Big K.R.I.T., Gord Downie, Julien Baker and more music reviews

PHOTO: Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip performs during their Man Machine Poem Tour at Rogers Arena on July 24, 2016, in Vancouver, Canada. Andrew Chin/Getty Images FILE
Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip performs during their 'Man Machine Poem Tour' at Rogers Arena on July 24, 2016, in Vancouver, Canada.

In this batch of reviews we explore the latest from rapper Big K.R.I.T, late Tragically Hip-frontman Gord Downie, singer-songwriter Julien Baker, a tribute to Nat “King” Cole from singer Gregory Porter and the latest (surprise) album from Fever Ray.

PHOTO: Big K.R.I.T. released his album 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time on Oct. 27, 2017. Decca Records
Big K.R.I.T. released his album "4eva Is a Mighty Long Time" on Oct. 27, 2017.

Big K.R.I.T.’s “4eva is a Mighty Long Time”

****

On his third full-length collection, Mississippi rapper Big K.R.I.T. hands in a double-disc, 85-minute opus. This is an often stunning, adventurous set. One of the two discs is emblazoned with the name “Big K.R.I.T.” The other is labeled with K.R.I.T.’s real name, “Justin Scott.” That second disc does indeed have a slightly earthier feeling. The jazzy vibes of “The Light” which features Robert Glasper Jr., Bilal, Kenneth Whalum and Burniss Earl Travis II has a mature vibe, while the Jill Scott-assisted “Higher Calling” is inward-looking and contemplative.

K.R.I.T. finds balance here. He crafts rhymes in a modern, more emo-driven style on tracks like “Mixed Messages” and “Price of Fame,” making him an excellent contemporary of people like Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt, while on tracks like “Layup” and “Get Up 2 Come Down” he recalls the greatness of Outkast and the Pharcyde. He’s able to get some strangely funky gospel edges on “Keep the Devil off” and rap beside UGK on “Ride Wit Me.”

Sometimes this record can be a bit of a grab-bag, but it doesn’t need focus. If K.R.I.T. can give us something as hard as nails as “Confetti” one moment, extol the benefits of a having a booming system a couple tracks later (continuing his series of the subject) on “Subenstein (My Sub IV),” then later give us something that drifts as beautifully as “Aux Cord” a little while later, he’s doing something right.

Big K.R.I.T. is packed with ambition and shows immense versatility here. If you are a hip-hop fan with eclectic tastes, this is the record for you. With his flows and his production, K.R.I.T. proves to be a malleable, dynamic force.

Focus Tracks:

“Aux Cord” This beat flows so easily and K.R.I.T. drops his verses so effortlessly. It blends together perfectly.

“Price of Fame” K.R.I.T. debates whether living his dream is worth what he loses in the process, and along the way he drops some real insight.

“Get up 2 Come Down” (Featuring CeeLo Green and Sleepy Brown) This has a classic retro vibe, but perhaps the high-point of this song is CeeLo’s verse, as he often sings more than he raps these days.

PHOTO: Gord Downies new album Introduce Yerself was released on Oct. 27, 2017. Arts & Crafts
Gord Downie's new album "Introduce Yerself" was released on Oct. 27, 2017.

Gord Downie’s “Introduce Yourself”
***1/2

When Gord Downie, the famed lead-singer of the Tragically Hip died a couple weeks ago after a battle with brain cancer, he got a teary tribute from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Tragically Hip made a few notable blips down here, but in Canada, they are considered musical gods.

Last year’s excellent “Man Machine Poem” served as the final Tragically Hip album, but at the beginning of this year Downie managed to squeeze out this sprawling 73-minute set with Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew handling production. As you’d expect, this is often a difficult listen. Downie sounds like a man taking stock of his life and these often sparse pieces frequently feature just Downie and a piano. Take “First Person,” which has some moving depth to it, but isn’t designed for passive listening. Downie’s work has always been ripe with subtlety. Many might find passages of this record to be on the repetitive side, but a closer listen results in something more nuanced and rewarding.

“My First Girlfriend,” seems to be the result of Downie’s life flashing before his eyes, and “Far Away and Blurred” is a striking reflection on personal experiences. There’s a wistful but winking sadness to this record.

Downie’s voice is also an ever-changing instrument. On “Wolf’s Home,” he sounds a bit like David Byrne, whereas the reflection on putting a child to bed, “Bedtime,” has a Lou Reed-like sensibility.

“Introduce Yourself” is full of pain and anguish. There’s serenity in Downie’s voice, but there is an undercurrent of sadness at what is about to happen. This in some ways is less of a traditional record and more of a goodbye to everything that Downie has loved. The result is an album that won’t leave you humming its tunes but will leave you treasuring what you hold dear. This isn’t the catchiest of records, but if you internalize Downie’s sentiments, this collection may tug at your soul.

Focus Tracks:

“Wolf’s Home” This is a tuneful song. In the long-run, Downie faces his fears headfirst. The operatic yelp he adopts occasionally here is an unusual yet effective choice.

“Faith Faith” A touching tribute that seems to be aimed at Downie’s dog. It is delivered with the sweetest and most sincere emotion.

“Safe is Dead” A harsh title gives way to a song with a catchy bass, piano and drum backdrop. Again, there is a mixture of dread and resignation in Downie’s delivery. That combination is hard to achieve.

PHOTO: Julien Bakers new album Turn Out The Lights was released on Oct. 27, 2017. Matador Records
Julien Baker's new album "Turn Out The Lights" was released on Oct. 27, 2017.

Julien Baker’s “Turn out the Lights”
****

Julien Baker follows up her excellent 2015 album “Sprained Ankle” with “Turn out the Lights.” If you loved “Sprained Ankle,” you’ll enjoy this record, too, as it showcases many of the same hallmarks. Baker still sings sparse numbers packed with a uniquely powerful sense of emotional heft. The singer, who has dealt with addiction in the past, is deeply religious and openly gay, giving her narratives a great deal of subject matter to approach. Often she sounds like she is coming from a similarly quiet, angst-driven place as Elliott Smith.

On “Televangelist,” she says, “All my prayers are just apologies.” There’s a palpable sense of hushed torment here as Baker is eloquently trying to spell it all out.

She finds beauty in “Hurt Less,” which discusses perhaps the same car accident as the “Sprained Ankle”-opener “Blacktop.” On “Appointments,” she has some real emo-fueled momentum. It is no wonder why she opened for Death Cab for Cutie. When she raises her voice momentarily on both the title track and on “Sour Breath,” it adds a layer to her normally subdued sound.

This is a bolder record sonically than “Sprained Ankle," but it may not be quite as immediate in its appeal. Still, “Turn out the Lights” shows Baker continuing to grow and continuing to find her own unique niche. At 22, she has already firmly planted herself as an honest, detail-oriented singer-songwriter who wears her heart on her sleeve.

Focus Tracks:

“Appointments” Anyone who listened to “Sprained Ankle” will immediately be sucked into the guitar riff of this track. In a way, only two albums in, Baker already has her own compositional framework cemented in place.

“Turn out the Lights” So much quiet angst bubbles up and explodes before the end of this track, hitting a new sonic apex. Baker is from the punk world originally and as this track builds, that begins to show more clearly.

“Shadowboxing” Fighting her demons or “the devil,” Baker’s internal struggle is spilled out eloquently.

PHOTO: Gregory Porter released his new album Nat King Cole & Me on Oct. 27, 2017. BMG Rights Management
Gregory Porter released his new album "Nat 'King' Cole & Me" on Oct. 27, 2017.

Gregory Porter’s “Nat ‘King’ Cole & Me”
***1/2

Jazz singer Gregory Porter’s latest album is a tribute to the output and career of Nat “King” Cole. Fittingly, it is titled “Nat ‘King’ Cole & Me.” Porter’s often delicate and smooth approach is winning and he’s able to deliver softly sweeping versions of “Mona Lisa,” “Nature Boy” and “The Christmas Song.” The orchestral arrangements handled by different musicians in both Los Angeles and London give this collection some real depth. When Porter picks up the pace a little bit on “L-O-V-E,” the band really gets some opportunity to swing.

Much of this material has been widely covered in the past, perhaps most notably by Cole’s own daughter, Natalie Cole, on her much-celebrated 1991 album, “Unforgettable: With Love.” While Porter definitely isn’t reinventing the wheel here, his enveloping delivery shows how much he cares about the material. He tackles his version of “Quizas Quizas Quizas” with real gusto and brings emotion to the sad and upsetting narrative of the Cole Porter-penned “Miss Otis Regrets.”

To Porter’s credit, not all of his choices are the most obvious and that benefits this set a great deal. In the end, you get a record that pays tribute to Nat “King” Cole with a great deal of affection. Hopefully it will introduce the music Cole helped make famous to a whole new generation.

Focus Tracks:

“L-O-V-E” You may find yourself wishing the rest of this album had more of the swinging energy demonstrated here.

“Miss Otis Regrets” A harsh but moving song which is delivered with skill and nuance.

“Mona Lisa” Sure, this is a timeless standard that Cole made his own, but Porter’s interpretation does it justice.

PHOTO: Fever Ray released her new album Plunge on Oct. 27, 2017. Rabid Records
Fever Ray released her new album "Plunge" on Oct. 27, 2017.

Fever Ray’s “Plunge”
****1/2

Last Thursday it was announced that Karin Dreijer Andersson, who spent years as one half of the experimental Swedish dance outfit The Knife, would be releasing her first album in eight years under her solo-project moniker, Fever Ray. A day later, we got “Plunge,” a rich, weird bouncy record that may very well be her most upbeat work since The Knife’s classic “Deep Cuts.”

This is a sometimes raw, sometimes sexually graphic, record that also sounds like it is at the forefront of pop. “Mustn’t Hurry” and “Wanna Sip” are definitely groundbreaking pieces, but they could also work in a left-field pop context, while on the frank and overtly sexual “This Country,” Dreijer Andersson sounds like the lost Swedish artistic love child of Bjork and Trent Reznor. The beginning of “To the Moon and Back” even slightly recalls the beginning of Nine Inch Nails’ “Head Like a Hole.”

The synth-line that begins “A Part of Us” sounds like it should be scoring episodes of “Stranger Things,” while closer “Mama’s Hands” has a subtle house-music undercurrent.

Andersson continues to be a groundbreaker. If anything, “Plunge” is a much more accessible, brighter, almost celebratory record when compared to her 2009 self-titled offering. If you are looking for inventive electronic music full of oddball surprises while still maintaining a pop core, “Plunge” is most definitely the album for you.

Focus Tracks:

“This Country” A powerfully charged piece, this track is full of so many sonic details that it should grab just about anyone who likes experimental electronic music with slightly industrial edges.

“Mustn’t Hurry” This is among the most accessible music she has ever made. It’s a slow-burning experimental pop ballad with a strong score-music-esque backbone. It has a quiet build, but it holds on tightly.

“Plunge” This title track has a vaguely Asian vibe and some really inventive beat-work.

Coming up: New music from Sam Smith and more.

Plus, get reviews of albums from Kelly Clarkson, Rachel Platten and Weezer.