Tag: Bottom List

Elwan – Tinariwen

Home is truly in the heart of Tinariwen. Even after exile, through struggle and strife, and after a few close brushes with tragedy, Tinariwen continuously defies their shortcomings through community in music. They walk the walk, chant the chants, and create some of the deepest and most dynamic sounds originating from the sand dunes of West Africa. They don’t do it alone and they don’t always do it at home, but they’re heritage and history is heard in every thump of the djembe, pluck of the string, and harmonizing chant.

Elwan in particular is true to the customary Tinariwen sound with intricacies of new sounds, rhythms, and purpose. Engrained with traditional composition, Elwan branches out into different signatures and structures that aren’t necessarily African in derivative. Yes, this is a new benchmark for the group, but the true magic lies in bridging the gap between traditional West African music and western arrangements. Not only does this paint a landscape of the sounds and roots of their homeland, it layers and interjects the vastness of their capabilities and depth of composition. The rhythmic possibilities are an open plain, and this is a group that searches every crack and crevasse to distinguish their art. But let’s leave talent aside, since low and behold the core group is grounded on a decades-old basis that thrusts the term “veterans” to mind (hint- they aren’t new to this game). And after all, they’re veterans of true roots music…

On Elwan in particular, the group is quite customary in nature. By enlisting the guitar assistance of the great Kurt Vile on “Tiwàyyen” and “Nànnuflay”, soundscapes expand into seemingly uncharted waters (or sand dunes?). But this is not quite a departure from their old selves. The prior releases of Tassili (2011) and Emmaar (2014) procured the ranks of collaborators ranging from Josh Klinghoffer from Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to Tunde and Kyp of TV on the Radio and Nels Cline from Wilco. Expansive horizons, eh? But the group doesn’t stop there. Elwan also includes the help of Matt Sweeney, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and many others to provide subtle yet incredibly powerful and contemporary undertones. With their true West African base, the group goes above and beyond their capabilities, and layers on top of their sound like layering a cake. Just check out “Nànnuflay” for example. This number includes key elements of Kurt Vile on guitar (tone and instrumental, especially towards the end) on top of the signature bass and djembe foundation. It’s almost as if you’re riding in a caravan across a sea of sand with Kurt Vile throwing accents of his own into an already-pristine landscape. Magic.

The verdict?

They take a worldwide holistic view of sound and apply to what they know best: the music of their homeland. Home lies in collaboration. For Tinariwen, home is home. Elwan is no different.

Sounds like?

The sand dunes blues if you’re unfamiliar with West African music. Here’s a take: trade black water swamps and porches for caravans and sand dunes. The strife, the raw spiritual yearning, and emotion are all the same. In fact what’s truly fascinating about the group is their ability to channel these emotions and physical states through dynamic composition. Low and behold, Elwan translates to elephant, and Tinariwen couldn’t have translated it better.

Concrete and Gold – Foo Fighters

For the follow up to a release that magnified their roots and origin, Foo Fighters return with a blend and broad mix of sounds that speak more to their foundational form than a nostalgic glance in the rearview mirror. Where talent gave way to rationale on Sonic Highways, the band substitutes principle for ambition on Concrete and Gold. And it’s by no means an accident or coincidence that the group returned to their original tendency of broadening the spectrum of sound despite Sonic Highways standing in salute to that very endeavor. The polar differences lie in the sound, and Butch Vig (all hail) transitioning to the hit-pumping assembly line in Greg Kurstin provides the footing for releasing two drastically different albums in three years (or three in six years and change, if you’d like to throw Wasting Light into the mix).

Concrete and Gold is undoubtedly authentic to the bone, much like the monolithic return to form on Wasting Light, and it pushes the needle in favor of a band well on their way to renowned distinction. What separates it from the pioneering aura of Wasting Light is its delineation between sounds, style, and cohesiveness. Though Concrete and Gold certainly tangents off into different avenues of both unique and original pathways, the confined and concise aptitude that speaks strictly Foo Fighters comes full circle. One avenue in particular that is fresh from a catalog perspective is exploring the hard rock assets of the 80’s and 70’s. The group dives into their childhood roots of 80’s big hair and arena rock with the synth-like melody on “La Dee Da” and driving hi-hats on “Make It Right”. And though these numbers sound a bit off kilter from their repertory, they more or less point to more recent and undoubtedly comical alter-ego ventures in Chevy Metal (see here).

But where Concrete and Gold seems to venture off the track, it holistically fits into the grand scheme of their inventory. Setting the tone early on an album is certainly a facet the group has emphasized in the past, and Concrete and Gold kicks off with quite the bang in the marathon-like Rock anthem in “Run” and a the 70’s-esque epic in “Make It Right”. There’s a Jazzy/acoustic number in “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour)”, a hard rock chorale in “The Sky Is a Neighborhood”, and a soft melodramatic drive on “Dirty Water”, which mirrors the blueprint of previous releases like The Colour And The Shape and There Is Nothing Left To Loose. 

The verdict?

Positioning Wasting Light, Sonic Highways, and Concrete and Gold in comparison undermines intrinsic and individual value. For the entire catalog and discography, some stand out more than others, and, whether purposely or not (though definitely on purpose), defining their individual value is just that-Sonic Highways was a multi-media project that delves into the heart and soul of the group paired with an album where the others are solely the latter. Taking in the quality of sound and composition becomes another matter; possible but almost a forlorn ambition. Concrete and Gold focuses on the music rather than pairing aesthetics, and it’s very apparent on the record.

Everything Now – Arcade Fire

Oh the peculiarity in stature, aura, and idiosyncrasy. Is it a paradox? Or is it the tantalizing mystique that sets it aside from the majority of releases to hit the streets in 2017? Why would one of the greatest indie acts of the past decade release such an enigmatic record that has its core fan base wondering what’s it’s chewing on? And rightfully so. Chew away.

In fact, since they are one of the few starlit acts to break the scene since 2004’s jaw-dropping “Funeral” is exactly why this new release isn’t “Funeral.” It’s nothing like any other release from the group, and it’s a statement. No, you’re right, it’s definitely nothing like “Funeral” “or “Neon Bible” or “The Suburbs”. It’s a statement of nothing less than progression; a note in the annals that says, ‘Here’s where the group’s been, this is what we’ve done, and this is what we have to say… now.

With the great James Murphy (see LCD Soundsystem) behind the production helm, the 2013 release of “Reflektor” brought a hint of changing winds for the group. Win Butler and co. branched out and dipped their fingers into genres that weren’t necessarily, oh how do you say, characteristic? Yes, that’s the word (see LCD Soundsystem). Fast forward a few years, tag along some uncharacteristic ventures, enlist the greats of Thomas Bangalter from Daft Punk, Steve Mackey of Pulp, and Geoff Barrow of Portishead and you get something a little more characteristic. Sure, Everything Now is certainly not of the earth-shattering, physics-defying, mammoth of a release like its predecessors, and its progressive nature undoubtedly highlights that assertion. But does that discredit its intrinsic value?

Let’s break it down, shall we? The title track is undoubtedly on par with the “Arcade Fire” sound. The harmony is characteristically French in nature, there are little-to-no electronic aspects, and hell, it’s even driven by the strum of acoustic guitar. So, how’s that for characteristic? Moving on… The next point that needs to be made is the change in scenery the band went through over the years leading up to making this record. Bands do this for a number of reasons of which we won’t get into other than to primarily revel in the atmosphere that translates into sound (see “Here Comes the Night Time” from Reflektor). Now, this isn’t a down and dirty, chicken grease, or stand-up-and-slap-your-grand-pappy kind of funk record, but New Orleans is historically renown as a melting pot of genres. Taking all this in stride, songs like “Peter Pan” and “Chemistry” start making a lot more sense. Take the history and progression of the band in strides, and Everything Now starts making a lot more sense. See?

The verdict?

It shines in certain areas moreover others. “Infinite Content” is probably one that could use a buff (or maybe some attention?), but it’s not a ball and chain for the whole album. In fact, “Infinite_Content” sounds a lot like that Arcade Fire core, doesn’t it? The bottom line is this isn’t like any previous Arcade Fire releases. It’s a new(ish) sound, the imagery and packaging are aligned as well, and it’s a bit of a stepping-out for the group. Does that discredit the intrinsic value? Decide for yourself.

It sound like…

Arcade Fire came out with a new record that’s their first attempt at making a fun album. They added a pinch of party to where they left off on Reflektor, and the result sounds very different from 2004’s Funeral.

Half-Light – Rostam

Generally speaking, genre lines are hints and nodes of flavors that mix well with some and not so much with others. Transcending the lines history defines as dogmatic is certainly ambitious, but Rostam’s release in Half-Light surpasses ambition for a natural medium of instinct, culture, and disposition. Where aspiring endeavors oftentimes flutter in the face of significance, Rostam brings grounded focus to genre-bending ventures. And rather than throwing anything and everything into a conglomerated leap of faith, Half-Light magnifies a sound that is very “Rostam” from beginning to end.

As a founding member of Vampire Weekend and Discovery, it’s no secret that Rostam Batmanglij knows a thing or two about the sounds of the world (perhaps everything?). And with a producing resume that spans from R&B heavyweights like Solange and Frank Ocean to the pop icons of Haim and Charli XCX, Rostam’s rolodex grows deeper still on top of the bedrock production credits for every Vampire Weekend release to-date. Add the seasoned veteran producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Adele, Brandon Flowers, and Madonna) on a handful of tracks, and eclectic suddenly starts humming a different tune, especially if you thought Vampire Weekend were eclectic (granted, they very much are, and for good reason…).

But what sets Half-Light apart from his previous releases and other ambitious attempts at wide-ranging sounds is it’s holistic core. It’s certainly no fools errand to throw in an Indian folk song, Reggae tune, or electro-specific number to create a varied blend of sound (even though Rostam does exactly that), however filling in the empty space is something else entirely. What stands out on Half-Light as the “blended sound” is Rostam’s ability to incorporate all of his experience and knowledge on each song as if his all-inclusive view never gets out of focus. Rather than a blurred mess of mixed genres or sounds intertwining and going in every which direction, Rostam takes a wide-view angle of worldly genres and adds bits and pieces to a very defined foundation. For example, “Rudy” is a very focused Reggae-ish number, and he intertwines electronically modified lyrics and layers in the vein of a vamp. On “EOS”, Rostam builds chant-like vocals and synths on top of a soulful piano ballad that rises and falls with orchestral strings. And on “Bike Dream” he adds fuzz synths to compliment a tried and true pop testimonial in driving percussion and melodic bass. As the sentimental salute to his previous band and its city of origin, “Bike Dream” sits comfortably as both the radio-friendly song and missing link to brings Half-Light full circle as both a universal and unashamed release.

The verdict?

Erase the genre guidelines and definitions that pigeonhole sound. There is no snug slot to compartmentalize Half-Light, other than a genre-bending release by a proven artist that exemplifies a track record of quality in the ability to master countless genres. Rostam created a release that displayed true culture, knowledge, and ability, and Half-Light stands as example to prove exactly that.

Sleep Well Beast – The National

One of the more subtle and obscure aspects of really good acts is sustain in longevity. Some acts can tour for decades on end, some can pump out hits like an assembly line, and others can ride the wave of past successes with brief hints of quality and resonance. But the brotherly duo behind the ingenuity of The National is not that. They are not a massive arena, big festival, or strobe lights and confetti type group. They don’t release an album or hit single every two years and they certainly haven’t relied on their past successes to carry them into the sunset. And that alone is what makes them great.

Now, one thing that needs clarifying is that they do in fact tour, and quite extensively, and they frequently release music (all side projects considered), but all within reason and unparalleled quality. In fact, when the group tours, the assortment of venues, particularly for Sleep Well Beast supporting shows, are of a distinct margin and mystique (see 2017 tour list), and the same peculiarity echoes in side projects (see Day of the Dead, LNZNDRF, and EL VY). It’s a threshold for the group, and Sleep Well Beast is one thread woven into the bigger scheme. The only aspect that sets it apart is its stature.

Art rock is a brand that’s worked well as a badge of honor for years, but it’s outgrown the disposition and become more of an unspoken facet that nearly disservices and diminishes its more artful integrity. With a release like Sleep Well Beast attesting as the group’s most artful endeavor to date, songs like “Guilty Party” or “Born to Beg” naturally fit into a contemporary mold despite a seemingly departure from their old selves. And with salutations to the sound that got them here on songs like “Turtleneck” and the more hit-centric “Day I Die”, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” is the perfect medium between progressive undercurrents and the group’s driving core. Paired with hints of crafty spastic guitar riffs and underlying piano parts, “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness” rises among the rest as a marquee focal point for relevancy both old and new.

Departing at times, Sleep Well Beast incorporates elements that complement a modern endeavor, moreover turning a shoulder with the ambition of creating something entirely new. Piano is one instrument that pokes it’s head above the clouds as a basis for the creative process. Yet on top of this somewhat recent emphasis, songs like “Guilty Party”, “Born to Beg”, and “Empire Line” incorporate the entire original powering ingredients of driving drums, spacey guitar, and ambient/noise. Where Sleep Well Beast is as true to it’s roots as it is outlandishly unique, it undoubtedly magnifies the sheer talent of individual members over its predecessors. While pushing the needle further towards the endless possibilities of sound and composition, Sleep Well Beast doesn’t stray far from the road that got them here. With Berringer’s story-telling vocals laying on top of the backing band, whether ambient synth nodes or the pounding and spastically intricate drum parts from Bryan Devendorf, never has the talent of the band been on display quite like Sleep Well Beast.

The verdict?

A very much solidified and thorough classic from a group of veterans. Few relevant musicians match their talent, and fewer combine for the talent of the group as a whole. Sleep Well Beast sits like the sweeter and delicate reminder on top of a catalog that frankly speaks worlds in and of itself. At least, much more than anyone can put on paper.

Carry Fire – Robert Plant

At 69, most music legends are either rousing around the house, perusing through the remnants of fame since past, hitting repeat on stage like a broken nostalgic record, or languishing from a worse fate than the preceding. And yet at 69, some relish in the instinct of looking forward rather than back or dusting off shelved pieces of prominence (though there’s nothing wrong with revisiting in moderation, of course). But what Robert Plant has created in the past decade or so isn’t necessarily a cataclysmic feat of humanity as much as a display of sheer artistic exertion, and it’s separated him from the pack of legends that have seen their day come and pass. At 69, he displays an ability that almost delineates from legacy and places him on an ethereal pedestal that speaks more of a contemporary icon rather than a mythic legend. More likely than not, it’s because there’s nothing left to prove, and the only way to go is up or down, so he continues to go up… at 69.

As a follow up to 2014’s Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar, Plant’s self-producing chops are on display again on Carry Fire. And no wonder that a true and hardy veteran like Plant soaked up the aptitude and aura of decades-long music making and applied it to his own art, but Carry Fire goes far beyond sheer experience and dives into a life-long dedication to worldly rhythms. Certainly, a rock star of Plant’s caliber should know a tidbit about his trade by pure association, yet his two self-produced releases in Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar and Carry Fire speak of changing tides and sheer cultural intuition rather than exploring new possibilities and similar sounds derived from the anthology of a seasoned rock god (though, it should be noted that renditions of “Black Dog” with the Sensational Space Shifters do exactly that).

Much like how Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar was driven by the sounds of Africa and roots music, Carry Fire makes ground on a medium by intertwining worldly rudiments and complementing a comfortable base through universal perspective. And where this comfortable base laid the groundwork for an interstellar and cosmic aura on Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar, Plant zeros in on a holistic approach rather than a more experimental endeavor of incorporating a wide spectrum of genres. In the corners where Plant seemed to get a bit off kilter on his previous release, Carry Fire is undeniably focused and precise as if his intentions upon recording were on par with the rest. All throughout the record, he subtly utilizes his natural vocal qualities as a dynamic uplift through climbing and vamping instruments. On songs like “New World…”, “Dance With You Tonight”, and “Keep It Hid”, his voice rises from a soft whispering hum with the building music behind him (sounds like a familiar tactic, huh?). And as if the innate instinct to parade his legacy takes hold, Plant incorporates the origin of rock n roll roots while maintaining cultural stature with numbers like “Bones of Saints” and the all-inclusive “Bluebirds Over the Mountain”.

The verdict?

Where Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar explored a universe of new rhythmic and sound possibilities and a whole new gamut of instruments as a follow up to Band of Joy, Carry Fire goes past a worldly approach and rounds off the edges for a complete picture. Plant nestles into comfort zone where he bounces the qualities and range of his vocals against the resonance of sound created from the wide cast of instruments, all while never wavering from the end goal. Song structure is substituted for a slew of worldly noisemakers on Carry Fire, even though it incorporates just as many cast members as its predecessors. Where that may have seemed ambitious before, but nonetheless significant, Plant solidifies himself as a contemporary visionary that transcends the confines of both genres and popular culture.

American Dream – LCD Soundsystem

The release that brought the band back. There’s something so tantalizingly romantic about the narrative that enshrouds the rise and fall and rise again of LCD Soundsystem. In limelight, there’s something about solely the rise and fall that debilitates the psyche into a weird Shakespearian-like trance, yet here they are after years of crossed fingers and dreaming the teases and reunion rumors were true. Is it also the dance music and computerized bleeps and bloops sci-fi layer rising to the top that makes the narrative so classical? Or perhaps the suit and tie and escapist lyrics that thicken the plot? With suit and tie front and center, LCD certainly caters heavy doses of both bleeps and bloops and escapist lyrics on American Dream as much as any previous release. Only this time, the bands back for good, and they’re also serving up a few Alternative-esque numbers while jogging your memory as to why they started from the get go.

LCD has always incorporated a slew of instrumental characters (check out “Freak Out/Starry Eyes” or “Sound of Silver” if you’re unfamiliar), but never have they arranged and layered in such an intricate and subtly dynamic manner. Now one thing that needs mentioning is James Murphy’s affinity for dynamics and the rise and fall in song composition. His master blueprint and main ingredient is layering with instrumentation as the song builds. Evident across the many shades and genres the group transcends, it may be some trashcan 80’s synth and drums tracks (see “One Touch”) sci-fi bleeps and bloops (see “I Can Change”), or blaring bass and guitar (“Daft Punk is Playing at My House”) that transitions into a full-fledged cowbell and percussion jam. Or, more recently, the subtle horn arrangement on Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” that fits oh-so-perfectly with Bowie’s vocals as the song comes to a close. It’s an intriguing and drastically diverse playing field, and American Dream pushes the needle further for the perfect moment busting out the bells and whistles (or cowbell) when the song begs for it.

American Dream does take on different shapes and figures that span the group’s technical ability, and Alternative (sounding?) songs are certainly prevalent among the notable core characters. Take the hit single “call the police” as a testament to staying true to the course while exploring other nooks and crannies. Most LCD-listening folk would say this is an entirely different band, but it fits so well in the concoction because of its ornate disposition. In fact, it masterfully blends itself amongst other uncharacteristic numbers like “emotional haircut”, where the song breakouts into a Nirvana-like vamp from its atypical head-bob and electro-ish kickoff. It’s almost as if the original cast of members are all the same and speaking the same language, just in a different dialect with new sayings. Yet, for a group to seem so displaced in hindsight, they managed to release a very classic album. From backtrack guitar parts and solos (“other voices”) to raw drum tracks and prophetic lyrics of yearning and lost love, American Dream never shies from keeping the R2D2-like and synth marimba breakdowns modules in tow.

The verdict?

An unparalleled and pinnacle release from a group of the finest in business. It’s perfectly clear the creative juices were stewing and brewing (perhaps festering?) for quite some time inside the carnival of James Murphy’s mind (link to post), and rather than releasing a solo effort or under a different moniker, he “got the band back together.” What separates American Dream as a sheer exertion of singular creativity is what makes Murphy and the group particular in nature: an endless range of noises and instruments grounded with composition. And American Dream broadens the horizon and incorporates a few new hints and undertones, specifically alternative-rooted songs, that also fit nicely in the “band” environment. What truly makes American Dream special and monumental isn’t solely because of it’s dramatic and Shakespearian backstory, it’s their best release to date and it displays raw talent like none other. It’s a classic release for the group that keeps the listener yearning for more and more as the album comes to a close, and that is most likely what you’ll get. In due time, of course.