins” the lyrics drag “Jesus died for someone’s sins but not mine.” Hasn’t this topic been covered a million times already?). Tricky blends melancholy tracks with upbeat ones, without removing the melancholy, and never taking you out of pensiveness. The tick-tocks and hollow pizzicato on the harp strings are consistent throughout the album, although each song plays differently. “My Funny Valentine” is creepy and uses a creepy sample. “If Only I Knew” sounds like a soft Sade demo laced with longing and despair. It’s brilliant. “Is That Your Life” is a little less heavy with subtle elements of beat box. And although all 16 tracks are variable, Tricky does a good job of never catching you off guard.

The ironic thing about this album is that though it’s supposed to serve as a representation of Tricky finding himself, at times you can get a sense that he still may not quite have figured out who he is. He hides behind well-written lyrics that don’t pose any real questions. But the beauty of False Idols is that it’s refreshing and of the past. The musicality still works. Even though the genre has already come and gone.

Daft Punk – Random Access Memories album review

Daft Punk’s latest, Random Access Memories is a far cry from the fist pumping electronic repertoire that revolutionized dance music in the 90s. And if you’re trying to relive the days of pay per call music video stations through nostalgic songs like “Around The World,” you’ll be surprised to know you won’t find that here. In fact, one of the main underlying elements of this album is surprise. The French duo has graduated to introspection and wows us by ditching the predictable and drawing from the musical inspirations that made them. The finished product is an ode to music—a complete embodiment of a simple deep-rooted passion.

Random Access Memories is a mash-up of genres past. It’s a touch of the oldies meets disco heaven meets progressive rock and Daft Punk pays homage with groovy instrumentation, smooth guitar riffs, synthesized keyboards and gentle percussion, never neglecting that touch of Zapp and Rogers, Donna Summer, or Phil Collins on any track. In fact, the best way Daft Punk pays tribute to their inspiration is through the instrumentation. Although some of songs on the albums are merely fillers, each track comes together to create a magnificent body of work, cohesive in concept and instrumentation, and consistent in conveying the concept of inspiration.

The album opens up with a very fitting track, “Give Life Back To Music.” It’s funky. “The Game of Love” is a slinky and hypnotic follow up and though like most of the tracks, it’s grossly repetitive, it’s quite possibly the best song on the first half of the album and will give anybody that feeling of love in summertime. “Giorgio by Moroder” is Daft Punk’s testament to their love for music. The 9:05 track features an inspiring monologue by Italian dance music pioneer Giorgio Moroder paired with funkadelic keys and guitar sequences. It’s touching. Daft Punk also teams up with Pharrell on a couple of the numbers, which is less impressionable, and though his features are forgettable, it’s nice to hear Daft Punk pair the present with their influences of the past.

The album really picks up past the 5th track, shifting from the elements of love and inspiration to the carefree and almost futuristic. The first few seconds of “Beyond” sounds like the beginning of an epic space cartoon saga, and the song that follows it is aptly called “Motherboard.” But surprisingly, it isn’t brash, or boisterous. There’s no over-usage of the horns and it’s nice to hear a contemporary group use an oboe and get it right. Two thumbs up for music theory 101.

What’s best about this album is what it borrows without misappropriating. It’s a cohesive body of work, with a diverse range of emotion. Each new song acts as its own piece, introducing you to another idea with the end of each track. Random Access Memories borrows, not to play with cool sounds, but to convey the instruments of their inspiration in a way that you doesn’t have to bring back Studio 54. The commercial success is well deserved.

Styles P. – Float album review

We’re not quite sure why Styles P.’s latest project is called Float, but we think it may be due to the lighthearted nature the album was supposed to project. Although it may be slightly misnamed, what’s refreshing is that Styles P. doesn’t shoot for commercial, because he doesn’t care to, and you won’t find it anywhere on the album. It’s a complete evocation of rap’s underground—the gully and the brash. And though a lot of people won’t have the opportunity to take this project seriously because it barely made the radar, there are still some highlights.

There’s no single concept with this album—just trash talk—completely reminiscent of early 00s street rap. And with Styles P.’s underground phantom persona, you can’t expect him to take on the sophistication of hip-hop all grown up. The album name “Float” makes you think of an artist that doesn’t take himself or anyone else too seriously. But how contrary is it that with menacing threats on songs like ”Bodies in the Basement” or “Hater Love” we think Styles P. is so for real?

Though we’ve never questioned Styles P.’s dedication to weed culture since “I Get High,” he doesn’t quite come off as the laid back introspective slow talking smoker you’d think to get from somebody who spent 15+ years in the rap game and should be basking in their Bad Boy glory days. There’s little easiness or nostalgia with this album, and he actually comes off kind of hype. Float is not very relaxed or carefree at all. In fact, the only thing Styles P. seems carefree about is cracking your skull open like a shell. We’re not sure he’s our kind of stoner. The weed haze covered album art is deceiving and if this album is full of Styles P.’s marijuana thoughts, he must not be smoking the best stuff. He relies heavily on the violence and brashness of his 1990s persona and the album at times, feels a little heavy for an album entitled “Float.” But it’d be unreasonable to expect him to abandon the hardcore elements that built him.

It’s nearly impossible to think of any song on the album that doesn’t threaten someone, their parents, or their clique, but Scram Jones’ production mellows everything out with sporadic smooth, jazzy instrumentation. “Shoot You Down” is probably the best song on the album. It draws from the early Lox without relying so heavily on the past. The production in its entirety isn’t a complete memory of the 90s conscious rap era, and hardens at times to sound a little Wu-Tang. The juxtaposition creates a nice balance, though we could do without the repetitive, threatening lyrics. Float isn’t bad. But we think we still prefer Styles P. as a ghostwriter.

Various Artists – Music From Baz Luhrmann’s Film The Great Gatsby album review

Much like the ultra modern 2013 film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, we get a sense that the days of flapper skirts and bootlegging depicted through the lens of a greyscale are just a faint memory. For a soundtrack so densely saturated with pop-culture and trend, The Great Gatsby endeavors to traject the original story’s concepts of hope and hopelessness, haves and have-nots and in many ways, it does.

It’s only right that a Jay-Z track opens up the album as he also doubles as the soundtrack’s executive producer, though the privilege of this position was likely more for his relevance in pop culture and less about his extensive knowledge of 20th century literature and the Age of Prohibition. “100$ Bill” is an embodiment of the film and album concept and even serves as a slight juxtaposition of nouveau riche culture both now and then—what will always remain is the insecurity and incessant desire for relative significance masked by opulence, bravado, and greed. How apropos that Jay-Z’s (or do we mean Jay Gatsby’s) post American Gangster narrative fits this bill.  And “100$ Bill” doesn’t slip through the cracks. On the surface lies minutes of mindless chatter, bragging, and trash talk, but there’s an inkling that beneath the boom-boom-kat’s there may be raw feeling we’re not allowed to see. Even with empty lyrics, when the bass hits and the staccato snares clap with the ominous opera vocals that precede the jazz era horn solo, you’ll realize that “100$ Bill” is undoubtedly the hottest, most significant record on the soundtrack.

The recurring themes on the album are of the ornate, illustrious, and showy, and you’ll find The Great Gatsby includes some odd features to convey this. Q-Tip even makes an appearance on “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)” albeit with Fergie and GoonRock on an EDM track. It’s fun.

We’re happiest about Coco. O of Quadron appearing on the soundtrack. “Where The Wind Blows” is a little boring, but her vocals deserve mention.

“Back to Black” is Andre 3000 and Beyoncé’s audacious cover of Amy Winehouse’s track and it’s a pleasant surprise to hear Queen B. lull in a softer indie voice and not the usual overbearing, vibrato laden belt. Dare we say that it’s actually quite good? The song could still do without the extra bit of runs and natural roundedness of Beyoncé’s vocals that she likely had trouble killing, though.

In terms of the real indie (not indie imposters, sorry, Bey) Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” may be the core of the album. It so evocatively represents the yearning and emptiness that symbolizes anything Gatsby. The xx’s “Together” is similar. The breathy vocals on both tracks give you the sense of unbearable longing for something beyond reach. And as a body of work, that’s what The Great Gatsby represents.

This soundtrack adequately illustrates the emotional range of the film and its characters by use of randomized artists and abrupt tempo and mood changes that signify the many ups and downs of the painfully wealthy. At times, the songs may seem incongruent and inconsistent, but embedded within the fluctuating instrumentation remains the sentiments of conceit, opulence, self-absorption, and self-consciousness of the hideously affluent.

will.i.am – #willpower album review

After spending quite a while in music limbo, it looked as if will.i.am’s fourth studio album would never see a release date. And after almost 2 years of perpetual delay, a title transformation, and a plethora of creative changes, #willpower has finally hit the airwaves, much to the chagrin of you commercial pop haters.

If you take a moment to look at it intellectually, the hash tagged title almost mirrors the technological era and digital space that has enabled our self-absorption and instilled in us this sense of false omnipotence. Raise your hand if you think will.i.am considered this. The answer is probably not. The album unwittingly serves as an overstated representation of the futuristic and digital manifested into a musical compilation that will.i.am almost transparently assumes he knows what people will like because…. he’s will.i.am. And although it’s probably not the best thing to look for depth in a pop album, but this project almost reeks of conceit and will.i.am’s attempt to bank on his reputation (and on others’) alone.

#willpower is a pretty decent model for the dance club and very adequately fits the framework expected of a major pop artist. Ironically, after failing to garner commercial success to date (selling a dismal 29,000 units in the first week), most of its 18 tracks have the potential to chart. What gnaws at you is that with this album, will.i.am was clearly looking for hits and not art. The most obvious example is the oblique choice of features— because, really, besides the fact that they’re all relatively trending topics (pun intended), what do Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Juicy J., and Chris Brown seriously have in common? Unfortunately, this kind of inauthentic approach to relevance will hardly put this album on the radar.

I think we know by now that will.i.am’s signature auto-tuned vocals aren’t going away anytime soon. Each track is laden with at least a touch of the electro-bass and synth-pop sound, with the occasional boom-bat. “#thatPOWER” may be one of the album’s biggest hits, but the album includes a few hidden gems that sound so much better, most notably, the first track “Good Morning.” It has beautiful instrumentation and feels airy and pleasant in contrast to the others. It’s surprisingly introspective, though after this, the album quite abruptly takes a turn from the deep to the superficial. The production is fun and the high energy is expected. But the painfully repetitive lyrics and song arrangements will give you an anxiety attack if you attempt to listen to any one song straight through.

Somehow #willpower still sounds like a cohesive body of work, but there are absolutely no layers behind the flowery idea of digitization and revolutionized pop. Furthermore, this work isn’t any more progressive than what Afrojack or Swedish House Mafia has done within the last couple of years. It’s fun, but easily forgettable. But we’re still here for “Scream and Shout” whenever we hear “It’s Britney, bitch.”

Illogic & Blockhead – Capture The Sun album review

Illogic has been a staple in underground rap for quite a while now. And for this reason, he’ll get off pretty easy for releasing the mediocrity that is Capture The Sun. But it’s just always so unfortunate when conscious rap proves why it’s stigmatized (as whack) in the first place. Even throughout raps many different facelifts, Illogic has held his ground, consistently challenging the crookedness of the record industry, social injustices, blah, blah, blah. We’ve heard that all before. And even with hip-hop’s current renaissance, Capture The Sun doesn’t quite stack up against the rest. After reiterating the same recycled ideas he finally decided to switch it up a little, teaming up with underground producer Blockhead (of Aesop Rock and Rhymesayers notoriety) to release an album that encourages us to follow our dreams no matter what may stand in our way, because his other topics weren’t quite cliché enough.

The good thing about this album is that Illogic sticks steadily with the theme. That’s pretty much the only good thing. Illogic reminds us to “capture the sun” in at least every other few songs. But the problem is, he never really tells us how. He seems to ramble about change and redemption, but if you give each song a thorough listen, you’ll likely have no idea what he’s talking about. “Daily operation in the cycle of the orthodox…as long as you don’t leave this box, all in together now.” What?  The fake deep lyrics are actually exhausting. And everything Illogic has already said once, he paraphrases again. You almost get the feeling that Illogic & Blockhead just came up with the ideas for each song because the titles sounded cool. There’s even a song on the album called “She Loves It” but it fails to explain just what in the hell it is that “she” loves. Perhaps it’s a 2-minute long instrumental with 1 lyrical bar?

The album goes even further than below average production and lifeless lyrics. The engineering even seems half-assed and comes across as a low budget mixtape from a guy hustling you in front of the local subway. In some instances, Illogic’s mic seems to be too loud, and with no real marriage between the production and vocals, this element makes Illogic’s already corny lyrics seem…how do we say this—even cornier.

Capture The Sun takes a while to pick up. As in 3-4 songs pass before the album starts to make way. And even when it does, the highest height it ever reaches isn’t in the least impressive. To put it frankly, Illogic and Blockhead’s problem may be that nobody has yet told him that the 90’s have already happened, and with this lackluster project, there’s reason it doesn’t need to happen again.

Major Lazer – Free the Universe album review

Repurposing sounds from various cultures has identified Major Lazer and put them in somewhat of an uncategorizable genre of their own. But 4 years after their debut album, Major Lazer has probably become more noted for their nationwide block parties than for their collaborative work, and their most recent album Free the Universe proves that justifiably so, as it is anything but Mad Decent.

The album is distractingly difficult to keep your attention and nearly impossible to get through. And after awaiting a follow up to 2009’s Guns Don’t Kill People–Lazers Do, it’s unfortunate to have to come to terms with the possibility that Major Lazer’s long awaited sophomore album is nothing if not underwhelming. The project is a clear reflection of a lack of creative direction, last minute production team swap (DJs Jillionaire and Walshy Fire have now teamed up with Diplo to replace former producer Switch), an inconsistent concept, and the notion that perhaps all the energy Diplo has amassed during the days of  “Look at Me Now” and “Run the World (Girls)” has long since dissipated when it came time to focus on his own work.

The lack of effort on this album is almost transparent. It is a repetitive medley of assumed island sounds with no real marriage between any of the album’s 14 tracks.  Not much has changed conceptually since the debut album, as Major Lazer still seems pretty adamant about their lazy attempt to recreate dancehall music for the fake-poor hipster (The Dirty Projector’s Amber Coffman is featured on “Get Free” and it don’t get more Brooklyn watering hole than that). But at least we can say Major Lazer knows who their audience is.

The album has more features than when Rick Ross was Deeper Than Rap. But unlike the former, Free the Universe falls short of utilizing these names in a way that adds to any of the songs. The first song “You’re No Good” features Santigold, (or did we mean 2006 Nelly Furtado?) but even throwing Jamaican dancehall heavy hitter Vybz Kartel on the track doesn’t completely save it from sounding too “Promiscuous Girl.” And strange enough, the album just goes downhill from there. It constantly takes abrupt turns and at some point even goes from turnt up to electro-indie. “Get Free” serves as that random stop sign you didn’t see coming and leaves you slamming on your musical brakes. It’s not bad. But Amber Coffman’s vocals never sounded so hard on the ears. Overtly stereotypical island lyrics and song titles are distracting (ie: “Jah No Partial”, “Bumaye,” really?), and songs like “Jessica” rely heavily on gentle reggae and doo-wop cadences that you can catch in any one of Bruno Mars’ misappropriated songs.

4 years should have left Major Lazer enough time to cultivate some ideas. All we can hope is that in the music to come they find some creative direction, get some inspiration and not rely so heavily on what they’ve already done in the past. And for the record: Give the dancehall a rest.

Rhye – Woman album review

Rhye’s not so subtle quest to hide behind the veil of artistic obscurity has proven worth the frustration with their debut collaboration Woman. In fact, the pair has made a note of maintaining their secrecy by concealing their image (not even appearing in their own videos) to let their music remain the focal point. Though now revealed to be singer/producer Mike Milosh and Robin Hannibal, producer and ½ of the Danish electro-soul duo Quadron, when the duo’s first single “Open” hit the web months ago, we were left flirting with the possibility that the artist behind the provocatively effeminate vocals was either a Sade reincarnate or, the less likely, not a woman at all.

The aptly named title is not a cruel play on the notion that most listeners were expecting Milosh to be a chick. It is rather, a manifestation of what becomes of overt anonymity masked by sensuality —an alluring exploration of feeling and of music’s most overly exploited form of pleasure (no, not popping Molly’s) in the least banal way.

Rhye inevitably leaves much to the imagination, since you don’t have an overabundance of music videos and artist promo to make up your mind. This makes Woman an experience. Strings and faint saxophone arrangements embellish Milosh’s breathy voice, which serves as the journey’s path. The album is remarkably honest and seems to serve as a confession to a slight sex addiction, but in the most enticing way—it’s intimate without the lewd, sexy without the salacious and provocative without the crass.

Each of Woman’s 10 songs are relatively unblemished with each serving as a preface to the next, creating a nearly perfect body of work with Milosh’s silky smooth voice with the occasional crackle of raw feeling taking the forefront. On “Verse” he moans, “Ooh my song says it all/do you hear it in the verse, hear it in the verse/oh I’ll call when you see it on my face, see it on my face.” Simple lines like this are so forward, yet simultaneously, somehow saturated with depth and make each song inescapably captivating.

Indeed, the underlying element that really does this album in is the songwriting. It’s so audaciously simple, yet the delicate production dares you to really listen. The separation between instrumentals and vocals allows the listener a breath of fresh air to experience the voice and the lyrics.

Rhye may already be sick of the Sade comparisons, but on songs like “Shed Some Blood” you can’t help but hear the influence (the similarities don’t cheapen the group, but rather, give listeners a glimpse back into the past of a rare requited love circa the “Kiss of Life” era). But what’s special about this project is that what you don’t feel, you just have to guess. And though Rhye has claimed they will reveal more of themselves in the future, Woman may leave you wondering how you can feel so much while having known so little.