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Article count (374)

Date: Sep 18, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Delight in the way Laraaji fits his voice around the words.

Bring on the Sun belongs firmly in the camp of the self-consciously silly “pop” albums Laraaji makes between his lengthy ambient excursions. This is a man who pays the bills music can’t with workshops on the healing power of laughter, and much of this material—especially the explicitly new age-oriented stuff—would fall flat if not for the old man’s flat-out refusal to take any of it seriously. “Change by any other name is still change” might not mean shit to you, but you can still delight in the way Laraaji fits his voice around the words, finding new ways to say each syllable like a blissed-out Young Thug.

Born Edward Larry Gordon in 1943, Laraaji is best-known as a cohort of Brian Eno during his earliest excursions into ambient. He was the star of Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, credited to both artists but a Laraaji album in all but production. Save for that album, he languished in healing-shop bargain bins for years before finding himself smack in the middle of the recent new age revival. He’s recorded new albums with Sun Araw and Blues Control, remixed hip samba singer Elza Soares, enjoyed several deluxe reissues and appeared on Light in the Attic’s I Am the Center comp, which was largely responsible for the re-evaluation of new age in the first place.  (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: Sep 14, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Rainbow Edition evokes encroaching dread.

If Dean Blunt is to be believed, Rainbow Edition—the first album proper from his Hype Williams project in six years—wasn’t made by him or his partner Inga Copeland but by some people named Slaughter and Silvermane. This is classic Blunt bullshit. This music sprouts logically from what he’s been doing with his recent Babyfather and Blue Iverson projects, and about half of it was quietly released earlier this year as Sweetchinmusik Vol.1. Some of the low-key Hype Williams tapes that preceded it are in line with the sounds Copeland’s been exploring with her recent Lolina project. This is likely a solo Blunt joint, but one can only guess; Blunt likes it that way.

Rainbow Edition evokes encroaching dread, rusted metal façades and rainy urban hellscapes. Damaged, diminished chords hang low like a toxic fog as stray sounds from radio rap and R&B slither about in search of a song. Like the post-club music on London label Night Slugs, Rainbow Edition repurposes poptimist cues—Auto-Tune, trap drums, untreated MIDI sounds—for deliberately difficult music. To match, Hype Williams repurposes bits of R&B detritus for its aesthetic; the title of “Spinderella’s Dream” references a Salt-N-Pepa song, while “This Is Mister Bigg. How You Doing Mister Bigg” takes its name from a lyric from “Friend of Mine” by Kelly Price—whose music video was directed by one Hype Williams.  (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: Sep 13, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

This thing deserves a box set.

In its time, Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly was a karate chop to the charts. Nowadays, the music sounds a little less futuristic than it did when it came out, but—oddly—it gains power once you know what the ’96 graduating class of DeVante Swing’s Swing Mob would be capable of across the next decade of pop. This is the sound of kids awed by their own talent, plotting world domination in real time; it reeks of weed smoke wafting across soundboards.

In 1997, Missy Elliott and Timbaland were in their mid-twenties and riding high off their respective songwriting and production work on Aaliyah’s One in a Million. Tim had done Ginuwine’s “Pony” and, if the reprisal of its infamous belching robot noise on “Friendly Skies” was any indication, was rightfully proud of it. Elektra offered Missy her own imprint, with choice of artists to produce, if she agreed to make a solo album. Famously shy, Missy was reluctant at first but eventually acquiesced—as long as she could smuggle some of her artsy friends aboard.  (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: Sep 11, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

In the grand scheme of things, Inc. No World’s new EP doesn’t do much other than add an extra 23 minutes to the existing catalog of one of the great modern mood bands. These could be outtakes from last year’s As Light as Light. It doesn’t matter. In a world where we can choose from millions of artists at the click of a mouse, Living gives us what we crave when we choose Inc. At this point, it doesn’t matter whether or not they refine or redefine their sound as long as they can still conjure that vibe.

As with As Light as Light, they’ve stretched their songs, relying less on electronics in favor of something more organic, more neo-soul. They’re subtly funky in the way they might introduce a musical element so perfect it makes your heart stop and swell back up with appreciation. The Aged brothers are seasoned session cats who know what works, what doesn’t and—most importantly—when to hold back.  (Click on “web or pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Sep 07, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Lil Uzi Vert’s appeal is easy to understand.

Barely five years ago, the debut studio album was the ultimate test of an MC’s marketplace viability and artistic acumen. Now, they’re indistinguishable from mixtapes. Only in pop’s Wild West era could one of the most hyped young rappers in the world put out a “studio debut” billed as a sequel to a two-year-old mixtape, that openly advertises a clothing brand on the cover and that shuttles the hit it’s ostensibly meant to sell all the way to the butt end of its tracklist.

That hit would be “XO Tour Llif3,” one of the best rap singles of the year and the biggest smash yet from the ascendant Atlanta rapper Lil Uzi Vert. There’s not much else on Luv is Rage 2 like it; in fact, it really doesn’t have much to offer in the way of songs. Most of what’s here are exercises where Uzi goes on tangents and designates whatever sticks in his head as hooks. Sometimes we get great stuff, like when he plays Ping-Pong with his own voice on “444+222.” Other times, we get groaners like “Leonardo DiCaprio/ Watch out boys, I might bag your hoe.” (Click “web or pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Sep 06, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Hercules & Love Affair is still “disco,” but Butler has some surprises up his sleeve.

We’ll always miss the Greek glam and high camp that defined Hercules & Love Affair’s 2008 self-titled debut, one of the best disco albums ever, regardless of time period or place. But the new, subtler Hercules looks a lot better now than on 2011’s tremendously underwhelming Blue Songs. And if the collective’s starting to look more like a workhorse, it’s at least a consistent one, still capable of putting out some top-tier disco.

Omnion is the fourth Hercules album. It’s not as fun as 2014’s great Feast for the Broken Heart – and a lot less “gay” if that’s what you’re looking for. But it makes up for it with higher emotional stakes, more genre-hopping devilry, and the most impressive vocal chops on a Hercules record since Anohni’s colossal contributions to the debut.  (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 31, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Lil Peep is an emo rapper who’s about 90 percent emo, 10 percent rapper.

Lil Peep is an emo rapper who’s about 90 percent emo, 10 percent rapper. It seems weird at first, but, in hindsight, his arrival was inevitable. Ever since Lil B cried in a pet shop and Drake started rapping his drunk-dials, rap’s retreated sharply inward, and it’s as viable for big-name MCs to vent from the primal corners of the soul as to stunt about dames and diamonds. While Biggie Smalls confronted depression poker-faced on “Suicidal Thoughts,” still tough at the end of his rope, Kendrick Lamar, the heir to that widescreen classic rap tradition, changes his voice on “u” to sound like he’s crying.

For the most part, this has been good for rap. It’s helped temper its rampant machismo, and it’s possible for the first time since the ‘80s for a popular male MC to look like he walked out of a Ken Russell flick. Pathos is always a good thing, too, and the best recent rap albums are often the rawest. Emo’s starting to look like an important part of rock history, especially as the biggest new artists’ birth dates edge closer to the cusp of the 2000s. It doesn’t take much gear-spinning to connect it to what’s going on in rap. But its influence has also led to some of the same performative sadness we saw during its mid-‘00s peak, when depression and drug addiction became stylistic touchstones.  (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 29, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Link Wray is a revelation.

The legend that looms large over Link Wray’s career comes back to “Rumble,” a song he wrote whose guitar tone, according to legend, was so evil that it was banned from the airwaves without even the benefit of an offending lyric on the recording. In truth, the word “rumble” meant a gang fight in the parlance of the late 1950s. But “Rumble” is custom-built to spawn badass mythology; it sounds illegal, and it’s lost none of its bite after sixty years.

“Rumble” casts such a shadow over Wray’s discography you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d done nothing else of note, especially given that better artists of his era tend to hold up on their best singles than their long-players. Compilations with names like Rumble Man and Rumble & Roll seem to reinforce this. Furthermore, a documentary about Native Americans in rock released earlier this year, in which the Shawnee Wray is one of the most talked-about figures, is entitled Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World.  (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 23, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

A lost classic, little-heard but revered by almost everyone who hears it.

Lal and Mike Waterson’s 1972 album Bright Phoebus is a lost classic, little-heard but revered by almost everyone who hears it. It’s probably your favorite folk singer’s favorite folk album, and in fact inspired a tribute record back in 2002, with luminaries like Richard Thompson and Billy Bragg singing its songs. A new Domino reissue marks the first time it’s been in print since its initial run of a thousand. But it may be too strange to secure a permanent place in the canon.

Yes, it is very good, but it is not immediate in the way a lot of lost gems that worm their way into record nerds’ core collections—Judee Sill, say—are. Many will find “Rubber Band” too droll. The songs are starkly arranged, angular in composition and only occasionally pretty. Lal’s voice can be grating; Mike’s is militantly British. And the lyrics don’t give themselves up lightly. But over time it reveals itself as a sly, subversive folk album—the kind that nags at the back of your head, even if you don’t think much of it at first, and compels you to probe deeper into its secrets.  (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 16, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

A lean, hardworking techno album.

Karen Gwyer’s Rembo is a lean, hardworking techno album that succeeds not through sterling sound design but through how its tracks shift and move. Her sound palette is spartan and untreated, and though her penchant for swooning chords suggests roots in the stoned dub techno of Chain Reaction, she rejects sound effects for plainly rendered, musical elements. The thrill Rembo imparts comes from how its tracks progress, shift and deepen, how a perfectly timed musical cue can take a track somewhere unexpected.

There are only six or seven elements at most working together on any given track, meaning when a new one is introduced, our focus is heightened and the cue works more dramatically than it might in a denser mix. “The Workers Are on Strike” starts in discoland, all slapping snares and greasy sequencers, until Gwyer fills in the spaces between the beats with gargantuan, song-subducting chords and the temperature drops. A few minutes later, a silly little synth worm comes in and we’re back in goofy party territory. These feints are common, and few tracks go where we expect them to. (Click “web or pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 15, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Footwork doesn’t exist in a void.

Your disbelief will be easily forgiven if Jana Rush’s origin story seems a little too good to be true. According to her bio, she started her career by calling up her local radio station and asking how she could be a DJ. She was tutored by the guys behind the boards, including footwork legends like Gant-Man, and became a prodigy at no more than 10. She released some singles in the early days of footwork, but then real life got in the way. She became a firefighter, pushed music to the side, and is only now releasing her debut Pariah, a record with more in common with micro-genres like witch house than the work of old heads like RP Boo.

Her story mirrors that of Jlin, the steel-mill worker who only recently shot to underground stardom after shopping her tracks around in the footwork underground for years—and so does her style, which eschews bits of black pop for synthesized sounds made from scratch. Could she be a well-timed hoax like Ursula Bogner, the computer-music pioneer Jan Jelinek invented to cash in on a surge of interest in synthesists like Laurie Spiegel, or Jürgen Müller, the fake German kosmicher who was actually from Seattle? (Click on “web or pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 14, 2017

Publication: Pretty Much Amazing

“This is only pretty. Don’t look for any meaning.”

Harold Budd would like you to know this going into his 1978 album The Pavilion of Dreams, one of the jewels of the early, Eno-centric ambient era. Perhaps this is prudent. But it’s worth discussing how The Pavilion of Dreams creates the illusion of meaning.

The album is best understood as a place; the title makes that clear. This is one of the most architectural of all ambient records, its dramatic crescendos vaulting up to heaven like the ribs of a great Gothic cathedral. The use of the Arabic praise “Bismillahi ‘Rrahmani ‘Rrahim” (in the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful) in the title of the opening track suggests we’re meant to think of The Pavilion of Dreams as a non-denominational sacred space, like the Chapel by Budd’s good buddy Mark Rothko.  (Click “web or pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 08, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Mike Cooper sells his music as exotica, which is either a knowing joke or a springboard for an active subversion.

Easy-listening genres are having a hell of a time right now. New age, long maligned, is now seen as a scene that produces good and bad music just like any other. Astral cats like Laraaji and Iasos get loving box-set treatments. The chill-out music of Balearic cafe mixes is being brought to an appreciative global audience by the International Feel Label. And young guns like CFCF and Matthewdavid, no longer ashamed of their love of this stuff, are free to make music as good or better than that of their forebears—in the process correcting the flaws that have long dogged these genres, like reliance on pseudoscientific concepts and armchair ethnography.

The one genre that’s been left in the dust, appropriately enough, is exotica—music made mostly in the ‘50s to evoke the colonial paradise of the listener’s choice. It was inevitably made by and for people who’d never been abroad and had little clue what the Andes sounded like beyond cartoon cues like panflutes. The white dream of exotic music, it implied, was more desirable than the real thing. It was racist by nature and thus incompatible with the new wave of new age. (Click “web or pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 07, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Coltrane’s long been overshadowed by her husband, but she’s increasingly making inroads into the hipster canon.

Joe Henderson’s The Elements isn’t one of the strongest entries in the post-John Coltrane spiritual jazz catalog, but it checks off a lot of the boxes: pseudoscientific concept; acidhead poetry (“yesterday was/tomorrow never is”); extensive use of Indian instruments. Henderson worked in hard bop and fusion before spending his late career as a beloved interpreter of the standards. He didn’t do much else like this, and it’s likely he was guided to this project not through any divine vision but for the chance to branch out with players who were doing new and interesting things—and perhaps to find a new audience in the process.

Perhaps Henderson didn’t have his heart fully in this new direction. Alice Coltrane, his prime collaborator here and contributor of a number of instruments, certainly did. In an era where musicians changed in and out of spiritual affiliations like new clothes, Coltrane committed to Vedanta with such zeal she eventually dropped out of jazz to found an ashram and make devotional tapes (hard to find, but very good) for her followers. She shapes the sound of the record, seeding the sides of the stereo field with blooming harps, droning tamburas and distant, playful piano trills.  (Click “web or pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 06, 2017

Publication: Spectrum Culture

The profound emptiness of Nav’s art is in full display.

On A$AP Ferg’s “Shabba,” he compared himself to dancehall superstar Shabba Ranks. Navraj Goraya has set his sights a little lower, comparing himself to… A$AP Ferg. Nav is not an ambitious rapper; he’s not particularly likable, creative or clever, and his voice is grating, with a whisper of Pusha T’s arrogant, nasal sneer but none of the color or conviction. His personality is a void, his endless brags about bitches and money don’t add up to black comedy or social commentary so much as a vague, pervasive dipshittiness. On his second mixtape, Perfect Timing, he’s proved himself nothing more than Pandora filler, providing nothing but rap in a pinch.

It’s not a good sign when a rapper brags, “They pay me 50 thousand dollars just to stand around,” on “A$AP Ferg.” Nor when he writes what should be a perfectly heartfelt love song, “Held Me Down,” and still feels the need to brag about his side chicks at every moment. Nor when the best song on Perfect Timing, his ostensible mainstream Trojan horse, is built entirely off Playboi Carti’s strategy of framing his brags through the eyes of others. With Carti, it’s “damn, that look like Carti.” With Nav, it’s “Did You See Nav?” (Click “web or pdf” view to continue reading.)

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