oeuvre

oeuvre

This is a more-or-less complete collection of my past work. Much of my early Emerald work was lost during a major website update this year, but the Emerald staff is currently working on recovering these articles.

My work can be found on the following sites:

Article count (656)

Date: Sep 10, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

An anti-Rihanna album at the expense of being a Rihanna album.

Anti(2016) is the consensus pick for best Rihanna album, but when it came out it felt a little unsatisfying. She’d been gone for four years, her absence exacerbating her mystique and yielding feverish speculation on what her new music would be like. Her run of 2015-16 singles had been alright, “Bitch Better Have My Money” taking on pantheon status after people got over the fact that that was Rihanna’s new music. Out came the album, and it turned out not to be a grand comeback but a short, understated thing full of short sketches, generally lacking in gloss, featuring exactly none of her pre-release singles. A “deluxe” edition came out not long after, whose track “Sex With Me” would’ve been one of the best songs on Anti had it been part of its lineup. The world was still reeling from the endless, confusing rollout of Kanye’s Life of Pablo and the album-mixtape ambiguity stirred up by Drake and Young Thug. Anti seemed like another nail in the Spotifying coffin of the album, the totem around which rock-crit religion had revolved for half a century. (Click “web” or “pdf” view  to continue reading.)

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Date: Sep 05, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Mike Cooper is a treasure of underground music. Born in 1942, the guitarist came up amid the British blues boom, made a few astonishing folk-jazz albums in the early ‘70s, and spent the ‘80s in free improv land. In old age, he got into sailing and even more into Hawaiian shirts. And since 2004, he’s quietly released a run of excellent albums that deconstruct exotica, that postwar easy-listening genre that approximated “ethnic” music for Western ears.

The best of these albums is 2017’s Raft, but Rayon Hula – freshly remastered and reissued by Lawrence English’s great Room40 label for its 15th anniversary – is the first. Rayon Hula established a template to which Cooper’s adhered almost exclusively since: Hawaiian-style steel guitar, vibraphones that approximate the clangor of boats at berth, eerily close-sounding samples of bugs and birds, a pall of static that laps like a swelling ocean.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Sep 02, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

There’s not a moment on Iconology where Elliott isn’t trying to remind us who she is and what she’s done, as if what she’s doing now doesn’t matter.

“This is a Missy Elliott exclusive,” goes the disclaimer at the beginning of every track on Elliott’s new EP. There’s not a moment on Iconology where she isn’t trying to remind us who she is and what she’s done, as if what she’s doing now doesn’t (or shouldn’t, or doesn’t need to) matter.

Elliott has earned her place in the canon. The singer-rapper-songwriter-producer is the brains behind some of the most forward-thinking pop ever made, both as the star of the show or as a writer for Aaliyah, Ginuwine, Tweet, Ciara, Monica, and so on. Perhaps no artist save her childhood friend Timbaland is more responsible for the creative fertility of the pop charts between 1996 and 2007, a time when what bumped out of cars could be as beguiling as any grungy basement noise.

We know this. She doesn’t need to remind us with corny lines like “I did records for Tweet/ Before y’all could even tweet.” It’s a shame the lyrics here are so preoccupied with her legacy when the production is pretty great. “Throw It Back” and “Cool Off” are minimal, low-budget club stuff designed for getting down to rather than to let waft in the background. They remind us how deep her and Tim’s influences permeate left-field pop; it’s hard to imagine Kelela, Charli XCX, Jessy Lanza or the last two Ariana Grande albums existing without their blueprint on how to make pop twist the brain. But Elliott displays no interest in showing the kids how it’s done, and she’s instead more into telling the kids what she’s done.  (Click “web”or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 27, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Lover is a cornucopia worth combing through to find some of Swift’s best, some of her worst and a lot of her most interesting songs.

Deep in her pop phase, Taylor Swift sprawls out and lets us know what she’s capable of on her seventh album Lover. Most will prefer the tightness of 2014’s 1989, which first united her with ‘80s-indebted superproducer Jack Antonoff and announced a complete severance from her country roots. But Lover is definitive, a cornucopia worth combing through to find some of her best, some of her worst and a lot of her most interesting songs.

Because “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” isn’t a fake Pixar theme and “False God” doesn’t actually turn into free jazz, I wouldn’t go so far as to call Lover Taylor’s White Album. But there’s a reason for the sprawl. There’s just so much weird shit buried in here. It’s mischievous to place a Dixie Chicks collab, which is every bit as maudlin and heartbreaking as you’d hope it would be, directly after the deeply kinky “London Boy.” You have to take things like the gay-pandering “You Need to Calm Down” and the moldy DJ Mustard rip “I Forgot That You Existed” along with the near-undeniable gems like St. Vincent collab “Cruel Summer” and pop-punk “Paper Rings.” The shitty tracks are more challenges than deal breakers, and Lover yields riches rather than doldrums. Even after a few listens you might forget what comes next and be pleasantly surprised.

Swift’s songwriting hasn’t always squared well with her decision to move firmly into pop, but she manages fireworks here. Lines like “I hate accidents except when we went from friends to this” make us smile because we’re hearing classic Swift. Ditto details like “we could let our friends crash in the living room” on the title track’s inflamed matrimony fantasy. Or the alarmingly Prince-like lyric “I’ve loved you for three summers now.” She must release underwritten pabulum like “Me!” to make us expect a horror show from her next album until we remember she’s still a great songwriter. We like her when the album’s out, less so when we’re waiting for it.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 25, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

That no improvements have been made to the content of this album since its 2001 release reveals an ignorance on its distributors’ part as to how ubiquitous the Shrek soundtrack has become.

Please, please, please know this before you buy the reissued Shrek soundtrack on vinyl: these are not the songs you remember. This isn’t the reissue of the Shrek soundtrack as in the music that actually appeared in the film but rather the reissue of something called the Shrek soundtrack that came out in 2001, swapping out many of the film’s best songs for flimsy remixes and covers that presumably cost less for DreamWorks to get their hands on. It’s a shame this reissue didn’t correct this problem, or at least assign its ersatz versions of songs that appeared in the movie to a second LP of odds and ends. I imagine a lot of people buying this thing on vinyl without doing their research will be very pissed off. Consider this review your research.

Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” inspired a young Rico Nasty and, no doubt, countless other kids to seek out punk rock when it played over Shrek’s most entertaining fight scene. Would they have been as curious had the version that appears here—by a band called Halfcocked, which was actually signed to DreamWorks’ label—played instead? The beat is a lifeless karaoke version, and the singer sounds like she’s auditioning to be a pop star, transmogrifying her vocals into awful ballpark embellishments instead of screaming like her mom needs to get out of her room. Halfcocked broke up the year after Shrek came out, maybe because DreamWorks found the rights to “Funkytown” easier to obtain.

Rufus Wainwright sings Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” central to Shrek’s most emotional moment, rather than John Cale. This makes sense: Wainwright was something of a star in 2001, while it’s hard to get people to care about the stodgiest, artsiest member of the Velvet Underground. But Wainwright’s tremulous, slightly overwrought vocal pales next to the stern precision with which Cale sings his. This is where many of us heard “Hallelujah” for the first time, but you’d be hard-pressed to remember who sang it. Though the Cale and Wainwright versions are similar enough that a good number of the people who bought the CD probably thought they were hearing the same thing, Cale’s version is better, and it deserves to be here instead.

But the biggest injustice here is what’s been done to “I’m a Believer.” Smash Mouth’s version is arguably superior to the original recorded by the Monkees. The punchiness of the Smash Mouth arrangement better conveys the song’s central epiphany—“AND THEN I SAW HER FACE!”—than the coy Monkees version. But what’s here is the most hideous remix you can imagine. Its exuberant organs have been replaced with muddy synth horns and its driving beat with a trip-hop drum loop that’d sound cheap in a hair salon. It sounds like leftovers from Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” It’s worthless.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 22, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

The world’s most inscrutable rapper, Young Thug makes clear what he’s saying and where he stands on his most forthright release yet.

“No time for gibberish, all the critics hearin’ this,” says Young Thug on “Just How It Is”, the opening track on his new album So Much Fun. It’s the clearest mission statement the world’s most inscrutable rapper has ever given us. Maybe he’s responding to the Dean of American Rock Critics, Robert Christgau, who claimed: “his hoohoos and melismas and blahs and mwas and frogcroaks and put-puts are the message” of his 2016 zenith Jeffery. Christgau wasn’t totally wrong; that album featured some of the most extreme vocal performances ever heard on an album that could pass for pop. But if Thug is hurt by the suggestion that no one cares what he has to say as long as he makes those funny noises, that explains a lot of what we hear on So Much Fun, the rapper’s most forthright release yet.

He’s still flamboyant as hell, riding the seasick beat of “Surf” and exclaiming “whoa, wavy” as if hearing it for the first time, layering so many backing vocals behind himself on “Ecstasy” as to become Young Thug and the Famous Flames. But that’s not the message. Rather, it’s how good Thug is at the pure art of rapping. Anyone who thinks Thugger can’t spit hasn’t been paying attention. He launches into rapid-fire triple-time patter, affects a dancehall cadence just because he can, makes up architecture on the fly as a walking A-Z of trap flow. And not since the Weezy worship of I Came From Nothing has he been so insistent we understand what he’s saying. When he pouts “I don’t care about no cop” on “Just How It Is” it’s with the same sense of honor as Waka Flocka bellowing “I’ma die for this, I swear to god” on “Hard in the Paint”. Same when he declares, “I don’t wanna talk about no hoes with my dad.” It sounds like something he’s resolved not to do a long time ago. (Click “web” or “pdf”view to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 21, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Scott Morgan makes emptiness feel heavy on Equivalents, an album inspired by Albert Stieglitz’s photographs of clouds.

The ocean is unknowable. The earth might be knowable, but only if you had more time to explore than is available in a human lifetime. The sky—well, what we see is pretty much what’s there. The sky has no landmarks. Birds and airplanes stay close enough to the ground to see. There’s nothing up there that’ll come and eat us, which is why characters in horror movies never think to look up. When we gesture at the sky, it’s usually to indicate the possibilities of that scarier realm beyond, outer space. When the sky commands awe, it’s not for its mystery but for its size and the way it seems to hover precariously above us. There’s a fear— casadastraphobia—of falling into the sky. And we all know the story of Chicken Little.

It’s hard to imagine anyone evoking the dread blankness above our heads better than Scott Morgan does on Equivalents, the 12th album by his long-running ambient project Loscil. These long, beatless tracks have an undeniable sweep, but not much happens while they’re on. They’re huge and empty, with only a few details crisscrossing their expanses. A vibraphone, long one of Loscil’s favorite instruments, on “Equivalents 8”. A thick, filtered, dragging sound on “Equivalents 1” that suggests the eerie way the most massive clouds move across the vast plain of the sky. A piano winding its way through “Equivalents 3”, buried so deep in the mix we might not hear it if we’re listening in a place with a lot of background noise. Some ambient artists like sounds that seem heard from far away. Equivalents likes sounds that seem to come from high up.

Maybe if this album weren’t explicitly modeled on Alfred Stieglitz’s photos of clouds, I might think of something different upon listening. But Morgan’s inspirations are part of the package with any Loscil album. This has long been one of the most programmatic ambient projects, and Morgan’s ability to translate his inspirations into music is uncanny. Submers suggested the ocean not simply with aqueous textures but with a murkiness through which flashes of sound and light slowly materialized. First Narrows evoked the encroachment of human activity on the sea by letting the swells of pad and guitar and strings in the background dwarf the mechanical pinpricks in the foreground, like the ocean dwarfing a boat or a bridge or a port perched perilously on its edge. Endless Falls, about the Vancouver rain, had a curiously reflective quality, like a wet sidewalk reflecting the light.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view  to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 20, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) lyricism is as cryptic as ever, but the firmness with which he sings his abstractions robs his fourth album of much of its mystery.

What is soul? I don’t know, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If you’re feeling your lyrics as hard as Justin Vernon does on Bon Iver’s new album i,i, and you want other people to feel them, it’s best you communicate what’s meant to be felt. Alas, Vernon’s lyrics are just a little too cryptic to get across what’s in his head, nor evocative enough for us to get the gist of what he’s abstracting. When Prince screams, “could we just hang out, could we go to a movie”, it’s earned because he’s throwing his body at the wall between himself and unattainable love. When Young Thug screams “Patrick Ewing”, it’s because he’s drunk off his own eccentricity. When Brian Wilson sends “Surf’s Up” to a heartrending climax on the words “a children’s song”, it works because the lyrics are rich enough in their psychedelic detail that we feel them even when we understand they’re essentially nonsense. But when Vernon screams, “Tell them I’ll be passing on / Tell them we’re young mastodons,” there’s a disconnect between this crypsis and the firmness with which he sings it. Throughout i,i he treats absurd lyrics with so much oomph his earnestness becomes inadvertently comical.

That’s what separates i,i from the rest of Bon Iver’s often brilliant discography, from which the record otherwise springs naturally. Bon Iver, Bon Iver, from 2011, existed in an impression of America made from fake place names and woodsy rusticism. Its lyrics could be dazzlingly imagistic. A line like “over havens fora full and swollen morass, young habitat” effortlessly suggests a swampy and untamed wilderness without having to make any sense. 22, A Million from 2016 was a puckish puzzle, retreating into tangles of mysticism, daring us to make sense of it in a way that was thrilling and hallucinogenic.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

 

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Date: Aug 18, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Captagon can be exhilarating, but it’s best consumed in short bursts.

Rod Modell, the Detroiter who usually makes dub techno as Deepchord, comes off as a pensive man with a spiritual bent. In an XLR8R interview shortly after the release of 2017’s Auratones, Modell expressed concern that the loud, aggressive music designed for big club soundsystems might somehow be harmful to the body, might not stimulate the chakras, might not induce a positive state of mind. Freshly signed to veteran techno label Tresor, affiliated with one of Berlin’s most hallowed clubs, Modell is ready to put his vision to the test on Captagon.

The only ambient bone Modell throws us here is opener “Triangulation,” on which a vibraphone struggles to be heard over a sea of static. It’s as if Modell is telling us a sound so dainty has no place here. From then on Captagon is relentless in its forward motion, rarely dipping below 140 BPM as if its life depends on maintaining constant speed. It’s a little like riding a rocket. Or watching lights pass by on an underground bullet train that never stops. Or blasting across the alkali flats in a jet-powered, monkey-navigated autogyro. And so forth.

The bottom line is that Captagon is all about motion. Modell tends to err on the faster side of techno, but his kicks are usually situated in the middle of immersive soundfields that spectacularly exploit the depths of stereo imaging. He’s typically comfortable creating spaces in his music (20 Electrostatic Soundfields) or making music designed to be played in spaces (Hash-Bar Loops, exactly what it sounds like). Captagon is about hurtling through space, or perhaps bending space to its will like a starship traveling faster than light.

The sound design is concentrated almost entirely on the drums. Modell creates heaviness not through overwhelming bass or dull thuds of noise but through generous, almost violent compression. Even as they barrel forward, these tracks still seem to be retreating into themselves. “Qurra” sounds like it’s being vacuumed up. The kicks are treated with great sloppy filters, and a wetness seems to ooze from the very drums, with little aquatic fizzing sounds sharing space with Modell’s beloved pall of static.  (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)

 

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Date: Aug 15, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

ExpoZoom documents one of Geesin’s most prestigious assignments.

Ron Geesin is a footnote in rock history, best-known as the man Pink Floyd called in to finish Atom Heart Mother—a record already seen by many as a footnote to its creators’ career. But it’s hard to imagine him complaining given how in-demand his commissions are. The 75-year-old has been one of Britain’s go-to sound designers for most of his life, and ExpoZoom documents one of his most prestigious assignments: composing music for a series of technical films screened at the British pavilion at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, each one celebrating an aspect of British industry.

Like most Ron Geesin albums, it doesn’t have much interest in hanging together the way rock’s cult of the album—codified in part by his buddies Pink Floyd—demands. ExpoZoom is alternately beguiling and frustrating, and it’s hard to imagine an environment in which you’d want to put this on. But upon reviewing the old tapes half a century later, Geesin found a “crude vitality” to these recordings that merited its release. I understand what he means. (I’m reminded a little bit of Springsteen’s defense of his inferior late-‘80s/early ‘90s albums like Human Touch, which he admitted were stopgap, but that he also “liked” them whenever he listened to them.) There’s something liberating about listening to music this incidental outside of its environment. How it held up at the World’s Fair is known to only Geesin and those aging few who live with those memories, but the lack of context makes it a tricky challenge to encounter it purely as music.

If you like music to have melody and harmony and rhythm—to sound like what most people would imagine as music—ExpoZoomis not for you. Mostly, these are simulations of technological processes. They whir and zoom like cars speeding down the autobahn. The sound palette is metallic when it’s not bursting into whoops and yibbles inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German avant-gardist in vogue in the Swinging Sixties. When Geesin gets into a rhythm, we’re reminded of the intrinsic link between the forward motion of vehicles and the repetition of techno, which links the Germans in Kraftwerk with the Detroiters in Cybotron. Some of these tracks, especially “End Wall 3” and “Float Glass A,” sound uncannily like some of the more austere and extreme music to descend from the clubs; Pan Sonic comes to mind.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 12, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Immunity is a mood-centric pop album that never sacrifices the fundamental unit of the song.

Clairo’s Immunity is a mood-centric pop album that never sacrifices the fundamental unit of the song, a proud display of minimalism that doesn’t rely on trendy fingersnaps and economic use of space but stirs up inhabitable environments with only a few ingredients. If this is “bedroom pop” it’s less because of where it was made or even how it sounds than how it feels—like pillows and bedsheets and blankets, from under which Claire Cottrill scarcely needs to come out to make her presence known.

The 20-year-old is a deceptively skilled singer. You might think, because her voice barely rises above a breathy coo, that she’s lacking in the vocal department. But listen on “Sofia” to how she barely has to raise her voice to bust out the kind of melismas R&B singers let loose when they’re trying to show off at the ballpark. Like Aaliyah, whose smart and sonically forward-thinking pop is a touchstone here, she lets a lot of her most wounding vocal curlicues loose when she seems about to run out of breath.

Aside from the infuriating way she pronounces some of her vowels, there’s not much to connect her to contemporary trends in pop. The production, mostly by Vampire Weekend’s Rostam, is full of the same plaintive pianos and faintly glowing pads that inspired Tyler, the Creator when Pharrell put them to use. A faint guitar here and there suggests the more pleasant end of post-grunge, songs like “Semi-Charmed Life” or “Steal My Sunshine.” The synth bass can be overwhelming, as on “Closer to You” and “I Wouldn’t Ask You,” and it might’ve been a prudent decision to hire an electric bassist to accompany Danielle Haim’s live drums.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 11, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Despite its forbidding French title and modern-artsy sleeve, it might be the most accessible release from either artist.

Intemporel opens with slow, billowing sax clouds from Ariel Kalma, and anyone who’s done a bit of digging into new age will be right at home. But where’s Sarah Davachi? We squint through the mix to hear a single note droning in the distance. There she is.

Even in the odd niche of intergenerational avant-music pairings—epitomized by RVNG Int’l’s FRKWYS series, for which Kalma collaborated with Lichens’ Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe—this is a curious combo. Ariel Kalma is not exactly a minimalist while Davachi is so much so as to be almost monkish. Though both more or less make ambient music, Kalma’s roots are firmly in new age, Tibetan singing bowls and all. Davachi is more of a classical composer than anything else. Surely Emily A. Sprague, whose Mount Vision from last year explores the same mind-massaging capabilities of drone music as Kalma’s late-career highlight Eternalia, would’ve been a better candidate for a young collaborator.

The album does take a second to build steam, and “Hack Sat Zoom” makes us wonder if this isn’t going to be more about two nerds playing with their hardware than about atmosphere and soundscaping. But once we emerge at the other end of the 12-minute “Adieu la Vie” we’re right at home with these two. It’s a relief to find that most of Intemporel’s 47 minutes concern themselves with foggy mystery and minor-key searching rather than dueling egos.

It’s a lopsided collaboration almost by default. We’re usually hearing much less of Davachi than of Kalma. Her drones are content to act as the floor atop which his exotic filigrees twist, twirl and leap. We realize in due time that this is a conscious artistic decision. Sometimes collaborations work best when one cedes some room to the other. Good taste is one of the most important factors in ambient collaborations, and sometimes the ego has to be sacrificed in service of the work.  (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 07, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

The world might be going to shit, but to pretend nothing’s changed is an insult to those who’ve fought to make it a better place.

Age looks good on Patrick Haggerty. The 74-year-old’s voice, once high and reedy, has thinned to an inquisitive honk perfect for the ribald, tender and righteously angry songs on his first album since 1973 with Lavender Country. The distance between 1973’s self-titled and this year’s Blackberry Rose and Other Songs and Sorrows from Lavender Country amounts to the entire sweep of a gay elder’s life, and he looks to the past not with nostalgia but with relief at how far we’ve come. The world might be going to shit, but to pretend nothing’s changed is an insult to those who’ve fought to make it a better place.

Haggerty recalls those furtive days in pre-Stonewall gay bars, under the cover of darkness in secrecy, on “Gay Bar Blues.” On “Weeping Willow” he remembers the camaraderie between gay men in the pre-AIDS days—and the grief that set in once those men started disappearing. Even the bawdy love song “I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You,” the only song returning from the 1973 album, is permeated with the sad unsustainability of a forbidden love. It’s as if he’s preparing for a generation of young, gay listeners who take their newfound freedoms for granted.

Lavender Country focused almost exclusively on gay men. Here, Haggerty broadens his scope. “Clara Frazer, Clara Frazer” tells us of a Seattle leftist leader whose employers found it fit to fire her for her outspokenness. It’s a goofily specific story Haggerty presumably remembers from his days in Seattle’s political scene (he’s run for public office twice), and it doubles both as a celebration of hard-headed, no-bullshit leadership and a way for Haggerty to flex his activist bona fides.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Aug 06, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

The lack of reverb or stereo depth prohibits the music from gelling holistically.

Jah Wobble embodies the fact of the bass. The longtime avant-rock fixture, best-known for appearing on the first two Public Image Ltd. albums, plays with a steady, modest melodicism. His instrument exists purely in the low end, content to be itself rather than trying to rocket to uncharted heights or dreaming of being a guitar as is so often the case with bass performance in rock. Bill Laswell, meanwhile, expands the instrument’s possibilities, playing with an immediately distinctive low-end filter or letting big fretless chords glide over the proceedings. Their styles are opposite enough that Wobble could essentially get away with playing rhythm bass and Laswell lead bass on 2002’s excellent Live in Concert from Wobble’s Solaris band.

The two artists’ collaborations together, though, more or less situate Wobble in the universe of Laswell’s “collision music”: a sort of rock-dub-jazz fusion hydra played by diverse supergroups of underground heroes, focused on the interactions between different players and disciplines. The last Wobble-Laswell collab, Radioaxiom: A Dub Transmission, offered a sort of polyglot groove music led on a few tracks by North African vocalists. Realm of Spells is vocal-free dub that serves less to explore bold new possibilities of global fusion than to let a few choice players jam out.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jul 30, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Tycho’s Weather doesn’t reach the atmospheric heights of his post-chillwave classics.

Tycho’s Weather doesn’t reach the atmospheric heights of his post-chillwave classics Dive and Awake, but because he’s borrowing from pop instead of rock this time around, it’s less aggressive and more interesting than 2017’s cheap-seats gift Epoch. This stuff would work at festivals and at luxe penthouses late at night, but despite a track being called “Into the Woods,” not in nature.

Though billed just to the San Francisco producer born Scott Hansen, Weather is basically a collaboration with Arizona singer Hannah Cottrell, a.k.a. Saint Sinner, who appears on five of the album’s eight tracks. She’s no great shakes as a vocalist, with the same breathy lilt and vocal curlicues as every singer trying to hit it big in the late 2010s, but pop looks good on Tycho. He’s always used big, dumb, predictable chord progressions, which moves his music up one level of accessibility from that of his heroes Boards of Canada. It’s surprising a singer hasn’t showed up in his music yet.

Hansen had a chance to take advantage of the mono-artist billing his seniority guaranteed him and imagine what a singer would sound like inside the world he’s honed on his four previous records. But he builds platforms for Cottrell, not environments. He glides along on simple major-to-minor progressions, employing time-tested tricks like cutting the drums for a throwaway bar between the first chorus and the second verse. He also indulges in a sadly common pop trope: lazily ending tracks at the end of the loop, a short tail of reverb substituting for a final chord. The fadeout on “Pink & Blue” feels almost subversive.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jul 28, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire feels like an unburdening, artistically and personally.

Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire will say whatever he wants. In “The eXplanation,” he argues for his adopted middle name as a symbol of agency. He delights in the use of the word “fuck,” treating it like a word that still offends people the way it did in the Tipper Gore days, and when asked by a concerned listener to make music kids can listen to, his response is swift and satisfying: “Fuck your kids.” He knows R. Kelly’s a monster, but he doesn’t know why he can’t listen to “Ignition” when he still has to stand for the anthem. This is the kind of guy who’d punch Richard Spencer but wouldn’t complain if Joe Rogan had him on. His ideas aren’t always sound, but he holds onto them tightly.

The Brooklyn rapper, born Hugh Allison, came up in the blog-rap era and was briefly signed to Interscope to no success. He’s on his own label now, and he not only embraces his freedom but has made an entire, self-titled album about it. He revels in final-cut privilege, ending the album with an eight-minute, avant-garde “short film” and a four-minute mission statement just because he can—and, no doubt, because Interscope wouldn’t have let him. Paranoia about social media surveillance aside, this is an album that could’ve feasibly been made in 2011, and its grimy No-Fi New York beats stem from the template of his breakout track “Huzzah!” The way he sings, like a perverted old man in the shower, hearkens back to the days when the idea of a singing rapper was kind of funny.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

 

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Date: Jul 24, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Those disillusioned with the Lips’ transition into the world’s weirdest party band must’ve longed for something like this.

King’s Mouth is the first Flaming Lips album to really look back, ditching the Miley Cyrus party hijinks and festival-stage vaudeville to return to Wayne Coyne’s fixation with the overwhelming goodness he sees in the universe—set, as always, against grand sci-fi sweep. But there’s not much sense in wishing it into the next Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.

King’s Mouth doesn’t really have any good songs or songs in general, for that matter. The 41-minute concept album is structured so all the tracks blend together, interspersed with narration by the Clash’s Mick Jones in the role of bedtime storyteller. This means its most moving moments are often separated by long stretches of orchestral pomp which don’t sweep and swell the way great Lips tracks like “Sleeping on the Roof” do but remain strangely muted, as if heard from behind a wall. There’s an astounding moment on “Giant Baby” where Wayne Coyne slowly pronounces the words “last night I saw your face across the sky” in that voice of his that always seems perched on the verge of joyous tears in the midst of an epiphany. Then it melts into something called “Mother Universe.”  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jul 23, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Buying an ambient synth album meant to be heard by plants doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.

When Mother Earth’s Plantasia first started making the rounds on the sidebars of YouTube full-album vids, it seemed like a goofy oddity from a dippy past. But its time is now. Plants are hip. Millennials too time- and cash-strapped to buy cats and dogs are plant parents instead (“You Don’t Have to Walk a Begonia,” one track title tells us). We like to surround ourselves with cute things to stave off existential dread. We like chill music, too. And we like New Age crap like astrology. So buying an ambient synth album meant to be heard by plants doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. It seems like exactly the kind of thing you’d do if the world was ending.

Mort Garson’s album was first released in 1976, at the dawn of the ongoing houseplant trend. The Secret Life of Plants was a bestseller, and the idea that plants could understand and respond to music wasn’t necessarily fringe. Garson gave away copies with the purchase of a houseplant at Mother Earth Plant Boutique in Los Angeles. What was once a weird freebie is now being reissued by respected indie label Sacred Bones as a hot cult commodity, but it’s safe to say nobody in the seventies bought a begonia just to get their hands on a copy of Plantasia.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jul 17, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

In Yoshi Flower’s world, an admission of wrongdoing is as good as an apology.

Yoshi Flower is broken, damaged, diseased. He needs you, female object of his affection, to fix him. He’ll give you diamonds and money if you put up with his shit. If you can’t, he’ll probably turn it on you and say something like “I thought I told you I was reckless,” which is how the Interscope recording artist opens his new release Peer Pleasure. In Yoshi Flower’s world, an admission of wrongdoing is as good as an apology, exempting him from any need to improve and exempting his girl from the right to complain about it.

I’m sorry if I’m sounding psycho, I’m just trying to be honest,” he ends that same track. To Flower, honesty alone is virtuous enough to exempt anything he could possibly say, and honesty is the house on which he builds his brand. Flower follows in the footsteps of rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, Trippie Redd, XXXTentacion, and especially the late Lil Peep in pairing trap with the angst and aesthetics of mid-‘00s pop-punk and emo. He has problems, which make him “real,” and which puts him at odds with “perfection“ and “beauty”—things he distrusts, resents, and envies. (Click “web” or “pdf ” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jul 16, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Disappointing not due to false advertising but because the sense of wonder we typically find in his music is in short supply.

A title like Sketches from a Distant Ocean seems to suggest Mark Barrott is keen to take us beyond the island paradises he commonly paints to the harsh and desolate vistas suggested by tracks like “Distant Storms at Sea.” Not so. Though voices are rare in the International Feel label boss’s work, his new four-track EP is populated with them, and the producer feels at home amid a small community.

“Galileo” instantly situates the EP as kin to the producer’s Sketches from an Island trilogy, whose second installment is the best of the neo-Balearic records on his label. There’s a gentle pit-pat of drum machine, answered by arcing electric guitar melodies, and we feel right at home. A jovial laugh interrupts about two-thirds of the way through, the kind you might hear from one of Ina Garten’s blotto Long Island neighbors on Barefoot Contessa, and though it’s initially jarring, it fits in with Barrott’s vision of an endless veranda party.

“Low Lying Fruit” is looser than what we usually hear from Barrott, and people (or maybe it’s just Barrott) actually take solos, first on what could be a Senegalese kora or similar harp-like instrument, then on flute. There’s a whiff of the Penguin Café Orchestra about it, and it’s certainly redolent of late-night living-room hoedowns, but the improvisations aren’t terribly interesting or exploratory, and it ultimately ends up feeling more like a Barrott beat with the flavor of a free-flowing jam.  (Click “web” or “pdf ” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jul 15, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Loom Dream weaves its story slowly.

Here’s a treat: a post-rave comedown album that relies not on smiley-face nostalgia or druggy mischief but a lush, artisanal sound design. Welsh producer Leif Knowles is associated with the rural, limited-capacity Freerotation rave, and in its site-specificity, suite-like structure and soupy, aquatic textures punctuated by the lope of a slow techno beat, his third album, Loom Dream, resembles Donato Dozzy and Neel’s masterpiece Voices from the Lake, culled from material debuted at Japan’s Labyrinth festival. But while that was an immersive journey into a swampy soundworld, Loom Dream feels more like a souvenir, a 34-minute thing you can just throw on if you need a lift. With its omnipresent birdsong, plantastic song titles, and “ethnic” cues like mbira and marimba, the record has the air of a new-age luxury product, the sonic equivalent of a spa day. Even its name sounds a bit like a high-end knitting shop.

Loom Dream weaves its story slowly, the tempo fast enough to drive the narrative forward but not so fast you could really dance to it. Beat-oriented tracks share space with lengthy drifts like “Mimosa,” offering a little bit of scenic variation within its strictly chaperoned confines. To call this album a “journey” implies arduousness and the possibility of getting lost. What makes Loom Dream fun, in contrast to the usual ambient desire to evoke the mystery and size of the universe, is that that possibility doesn’t exist. This is more like a guided tour.

Previewing individual tracks—especially “Borage,” with its unusually hefty percussion and Enigma-like choirs—might leave you with the impression that this album isn’t particularly ambient, or at least nothing that could really have been called ambient after about 1997. That’s because the album builds up to tracks like “Borage” so expertly we don’t even notice how heavy they are; it’s like the proverbial frog in boiling water. There’s a prominent sidechain and a thick floor of bass throughout the album, but these don’t add the sense of foreboding we feel on, say, a recent Gas record but rather a lushness and richness the albums it takes after—the Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld, the KLF’s Chill Out and Global Communication’s 76:13—lack. There’s nothing lo-fi or dissonant here, nothing ugly to sour the scenic ride.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jul 15, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

On Sinner, Detroit producer Moodymann lets us listen in on the hallucinatory, self-contradictory conversation he’s perpetually having with himself.

The release of Sinner reads less like an album rollout than the plot of a monster movie. Something was announced online last year; something was being given out at a barbecue in Detroit; something was made available in a few record shops; Moodymann gave something away to his fans, and it’s not entirely clear that Sinner even is that something. The vinyl version is a five-track EP, and though the digital version has been widely reported as containing seven, two more are available if you buy it on Bandcamp, totaling about 55 minutes of music. Maybe the “real” album’s on the horizon, but for now, here’s what we know: there are nine tracks, they exist, the world’s better for it.

Why such uncertainty? Maybe it’s skepticism towards the rockist cult of the album in the track-centric world of dance music. Maybe this is the Detroit DJ’s answer to Prince’s Black Album, another album that’s only sorta been released, with which it shares a dominatrix-black cover and a fascination with freaky sex (“I Think of Saturday” even whips out a LinnDrum, just like the Purple One’s). But Moodymann has always been mischievous, and besides, this release strategy suits his most misanthropic album yet. The Moodymann we hear on Drake’s “Passionfruit” entreating everyone to get another drink is absent. Here is a man who thrives behind smoke and closed doors.

There’s always been something wrong about Moodymann’s music, and never have I been more acutely aware of that quality than upon listening to Sinner. The bass plays notes contradictory to the rest of the music. The vocal samples don’t even try to stay in key. There’s always crowd noise, a clinking of glasses, a smattering of applause—but Moodymann doesn’t put us among the revelers. We glimpse the festivities from behind glass as if the ballroom scene in The Shining showed us the best chitlin’-circuit party that never happened (or happened a long time ago, or is always happening). Moodymann’s the DJ in hell, condemned to haunt the decks forever until his brain spins as feverishly as his records.  (Click “web” or “pdf”  view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jul 12, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Atobe tracks are rarely content to simply live in primordial soup.

When unknown producer Shinichi Atobe released Ship-Scope in 2001 on the great dub techno label Chain Reaction, a lot of people thought it was a ruse. Chain Reaction puts almost no emphasis on ego; this is a label with a signee named “Various Artists,” it seemed totally plausible Atobe could’ve been an alias for one of the other producers on the label, like Vainqueur. Butterfly Effect, released in 2014 after a 13-year absence, made clear there’s no mistaking him for anyone else.

Though we now know he lives in Saitama, Japan, Atobe still exists in shadow, rarely DJing and refusing to grant interviews. But his tracks speak so strongly for themselves an interview hardly seems necessary. I imagine Atobe as a quiet, soft-spoken man, reclusive less for Burial-style cool than to be able to lead a comfortable life without having to jet around the world and play gigs. I imagine he prefers clouds to sun, takes long walks at night, records in front of windows so he can look out at the endless sprawl of the world. Maybe he works as a lighthouse keeper.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jul 09, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

How could the unpredictable forces of nature create better music than people?

Geir Jenssen was born in Tromsø, a Norwegian town well within the Arctic Circle, and there’s no doubt a life among the Northern lights gives much of his work as Biosphere its spark. 1997’s Substrata and 2000’s Cirque are among the best evocations of the romance and desolation of those regions I’ve heard on record, and The Senja Recordings acts as a sort of behind-the-scenes. These are recordings made on Senja, an island not far from Tromsø, but don’t put them on expecting to slip into a polar reverie; this time he’s not here to evoke but simply to document.

To his credit, these assorted field recordings and synth ruminations are sequenced quite well into a 66-minute album. Some of the sounds are astonishing, not least the opening track, a recording of ice being thrown onto a newly frozen lake—taken from under, with a hydrophone. “Berg,” an unrelated commission, merges beautifully with “Kyle,” which gives us none other than a vuvuzela echoing off a vast canyon wall populated with the sounds of crows. The liner notes are a treat, and it speaks to Jenssen’s talent as both a documentarian of sound and a producer of albums that the sound of his finger tapping against a hydroelectric pipe, recorded from deep inside, makes for a delightful way to deepen the album towards the middle (that’d be “Lysbotn.”)

The field recordings, though, are a lot more interesting than the stuff Jenssen layers on top of them. “Berg” is spectacular, as is “Hå,” both being driven by a curious low electric-piano sound I’ve heard before on the Melvins’ “Shevil.” But too many of these tracks are undercooked synth noodlings, like “Strandby” and “Fjølhøgget.” I don’t know how much of a Dr. Dre fan Jenssen is, but it’s hard to hear the latter wiggle up and down and not think of that ubiquitous G-funk synth sound, the famous funky worm. Images came to mind of “Grand Theft Walrus,” the arcade game in the Simpsons movie where a gangsta walrus shoots a happy-go-lucky dancing penguin dead. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jul 08, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

It’s powerful to know the joy and peace of mind the band found on this record came in spite of grief.

It’s astounding to think that, in the mid-‘80s, the B-52’s seemed on the outs. Guitarist Ricky Wilson’s 1985 death from AIDS was so traumatic to the band, which included Wilson’s sister Cindy, that they went into seclusion, resigned their last album with Ricky to bargain bins and dustbins and seemed likely break up. Then some cosmic force must have slapped some sense into them, because the B-52’s dried their eyes, went back into the studio and did the only thing they knew how to do: make a party album.

Plowing through grief and just making an album seems to bring out the best in bands. Cosmic Thing, released in 1989, has a lot to do with AC/DC’s Back In Black: a record made by a band rediscovering itself after coping with loss who not only persevered but found the bedrock of their image and identity, shifting more units than ever, cementing themselves as household names. This is the album with “Love Shack” and “Roam” on it, slicker and less avant than the gay sci-fi parties of their early days, not their boldest album but arguably definitive.

You can hear the band giving themselves room to breathe. “Roam” is a gorgeous pop song. “Follow Your Bliss” is a touching instrumental, not unlike the Beach Boys’ “Let’s Go Away for a While,” that ends the album with a slow ride into an endless sunset. Even some of the dance-rock songs have a curious sadness, resignation even. “Channel Z” dreads the end of the world. “Deadbeat Club” is an anthem for unemployed weirdos, its us-vs.-them mentality applicable to any group of misfits. By the end of “Dry County,” they still don’t have any alcohol.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jul 02, 2019

Publication: 48 Hills

Ebullient Oxnard favorite dazzled with full-on display, special guest Earl Sweatshirt leaned on raw talent at sold-out concert.

MUSIC REVIEW More than four decades into rap’s existence, the genre still struggles with how to present itself live. The bulk of rap shows I’ve seen are more like a DJ set with the rapper hosting, shouting ad-libs and entreaties as their own music blasts from the best speakers you’ll ever hear those songs on. An MC with enough energy can mitigate this problem. Young Thug and Big Boi are two of the best live rappers I’ve seen, if only because they’re so animated as they go through the motions. But when you’re going stop to stop, playing for crowds in towns you don’t care much about, it’s hard to keep up a smile.

Another approach is to bring live instruments into the equation. Live music is almost always more interesting when it’s generated on the spot, because it gives you more to look at and adds a degree of spontaneity that almost guarantees you’re getting something different from what you hear on record. It also guarantees you’re getting your money’s worth, that people are actually working to put on a show for you rather than simply showing up, collecting their cash, and getting back in the van.

Seeing Oxnard rapper Anderson .Paak and his full backing band the Free Nationals live at their 6/27 sold-out show at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium last Thursday, I noticed something curious through the dazzle of the set. There were two drum kits, one manned by the Free Nationals’ Callum Connor and the other by .Paak himself. For long stretches of the show, neither was audible. And when the two drummers synced up, it wasn’t exactly Tony Allen and Ginger Baker going kit-to-kit on Fela Kuti’s Live! Pre-recorded drum beats often did the bulk of the percussive load-bearing, and I had to tilt my head to hear the crash of Connor’s cymbals.

.Paak banks on his artistry. He sings and raps, and as in so much modern hip-hop, the lines between the two aren’t always clear-cut. He’s gifted with a honeyed-gravel voice not a million miles removed from fellow Dr. Dre protégé Kendrick Lamar’s. Put him behind a kit and you have a perfect image of talent and professionalism, especially in tandem with his hat and sunglasses, which make him look like a hip piano teacher, the kind of guy you expect to use words like “cat.” He’s the perfect candidate for a Tiny Desk concert, where you can see him trade grins as well as licks with his dutiful backing band.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 27, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Long one of rap’s most consistent artists, for the first time he sounds confused.

An acoustic guitar and an animal cry of pain burble out of the viscous morass that is “Xanny Problems,” the opening track to Future’s latest EP Save Me. A down-pitched vocal sample sheds its skin to reveal the voice of Nayvadius Wilburn, employing a trick debuted on the Weeknd’s “Initiation” and adopted by Vampire Weekend on “Diane Young”—associated, either way, with self-destruction. The song fades out rudely after a minute and 41 seconds. Though Future has long chronicled the alternating flashes of pain and numbness that come with drug addiction, no Future song yet has so perfectly captured the feeling of being narcotized, of existing as in a thick soup, of being unable to get off the couch. Usually, Future likes beats that give a luxe contrast to his predicament. This one situates us inside the fog of his brain, and it’s one of the most jarring cries for help ever to open a rap album.

In a Rolling Stone interview last year, Future threw a wrench in the narrative for his last album The WIZRD by claiming he’d had an epiphany when his young collaborator Juice WRLD told him he’d been the inspiration for his trying Xanax as a seventh-grader. Future seemed to show remorse for writing so much about lean and pills in a way, as with many rock stars, that condemned them while simultaneously using them as ammunition for a cool, bad aesthetic. He was primed to, if not climb out of the stylistic rut of jets and pills and hi-hats he’d been stuck in since 2015’s definitive Dirty Sprite 2, approach it from a smarter perspective. Even at less than two minutes, “Xanny Problems” immediately joins the canon of Future songs like “Perkys Calling” and “Codeine Crazy” that work because they make doing drugs sound sickening.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 19, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

And doesn’t it make sense that the Jonas Brothers would grow up to be L.A. playboys with a Machiavellian grasp of pop psychology?

As an album, Happiness Begins is nothing special, designed to float into Lyft-shuffle anonymity rather than stop us in our tracks. As a marketing strategy, it’s brilliant. Get the Jonas Brothers back together just as people are starting to remember they existed, and then slap their name on songs whose authorship doesn’t much matter as long as their ubiquity gets people humming them. These aren’t the same JoBros who slayed stadiums in the late 2000s. The rock-band angle is gone, guitars are absent unless they’re the acoustic ones that convey sensitivity, and the brothers don’t attack their songs with childish ecstasy but croon them smokily, letting us know that the purity rings are a thing of the past. Joe’s boast that he’s “winning like it’s ‘Game of Thrones’” is a lot funnier when you realize he’s married to Sophie Turner, who played Sansa Stark.

So it doesn’t sound like the Jonas Brothers. What does it sound like? Every damn hit on the radio, down to the most alarming specifics. “Sucker” nicks its drum machines from Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” “Cool” does the same descending-chorus thing as Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” On “Every Single Time” Nick repeats a melisma identical to the one Adam Levine uses on Maroon 5’s creepy “Blurred Lines”-era embarrassment “Animals.” And “Love Her” kicks off its chorus with the same notes and almost the same words as Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself”; it’s no less mordant a song, though at least the protagonist is on the receiving rather than giving end of abuse. None of these songs are really carbon-copy clones. It’s more of a way to affiliate these songs with pop music as a whole rather than with a musical identity specific to the Jonas Brothers. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 17, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Inspired by the traumatic circumstances of his child’s early birth, Kevin Richard Martin’s Sirens is one of the most frightening works of domestic horror ever committed to record.

Kevin Richard Martin’s (The Bug) Sirens shares with my favorite ambient album of the decade, Biosphere’s N-Plants, a concern with how systems meant to work perfectly tend to go horribly wrong. N-Plants was about the meticulous machinery of nuclear plants, ostensibly designed to provide humans with power while staving off the deadly by-products of this “clean” energy, failing more often than they ought to. And Sirens is inspired by the premature birth of Martin’s child in 2014, the ensuing complications for his wife during childbirth, the precarious operations the newborn had to endure for the first month of their life—and, of course, the helplessness Martin himself felt during that time as a father. His anxiety, as reflected in the titles of the suffocating dark ambient tracks on Sirens, seems largely directed at the unreliability and impersonality of the systems working to keep his child alive, and his lack of control over them. The old Robert Burns quote about mice and men comes to mind.

There is a dreadful sense of anticipation throughout Sirens, mixed with a sound design that obscures and distorts as if the music occurs behind closed doors and thick walls. Sirens is a remarkably passive album, preoccupied foremost with events beyond the control of the protagonist whose mindset Martin’s music approximates here. This music is about waiting, waiting, waiting—and not knowing. Two reviews I’ve read of Sirens have been from fathers, both of whom recognize the feelings of helplessness Martin invokes here. I don’t have kids and have no plans to at this moment in time, but everyone knows how it feels have a pit in their stomach, and the all-encompassing void of this music suggests one as big as a black hole.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 17, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

A document of the missing link between indie rock and new age.

Emily A. Sprague, the smiling, bespectacled avatar of the indie rock band Florist, quietly dropped two of the best recent new age albums. It makes more sense than you’d think. Florist belongs to a latter-day tide of indie rock acts—many led by queer artists, non-men and artists of color—who reject trendy darkness because god knows there’s enough darkness in the world as it is, focus on the ways they keep themselves (and we can keep ourselves) happy and strong and preach positivity while writing candidly about the pain that leads us to seek peace. That was the theme of Florist’s If Blue Could Be Happiness, written after Sprague was partially paralyzed in a traffic accident and turned to accruing an impressive modular synth setup while unable to play guitar. An artist like Sprague is the perfect candidate to make music like this, aware of the utility of new age as a tool to help achieve balance and mindfulness while socially conscious enough to steer away from the dangerous pseudoscience and phony ethnography that have defined the genre for so much of its ignominious lifetime.

Water Memory (2017) and Mount Vision (2018), both freshly reissued, are largely based around Sprague’s exhaustive synth setup. The former is misty and ominous, the sound of lights half-glimpsed on the other bank of a lake, radiating a quiet intensity that suggests staring into the fog and feeling something staring back at you. Like the best ambient music, it’s peaceful but frightening, affirming the vastness of the universe but leaving it up to you whether to find fear or comfort in that fact. Of the two albums, it more completely inhabits a world. “Water Memory 1” is in the vein of ambient tracks like Biosphere’s “Nook and Cranny” or Mika Vainio’s “Viher (Green-Cellular)” that use low tones such as foghorns to suggest a world shrouded in mist. If “1” evokes the inherent grace and dignity of water, “Water Memory 2” suggests the ways humans can act on it, its aquatic blats suggesting the rush of water through a pump or an aqueduct. Water Memory would be pretty much perfect if not for “A Lake,” which occupies the first 13 minutes on the album but isn’t terribly interesting texturally.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 14, 2019

Publication: SPLITTOOTHMEDIA

The Albuquerque-based musician recorded the introspective I Can’t Believe They Invented It! at The Unknown in Anacortes, Washington

A dog was clearly audible through the computer speakers as I Skyped Tristan Puig from their home in Albuquerque. It’s Mimo; Puig’s had him for about three years. By sheer coincidence, he looks a lot like the dog on the cover of Puig’s single “From A Dog To Its Master,” which the singer-songwriter first released before buying the dog but which only last year found its way onto their debut full-length, I Can’t Believe They Invented It!

“From A Dog To Its Master” is about a dog who loves its master, who couldn’t care less.

“There’s this school of thought that dogs aren’t capable of feeling love and that any affection they seem to be showing towards you is because you’re the provider of its food and shelter and things like that,” Puig says. “I don’t think it’s true, but I love the idea that it could be. The most romanticized thing to us as humans is probably dogs.” (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 13, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Earthen Sea’s lavishly detailed new album, Grass and Trees, sounds like a classic dub-techno album but somehow doesn’t feel like one.

Dub techno is an interesting genre because, while built on the limitless possibilities of dub and still relatively young, it seems consciously and cautiously committed to orthodoxy. It remains defined by the work of a few Germans in the mid-’90s, most of them orbiting the production duo/label Basic Channel. If all Western philosophy can be said to be footnotes to Plato, the same can be said about dub techno and this tiny group (though the American Rod Modell has managed to mount a successful counter-tradition). The most innovative dub techno releases tend to work through subtle mischief rather than mold-shattering blows to convention, and Grass and Trees—the new release by Jacob Long’s project Earthen Sea—exemplifies this approach.

Long, a D.C. hardcore punk veteran who still rocks a fearsome beard and a stare like Satan’s has been flirting with the late ’90s intersection of ambient and club music for most of this decade. Last year’s An Act of Love evoked dubby classics like Vladislav Delay’s Multila but was equally as informed by the gauzy reveries of Gas and the hi-def, Ampex-treated ambient of latter-day torch-bearers like Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Rafael Anton Irisarri. Its dub techno DNA shone through mostly in its cold, corroded atmosphere, where everything seemed half-glimpsed through a fog. Grass and Trees is the reverse: it’s much more orthodox, using sounds we might recognize from the genre’s history, but somehow it doesn’t feel like a dub techno album.

Most notably, it has no interest in obfuscation. Every element is plainly apparent, and there are rarely more than five or six per track. There aren’t many new sounds to pick up on your fourth listen that you won’t notice on your third. The dominant percussion sounds are an untreated MIDI clap and an ominous knocking that makes Grass and Treesless than ideal for listening to in a dark room. Rather than everything melting into a briny soup as occurs on An Act of Love or most of the music from which Long takes influence, Grass and Trees has an oblong, building-block quality. It feels freshly assembled and polished, not dredged up from the rusty abyss and run through an acid bath.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

 

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Date: Jun 11, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Few albums for a single instrument are this immersive and psychedelic.

Kelly Moran’s Origin EP is meant as a companion to Ultraviolet, the New York composer’s awesome album from last year. It documents the improvisations that gave rise to that album’s compositions, which were then fleshed out by master producer Daniel Lopatin into shimmering, aquatic Saint-Saëns reveries. That was the kind of album that’s hard not to love or at least appreciate once you’ve heard it, a record seemingly designed to make itself known by word of mouth. But the 36-minute Origin arguably surpasses Ultraviolet, or is at least the superior artistic achievement, because it transports us to that rarified world of hers without even seeming to try. Few albums for a single instrument are this immersive and psychedelic.

The instrument in question is the prepared piano, best known as applied by John Cage and accordingly one of the immediate clichés of avant-garde music alongside free-jazz sax skronk and Yoko Ono screams. Prepared pianos are more often ugly than not and tend to emphasize the metallic, percussive fact of the piano through dull thwacks and thuds. In Moran’s hands, they’re graceful and dignified, undulating like free-swimming tunicates or skittering like bottom-feeding crustaceans, upending how we think of pianos, prepared or otherwise. From that instrument alone Moran conjures astonishing textures, and it’s only gradually on “Reflexive Music (Autowave)” that we realize we’re hearing a piano rather than the distant, bullish thrum of a steeple bell.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 06, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Orcutt can be a powerful guitarist, but Ride a Dove leaves no doubt as to whose show it is.

If you want to stream the reissue of Harry Pussy’s 1996 noise-rock record Ride a Dove, you’ll have to take it as a single, 30-minute track. Prince pulled this trick on Lovesexy, but while that seemed like an arbitrary assertion of creative control befitting as obstinate a prankster as the Purple One, Ride a Dove demands to be consumed as a monolith. The divisions between songs here are as moot as the divisions between instruments, which melt away into a holistic slab of guitar-drums noise and dense cement-bath distortion. Whether or not there are any “songs” – the basic building block of rock ‘n’ roll – here is up for debate, even between different versions of the same record. Think those moments on the Stooges’ Metallic K.O. where you can hear bottles ricochet off Ron Asheton’s strings, then distend them into a full album. That’s Ride a Dove.

The only thing that’s certain here is the presence of Adris Hoyos, the octopus-creature at the sonic and geographic center of Harry Pussy. She takes up a lot of space and defends it fearsomely. Most drummers pick a side of the kit and bash out a beat on it, but Hoyos extends her arms to hit everything she can within whacking range. These are not beats but a robust exertion of presence. And the screams. I’m not talking rock ‘n’ roll screams, I’m not even talking about the controlled volleys of noise Yoko Ono (to whom she’s often compared, not just as a musician but as a wife working with her husband in avant-garde music) lets loose. I mean real screams: the alarming, distinctly feminine sound Fay Wray was famous for, though Hoyos is at least as much like Kong. By centering the drums as the lead instrument rather than the worshiped guitar, by using a sound culturally tied to innocent victimhood and the sexual frenzy of female rock fans as an instrument of jarring punk power, Hoyos subverts the power dynamics of the traditional rock band in more ways than one.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.”

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Date: Jun 05, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Sarah Davachi asserts herself as a composer rather than a mere ambient artist on these four ghostly tracks that comprise Pale Bloom.

Much of Sarah Davachi’s music could be called “ambient”, but that’s a nebulous term even some of its OGs, like Harold Budd, despise. Ambient is less a genre than a set of traits developed through convergent evolution. An artist who came out of the conservatory, an artist raised on dance clubs and chill-out rooms, and a reformed punk could all feasibly channel their influences into near-identical, droning, beat-free music if they stumble across the right mindset. Though Davachi shares more DNA with drone masters like Phill Niblock and Éliane Radigue than the Enos and Budds of the world, it didn’t seem too much of a disservice to slap the term on her music. Pale Bloom, which tells us exactly where Davachi stands. Though it sounds great swirling around your head like leaves in a gust of wind, Pale Bloom is composer’s music, precise and formidable.

The piano-centric record consists of four tracks: three “Perfumes” and the drone piece “If It Pleased Me to Appear to You Wrapped in This Drapery”, which matches the length of the other three tracks by itself. This is not the kind of album where every piece is part of the whole; its four songs are islands in themselves, each showcasing something Davachi can do. “Perfumes 1” is all spidery piano melodies that resolve in odd and unexpected ways, her playing always returning to a portentous half-note plod on a single key. Halfway through, the back-masked ghost of the piece joins her unadorned instrument, and the two incarnations of the music—one corporeal, one weightless and otherworldly—sing an eerie duet together.

“Perfumes 2” is based on the same repeated single note as its predecessor. The difference is this time around, the voice of singer Fausto Dayap Daos appears, androgynous and ghostly, hovering at the margins of the piece. As on “Perfumes 1”, the melody is doubled by more distant, processed layers of voice until we seem to be hearing a small choir, or perhaps one sad song echoing endlessly in space. At the dead center of the mix sits the piano, like the vessel from which these spirits spring.  (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 05, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

The song itself is the worst thing about the “Old Town Road” story. In it, a 19-year-old from Atlanta, best-known for running a Nicki Minaj-themed Twitter account, makes a canny country-rap fusion. He’s taken off the country charts just as he starts to climb them. Suddenly, more attention than ever is brought to his goofy two-minute ditty, and his friends and compadres conspire to get him back on the charts — all the way to number one. He tweets a photo with Billy Ray Cyrus; a day later, their remix hits the charts.

“Old Town Road” is one of the biggest and most inexplicable singles ever. It’s also, let’s face it, not a great song. It’s a juxtaposition of clichés from the two traditions it tries to marry, tongue planted firmly in cheek. His critics who objected to his Wrangler deal had a point. He is making fun of country music. What they fail to realize is he’s making fun of rap too.

The song lives and dies with its fusion, and on his debut EP 7 the man born Montero Hill presents himself as a monkey wrench in the machine that spits out neat genre labels and assigns them to artists. His lyrics aren’t half as interesting as the scenery he drops them in, but he’s the embodiment of rap’s most genre-agnostic moment ever, where trap is pop, where the promise of rap-rock was fulfilled by rappers rather than rockers, where the “yeehaw agenda” brings together marginalized groups alienated by the white-masculine ideal of the Old West.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 05, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

California is Pet Sounds with the mic pointed at the goat’s asshole.

California is Pet Sounds with the mic pointed at the goat’s asshole; it’s a parody of the transcendent pop epics of the ‘60s that, deep beneath the layers of cynicism that mask its puppy-dog heart, aspires to compete with them. The final chord of “Goodbye Sober Day” parodies “A Day in the Life,” but when the harmonies hit on “Sweet Charity” they mean business. The opening of “Air-Conditioned Nightmare” wants songs like “Little Deuce Coupe” for their Golden State superficiality, but when Mike Patton gestures “from the skyscrapers down to the submarines” on its latter half, it’s that same sweep, that desire to encompass all of existence, that drove Brian Wilson’s doomed fantasies. “Pink Cigarette” has the rudest ending of any rock song in history, but it wouldn’t work if sounds that hurt the heart hadn’t burst forth from Patton’s five-octave throat mere seconds earlier. Genre parodies like this are a dime a dozen, but California would be empty snark if not for those moments that genuinely wound.

California is a war between two attitudes from two different decades. The ‘60s saw rock ‘n’ roll’s full flowering into Art when the hippie movement, Eastern mysticism and the bittersweet revelations of psychedelic drugs led to a desire among youngsters to create pop that pined for the truth of the universe. The ‘90s was the moment when that generation’s hungry progeny rifled through its trash, digging up bargain-bin obscurities and bits of cultural detritus to repurpose them with a wink and a nod. Within California is the same appreciation for the filigreed and florid that drove the Shibuya-kei movement, the oeuvres of Stereolab and Jim O’Rourke, the bachelor-pad wine-and-cheese of Air and the trip-hop movement. There’s also the same potty-mouthed prankster irreverence we see on shows like Ren & Stimpy and Beavis & Butthead, not least because all three are imbued with the spirit of Zappa, the first rock ‘n’ roller to lift toilet humor to the level of high art like Duchamp used to do.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: May 29, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Trombipulation is a well-played and frequently interesting funk record that might be a rare-groove classic if it were made by any other band.

1980’s unloved Trombipulation is a well-played and frequently interesting funk record that might be a rare-groove classic if it were made by any other band. Maybe Shock G would’ve still sampled it for the “Humpty Dance” and it would’ve taken on a second life as a cratedigger cult concern. No such luck. Parliament’s last album for 38 years has the misfortune of coming at the end of one of the most impressive runs in pop, and it’s acquired the same reputation as the Velvet Underground’s Squeeze or the latter-day Pixies records: an embarrassment that’s conveniently located at the end of the band’s catalog, so it’s as easy to skip as the end credits of a video game.

Embarrassing Trombipulation is not. In fact, it speaks highly of Parliament that the band sounds so tight and enthusiastic given the turmoil and talent drain that plagued P-Funk’s latter years. Exhausting it is. This is the only Parliament record that leaves us wrung-out and haggard rather than exhilarated. Listening to it can be a little less like listening to a funk record and more like going to the museum on free day or enjoying the buzziest restaurant in town on a busy Saturday night. There’s plenty to look at and chew on, but only if you can tune out the distractions.

The mix is impossibly dense with vocals. There’s always dialogue on Parliament records, either explaining the band’s mythology or simply illustrating how weird and funky the music is with bawdy non-sequiturs. Typically, it’s easy to keep track of who everyone is; but not here. “New Doo Review” and “Peek-a-Groove” (nice whistle register, man, but could you shut up for a second?) play like shouting matches. An interesting aspect of Trombipulation is that female vocals are more prominent than usual, predicting the excellent work Brides of Funkenstein would turn out in the ‘80s, but you’d be forgiven for missing them given how much else is going on at any given time.  (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: May 29, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

The music seems made not of arches and ribbons but of great oblong bricks and panels.

Flying Lotus’ Flamagra plays more like a modern jazz monolith in the vein of Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks or Wayne Shorter’s Emanon than the fleet-footed albums Steven Ellison made in Brainfeeder’s early days. At a little over an hour it’s not as long as those records, but that runtime’s still split over 27 tracks, and there’s a strong impression of implacability and immovability. Rather than threading great gossamer webs of sound between the snap of unruly, militantly unquantized snares, Ellison lays down crisp, basic drum-machine beats and goes nuts over them with all kinds of jazz runs and chords and dense arrangements, and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s string arrangements are never far away. The music seems made not of arches and ribbons but of great oblong bricks and panels. It looks less like a cathedral than a ziggurat.

This is odd because the element it’s meant to represent is fire, which typically dances and leaps much as Flying Lotus tracks tend to. But while You’re Dead could reasonably be about life after death and Until the Quiet Comes totally sounds like dreams, the fire thing feels like a red herring, a spark of inspiration rather than an undergirding concept.

What makes Flamagra a bit tricky to get a foothold on is precisely this lack of an easy guide. It’s his most self-contained music, and because it puts so little stake in sound design it demands you appreciate Flying Lotus as a musician rather than a producer. He says he recently learned to read music, and it shows. His keyboard chops are more apparent than ever, and he’s often spelling out big, spiky chords on the surface of the mix with big, unwieldy synth presets; the droll fairytale theme “Heroes on the Half Shell” does more than one thought was possible with the chintzy fake horn sounds that are a staple of every MIDI pack.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: May 16, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Gloryhallastoopid, which concludes the Parliament mythos, imparts the same bittersweet feeling as when anything wraps up and acquires a body count in the process.

The Spectrum Culture P-Funk retrospective happens to arrive at Gloryhallastoopid (Or Pin the Tail on the Funky) at a time when conclusions are a big part of the cultural discourse: “Game of Thrones” sprinting through miles of plot in mere hours, Marvel grandly dispatching its Avengers to their destinies. And Gloryhallastoopid, which concludes the Parliament mythos, imparts the same bittersweet feeling as when anything wraps up and acquires a body count in the process.

This is where the Sir Nose saga ends. In the last minutes of “Theme from the Black Hole,” the long-nosed enemy of all that is funky (if you fake the funk, see, your nose will grow) finally vanquishes his enemy, the George Clinton avatar Starchild, by turning him into a mule. The logic can be explained by another of Clinton’s elaborate jokes, and it’s to his credit that the record suffers from no shortage of donkey jokes without giving us a single “ass” double-entendre. The P-Funk mythology is more convoluted and makes less sense than fans like to pretend, but what little story exists concludes rather hastily. Starchild should’ve been sent off in grander fashion, especially when Clinton teases his demise as early as the second track.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Articles archive:

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Mac DeMarco’s ‘Here Comes the Cowboy’ Is a Thorny, Frightening Record About the Passage of Time POPMATTERS May 13, 2019 PDF web
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Artist As Pure Ego: Beyoncé’s ‘Homecoming: The Live Album’ POPMATTERS Apr 24, 2019 PDF web
Foodman: ODOODO Spectrum Culture Apr 22, 2019 PDF web
Please Do Not Fight reunion collects a scattered scene 48 Hills Apr 22, 2019 PDF web
Jayda G: Significant Changes Spectrum Culture Apr 16, 2019 PDF web
Bibio: Ribbons Spectrum Culture Apr 15, 2019 PDF web
Resequence: Young Thug: Jeffrey Spectrum Culture Apr 09, 2019 PDF web
Billie Eilish: When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Spectrum Culture Apr 07, 2019 PDF web
Marvin Gaye: You’re the Man Spectrum Culture Apr 03, 2019 PDF web
Revisit: John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Plastic Ono Band: Some Time in New York Spectrum Culture Apr 01, 2019 PDF web
Fennesz: Agora Spectrum Culture Apr 01, 2019 PDF web
Outside Lands 2019: What’s good? Welp… 48 Hills Mar 28, 2019 PDF web
King Midas Sound: Solitude Spectrum Culture Mar 26, 2019 PDF web
Rockers ready to play hard — but first, middle school Jewish News of Northern California Mar 22, 2019 PDF web
The sun hasn’t set yet on Sonny Smith’s SF 48 Hills Mar 21, 2019 PDF web
Matmos: Plastic Anniversary Spectrum Culture Mar 19, 2019 PDF web
Substance: Rise and Shine Spectrum Culture Mar 18, 2019 PDF web
Matmos Celebrate Their 25th Anniversary: An Interview with Drew Daniel POPMATTERS Mar 14, 2019 PDF web
Solange Goes Home to Houston for the Dreamy ‘When I Get Home’ POPMATTERS Mar 14, 2019 PDF web
Discography: Parliament-Funkadelic: Let’s Take it to the Stage Spectrum Culture Mar 14, 2019 PDF web
Black to Comm: Seven Horses for Seven Kings Spectrum Culture Mar 13, 2019 PDF web
Doing a Good Thing For Other People: An Interview with SWMRS POPMATTERS Mar 12, 2019 PDF web
William Basinski: On Time Out of Time Spectrum Culture Mar 12, 2019 PDF web
Lil Pump: Harverd Dropout Spectrum Culture Mar 10, 2019 PDF web
Gary Numan: I, Assassin (Reissue) Resident Advisor Mar 03, 2019 PDF web
Discography: Parliament-Funkadelic: Up for the Down Stroke Spectrum Culture Feb 28, 2019 PDF web
Spellling: Mazy Fly Spectrum Culture Feb 27, 2019 PDF web
Alessandro Cortini/Lawrence English: Immediate Horizon Spectrum Culture Feb 25, 2019 PDF web
Bromfield: ‘The Green Book’ Won Because That Was Its Job SPLITTOOTHMEDIA Feb 24, 2019 PDF web
Nivhek: After Its Own Death/Walking in a Spiral Towards the House Spectrum Culture Feb 24, 2019 PDF web
The raver soul of Yoshi Flower 48 Hills Feb 19, 2019 PDF web
The Residents: Eskimo/The Commercial Album (pREServed editions) Spectrum Culture Feb 12, 2019 PDF web
Discography: Parliament-Funkadelic: America Eats Its Young Spectrum Culture Feb 07, 2019 PDF web
What Are the Chainsmokers Selling with ‘Sick Boy’? POPMATTERS Jan 31, 2019 PDF web
Boosie Badazz: Boosie Blues Café Spectrum Culture Jan 31, 2019 PDF web
Future: The WIZRD Spectrum Culture Jan 29, 2019 PDF web
I-LP-ON: Äanet Spectrum Culture Jan 28, 2019 PDF web
James Blake: Assume Form Spectrum Culture Jan 27, 2019 PDF web
Hardy Fox: Rilla Contemplates Love Spectrum Culture Jan 23, 2019 PDF web
Holy Hell! The Soft Bulletin Turns 20 Spectrum Culture Jan 23, 2019 PDF web
Mike Posner: A Real Good Kid Spectrum Culture Jan 22, 2019 PDF web
Chris Corsano and Bill Orcutt: Brace Up! Spectrum Culture Jan 10, 2019 PDF web
Revisit: Skrillex: Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites Spectrum Culture Jan 07, 2019 PDF web
Serge Gainsbourg: Gainsbourg Confidentiel Spectrum Culture Jan 06, 2019 PDF web
2018 Music That Mattered: ‘Whack World’ By Tierra Whack SPLITTOOTHMEDIA Jan 01, 2019 PDF web
Review: A very full evening with Erykah Badu at the Warfield Jan 01, 2019 PDF web
An alternate ‘Best Songs of 2018’ list 48 Hills Dec 31, 2018 web
The best Jewish hip hop (and hip hop by Jews) of 2018 Jewish News of Northern California Dec 18, 2018 PDF web
Mike Cooper: Tropical Gothic Spectrum Culture Dec 12, 2018 PDF web
Lil Baby: Street Gossip Spectrum Culture Dec 10, 2018 PDF web
Van Morrison: The Prophet Speaks Spectrum Culture Dec 09, 2018 PDF web
The 25 Best Electronic Albums of 2018 POPMATTERS Dec 06, 2018 web