Gang Of Four – What Happens Next

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Gang Of Four – What Happens Next

What in god’s name is this travesty?  I mean, this is the same band that made Solid Gold and Entertainment!, right?  No, this is just guitarist Andy Gill’s attempt at keeping the band going, for the filthy lucre that touring a nostalgia act brings in.  All of the pre-album media hype talked about how Gang of Four were returning for their ninth album with all of their strident fury intact; instead, what we get here are some servings of generalized old-man paranoia about technology and some bullshit about the Illuminati.  There is nothing that made Gang of Four one of the seminal post-punk acts here.  Absolutely nothing.  “England’s In My Bones” sounds like a goddamn synth-laden power ballad, ferchrissakes.  Is this supposed to be some cosmic inside joke that only Gill gets?  There are few albums as exploitative and vile as Black Flag’s What The…, but here we are, adding another one into that infamous tar pit.

Jesus, Mission of Burma could get post-punk comebacks correct, why couldn’t Gang of Four?  Awful.

Normally this is where I’d add the Spotify playlist for the album under review, but do yourself a favour and listen to Entertainment! again instead.

Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space

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Public Service Broadcasting – The Race For Space

Public Service Broadcasting are a couple of London musicians who craft instrumentals studded with excerpts from the BBC archives – think Explosions In The Sky-esque post-rock, but with an aim to educate as well as entertain.  The Race For Space focuses on the key moments of the space race, from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 to the near-disaster on Apollo XIII.  Each piece is made to fit the context of the field recordings:  “Sputnik”‘s soaring string work evokes the wonder of sending an object into space for the first time, “E.V.A.” brings out the science-fiction futurism of the spacewalk, “Fire In The Cockpit” is dense and sounds like the personification of dread itself.  “Gagarin” is a fittingly funky tribute to the first man in space, but “Valentina”, ostensibly about the first woman in space, doesn’t seem to have the same effort put into it.  “Valentina” is the only real disappointment here, however.  As far as educational music goes, this is among the very best.

Colleen Green – I Want To Grow Up

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Colleen Green – I Want To Grow Up

Once upon a time I had high hopes for Colleen Green.  When she put out her first super lo-fi tracks, back when Milo Goes To Compton was a thing, I thought she was the coolest person in indie rock.  She was living proof that all you needed was a guitar, a drum machine, and a bag of weed, and you too could make emotionally connecting pop music.  It was freeing in a way that made me instantly fall in love.  Then her “actual” debut, Sock It To Me, came out and it fell kind of flat.  Sure, the quirks that made up her songwriting style were there, but everything sounded too professional, as though some hidebound engineer had been sitting in the studio saying “OK Ms. Green, that’s cool and all, but we need these to sound like actual songs.”  I Want To Grow Up is kind of like that as well, but it’s a bit better in that she seems to have grown used to having to write actual songs that normal people can listen to and not be weirded out by.  This makes for some great moments – the two-parter “Things That Are Bad For Me” being the best – but the overall effect is of a jaded Los Angelite channeling Red Album era Weezer.  In other words, a decent listen but pretty ho-hum for all of that.

 

BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul

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BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Sour Soul

For a long, long time now I’ve considered Dennis Coles to be the elder statesman and Godfather of Hip Hop.  He was the first verse heard from the Wu, 22 years ago now, and he kicked open the door to a much more cinematic hip hop world than had been imagined before.  Since then he’s been mostly on point, popping out classics like Supreme Clientele and Fishscale on the regular, and delving into some really solid concept work on Twelve Reasons To Die and 36 Seasons over the last couple of years.  He’s first and foremost a storyteller, maybe the best in hip hop.  Naming a Greatest Of All Time is a fool’s game, given the subjectivity of the medium, but if a gun was held to my head and I was forced to pick, GFK would be it.

BADBADNOTGOOD, meanwhile, has come roaring out of the Toronto music scene to make a global name for themselves.  After staking their claim on jazzed-out covers of classic hip hop tracks, they toured behind Frank Ocean and released one of last year’s finest records, III.  As an instrumental trio there are few that approach the consistent quality they put out, and as it turns out there’s only one band that makes better for better live hip hop, and they’re currently the Tonight Show band.

So, the two together.  Collaborations are always a tricky business, because the egos involved make for complicated arrangements.  While Sour Soul isn’t quite perfect, it more than makes the case for why collaborations can work out very well.  The sound is a lot sparser than long-time BBNG fans might expect, and while it’s caused some consternation in certain circles I truly think it’s the right choice.  They tone down the out-there jazz reaches in favour of a live action version of the kind of gritty, streetlight music that GFK has always sounded best over.  They play a sort of hip hop prog-soul, like they’re interested primarily in recreating the moody, smoky soul-snippets that make GFK’s classics so iconic. GFK for his part sounds perfectly at home over it, spinning out his usual dense, on-the-edge-of-ridiculous wordplay; his style may have gone mostly out of favour in an age of trap and drill, but it’s like slipping on a favourite pair of shoes and going for a walk down blocks you know all too well.

Ghost never quite lets himself fully go, however, keeping back the kind of cinematic street stories that mark the tracks on his other albums.  “Gunshowers” and “Mind Playing Tricks” are the closest he gets, and tellingly they’re the two best tracks.  The usual off-the-wall “WTF are you even going on about” moments happen as well, although here they’re mostly confined to “Tone’s Rap”, a brief sketch of a hard-done-by pimp getting belligerent.  Of the four guest verses, it’s surprisingly Danny Brown’s that makes the most impact.  His hectoring, Cypress Hill-esque voice is an acquired taste, but his verse on “Six Degrees” makes the case for his greatness.  The Tree verse is lyrically dense but flows by without really sticking, and Elzhi verse on “Gunshowers” is oddly indistinguishable from GFK.  DOOM’s verse is inspired and would easily be the best on offer if I didn’t keep missing it in the midst of blinking.

Still, this is a winner by a clear and comfortable margin.  BBNG might not be the right backing track for every rapper – Keef and Flocka would sound bizarre – but their moody, gritty twilight jazz-soul fits Ghostface perfectly.

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Imagine Dragons – Smoke and Mirrors

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Imagine Dragons – Smoke and Mirrors

U2 is not cool.  If last year’s “free album on your phone” debacle proved anything, it’s that this maxim is truer now in 2015 than it was even after the release of 1997’s Pop LP.  Whether they were ever cool is a matter for debate; maybe The Joshua Tree had some real moments, or maybe we were all conned into thinking that by desperately ageing Boomers, and naive Xer college students and yuppies clamouring for a rock ‘n’ roll saviour to call their own.  Regardless, their clenched-fist, Jesus-Christ-pose vision of arena rock has infected countless bands ever since, turning what could have been at least okay music into 50 Shades of Cringe.

Take Imagine Dragons for example.  Listen to that delay-ridden guitar burbling under the intro and verses of the title track to their sophomore album, Smoke and Mirrors – blindfold me and I’d swear it’s The Edge playing.  Further on and further in, it becomes apparent that, much like U2, Imagine Dragons can’t pass up the opportunity to take a simple hook and turn it into the biggest, fakest, shiniest diamond hook to ever grace your speakers.  “I’m So Sorry” takes the much-loved, much-abused blues-rock stomp riff and puts it on a Jumbotron, making it into an arena-rock nightmare and somehow nicking the sound of KT Tunstall.  “I Bet My Life” takes a modern indie-radio staple – the whole chooglin’ Of Mumfords and Mens thing – and opens it up wide enough to accommodate a Mac truck and an audience of office MIX-FM radio listeners.  Their pathological need to turn every single song into fireworks and chanting choruses and football stadium cheers ruins what could be decent tracks.  “Polaroid” should be a lot quieter, more like a ballad, stately piano and some fingerpicked guitar.  Instead, there’s a distorted kick drum and a multi-tracked clap, like the band just listened to Queen for the first time and decided that “We Are The Champions” was what every song on Earth should ultimately sound like.

Don’t get me wrong:  I love arena rock when it’s done well, like when King Tuff majestically rewrites the best of Cheap Trick into modern fist-pumper rawk.  Smoke and Mirrors, though, takes the lazy approach to rocking hockey arenas, relying on moody verses to carry them into yet another boom-bang pyrotechnic chorus.  One or two instances of it would be fun, exhilarating even, but on every single track?  It becomes an exercise in gauging how little the audience is paying attention.  Ultimately it’s the perfect album to fill in the rock side of the Top 40 FM mix, since it’s rock ‘n’ roll for the easily amused.

 

Nyoooo Myoooooosic: Sufjan Stevens

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“No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross”

As quiet and contemplative as The Age of Adz wasn’t, this first offering from Carrie & Lowell points back to the folkier offerings from Seven Swans, albeit with maybe less overtly Christian themes (the title says one thing, but the lived-in gutter philosophizing says another).

Carrie & Lowell is out March 31st on Asthmatic Kitty Records.

Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo and Youth

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Lupe Fiasco – Tetsuo and Youth

The Chicago rapper’s fifth album finds him running a marathon on his music rather than his weighty lyrics.  In the past he’s been an outspoken critic of power in all forms, whether he has community support behind him or not; this is, after all, the man who was thrown off the stage at Obama’s second inauguration after performing a thirty-minute version of the anti-Obama track “Words I Never Said”.  When it’s worked – as on Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool or the classic Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor – it’s been a strident, creative, mind-altering breath of fresh air for hip hop.  When it hasn’t – Food and Liquor II, mostly – it drags badly, becoming the hip hop equivalent of that militant vegan who will just not shut up about Monsanto and makes dark allegations about GMOs and vaccines.

Tetsuo and Youth takes a different approach, which is a relief after the slog of Food and Liquor II.  It focuses more on apolitical themes, taking a look instead at the experience of growing up poor and black in the bad parts of Chicago.  The lyrical changeup gives him an opportunity to get more experimental with the musical side, and he takes that opportunity and runs straight ahead into near-ridiculousness.  I thought Joey Bada$$’s album was long;  Tetsuo and Youth redefines long hip hop songs in 2015.  There’s a big emphasis on bars over hooks here, which means that when the tracks go over eight minutes – as three of them do – you run the risk of going numb before the finish line.  Still, the beats hit hard and his flow’s on point, so it comes out as his best album since 2007.  There’s a certain appeal to the non-commercial aspect of it, but man, do you feel the burn when you finally make it to the end.

At the very least, it’s better than Lasers.