Frank Ocean – Channel Orange album review

Much of the attention surrounding Frank Ocean’s first formal release Channel Orange (he released two highly acclaimed mixtapes before this album) has come as a result of his coming out via Tumblr.  His coming out, and ultimately, his new visibility as an LGBT hip-hop artist, is incredibly important and should be noted.  Hopefully, though, Frank Ocean’s social importance will not overshadow the quality of his new record – because Channel Orange is one of the best, if not the best, pop album of 2012.

To begin, it is infuriating that “Thinkin’ About You,” the second track on Channel Orange and one of the album’s singles, is not a worldwide hit.  The song is simple, sad, sleek, and incredibly sexy.  Any reasonable human being should be swooning when Ocean croons “Do you think about me still?”  It also helps that the song is quite catchy, and will have you singing along in no time.  This song, out of all the songs on the album, has the most potential to reach a wide audience.

While “Thinkin’ About You” is the favorite of the record, there are a number of tracks that come at a close second.  “Bad Religion” is just luscious, a perfect mix of electronics with classical instrumentation and showcases Ocean’s impressive vocal range.  Ocean’s voice also soars on songs like “Sierra Leone” and “Super Rich Kids.”  There are a couple of hiccups on the album – “Pyramids” does not need to be ten minutes long, and some of the little interludes between songs are really weird.  But this is mostly nitpicking, for the few misses that Channel Orange has are made up by the handful of hits present on the entire album.

On this record, Frank Ocean is showing the masses that he is a pop force to be reckoned with.  And, with time, hopefully Ocean will be the superstar that he is worthy of becoming.


Sweet Valley – Stay Calm album review

Though best known for his work with lo-fi punk band Wavves, Nathan Williams and his Joel recently started making electronic music under the name Sweet Valley.  Their first record, Stay Calm, is gritty, gnarly, and deserves to be the dance album of the summer.

Sweet Valley sounds very much like Wavves record.  It is about as low fidelity as one can get, and sounds like it would be more at home on a cassette tape than a digital stream.  But instead of bringing to mind images of rowdy mosh pits, Stay Calm is much more upbeat than its Wavves predecessors.  As an added bonus, the beats on the album are really creative – Sweet Valley sound like they may have been inspired by Major Lazer or other Mad Decent artists.  The album, more than anything, feels fun, and lends itself to be a perfect sunny vacation soundtrack.

The biggest problem with this record lies in its length.  Stay Calm is really short: there are only 9 songs on the whole album, and only three clock in at over three minutes.  The entire record is a measly 22 minutes long.  It’s unfortunate, because Sweet Valley has made some great material; but there just is not enough of it to enjoy.  The shortness, in a way, compliments to punk aesthetic of Stay Calm, but Sweet Valley seems like a step above the average noise pop group – Stay Calm deserves to be longer.  Not only does the album itself feel too short, but some of the songs feel like they should last longer and have some more substance added to them.

Thankfully, Sweet Valley’s Stay Calm is the first in a series of five mixes that have already been recorded by the band.  Given that this is one of the most exciting new releases I have heard this summer, I am absolutely ecstatic to see what the band has to offer in the years to come.


Black Elk – Sparks album review

Little information can be found online about Black Elk, a group who just released their debut record entitled Sparks.  And if the band continues to release albums as mundane as this one, one cannot picture them attracting much more attention.

Sparks, in many ways, felt like an uninspired, more boring version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s classic album Lift Your Skinny Fists like Antennas to the Heavens.  The similarities between Sparks and Lift Your Skinny Fists are absolutely uncanny.  Both albums feature lovely string arrangements, backwards guitar loops, subtle electronic noise selections, and droning guitar backgrounds.  Black Elk has even added creepy spoken word portions to the last half of the album, just like the ones that Skinny Fists had.  All of these attributes make for a lush ambient sound that is consistent on the entire album.

But following the formula of a classic will not necessarily get you a classic.  Black Elk’s Sparks is tiresome and one of the most unremarkable albums of recent memory.  There are no discernible changes in structure on this album – if I was not staring at the track listing on my music player, I had no idea if the song had changed.  And though some of the string arrangements were quite well done, they were repetitive and not interesting to any degree.  The album is also quite short, which presents a problem – the band really takes no time to explore their sound within tracks, but simply repeat the same types of sounds until the eventual end of the record.

The comparisons to the famous Godspeed You! Black Emperor album should be a compliment to Black Elk, as the type of music they are trying to make clearly stems from good intentions.  But if Skinny Fists is an independent classic, then Sparks is elevator music for hipsters; familiar in style but undeniably mediocre and unimportant.


Aesop Rock – Skelethon album review

San Francisco-based rapper Aesop Rock recently released his first album in five years, titled Skelethon.  The album itself is a mixed bag, filled with several dynamic hip hop tracks but interlaced with a few duds.

One thing Aesop Rock undeniably has is a talent for spitting rhymes.  He raps incredibly fast and has a impeccable flow; lyrically, he consistently writes clever lines that rhyme creatively.  Aesop raps smart, too: one only has to check out his vocabulary to realize that he is not pandering to an unintelligent audience.  Unfortunately, his ability to speed through a rap makes it difficult to comprehend what he is saying, and some of the more interesting lyrics may become undiscovered by listeners as a result.

Though Aesop Rock has the talent, his rapping can sound hyper polished and stylized almost too perfectly, causing some of the songs to blend together and lack distinction.  Aesop Rock also shows no bit of vulnerability when he raps, which fits with his aesthetic but does no favors for the listener.

Skelethon appears ripe with creativity.  Though Aesop Rock consistently uses typical instrumentation in his songs – drum beats, electronic sounds, and so on – he also takes inspiration from rock and metal styles, which add to the dark tones of the record.  In addition, he picks from a wide variety of samples, from the vocals of prominent anti-folk artist Kimya Dawson to loud, high pitched fireworks.  One song in particular, “Tetra,” features samples of gritty and lo-fi rock, and brings to mind M.I.A.’s most recent release, MAYA.  When his formula works, it creates a scary, almost haunting tone that is fun to listen to and undeniably cool.  Standout tracks from Skelethon include “ZZZ Top,” “Crows 1,” and “Racing Stripes.”

But it does not always work.  Album opener “Leisureforce” has borderline nonsensical lyrics, and the instrumentation does not pop like some of the better songs on the album.  And some of the rock music samples occasionally sound a bit like today’s annoying Warped Tour fare, which are best avoided at all costs.

Aesop Rock clearly as it all: great flow, originality, and outstanding writing ability.  If he could channel all of his talents onto a record, he might have a masterpiece.  Skelethon, though, only hits the mark part of the time.


The Invisible – Rispah album review

Despite having won immense critical praise for their self-titled debut album, an experimental journey into a fascinating brand of indie rock music, London-based band The Invisible’s sophomore effort, Rispah, abandons the some of the quirks of the first album and replaces them with slower, ambient songs that tire and turn off the casual listener.

Rispah does have a truly unique sound — The Invisible combines elements from electronic music and post-rock, creating a style that is comparable to In Rainbows-era Radiohead or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, if either of those bands decided to experiment with drum machines and dance synths.  The record is dark, cool, and contains an incredibly atmospheric, almost ethereal quality.

The problem with Rispah as a whole, though, is that the unique sound never changes or divulges from its formula.  Most songs nearly identical and never sway in style or tone.  While the electronic meets post-rock may have been intriguing from the start of the album, it is downright boring by the end.  A few of songs on the Rispah do shine, like Wings, The Wall, and the closing track Protection; these songs have more sophisticated arrangements and simply sound different from the eight other tracks on the record.  Wings, in particular, is one of the most fast paced songs on Rispah, which makes it stand out.

Front man Dave Okumu’s vocals, while contributing to the album’s dark elements, add very little to Rispah.  Okumu doesn’t have a bad singing voice; in fact, it’s very beautiful and fits well with the stylistic choices of The Invisible.  But his long, brooding drawl just blends into the instrumentals as if it were not a voice at all, and the electronic additions to his vocals make lyrics difficult to decipher.  And the lyrics one can make out are ripe with cliches or seem simply uninspired, especially on the fourth track, Lifeline.

The Invisible have clearly succeeded in honing their aesthetics, but they have hit the sophomore slump with Rispah, which remains tiresome in its inability to change in sound or tone, lyrically and vocally.  The uniqueness of Rispah allows for much potential, but results as monotonous.