Coldplay, Waxahatchee, Shabazz Palaces and the Kickback album reviews

PHOTO: Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland from Coldplay perform at The Stade de France Arena in Paris, July 15, 2017. Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images
Chris Martin and Jonny Buckland from Coldplay perform at The Stade de France Arena in Paris, July 15, 2017.

This week the members of Coldplay drop a new EP, indie rock act Waxahatchee continues a somewhat spotless discography with an excellent new album, spacey hip-hop duo Shabazz Palaces releases not one but two new records and Chicago rockers the Kickback present their sophomore full-length.

Coldplay’s “Kaleidoscope” EP

**1/2

Coldplay’s latest set, a five-song EP dubbed “Kaleidoscope,” is an uneven, sometimes polarizing offering. After delivering masterpieces like 2000’s “Parachutes” and 2002’s “A Rush of Blood to the Head,” the Chris Martin-led band has had trouble balancing their indie-rock knowhow and their pop aspirations. This has been especially abundantly clear since the release of their fifth album, “Mylo Xyloto,” in 2011. It was there where their work took a deep slide downward in an attempt to court more of a pop audience. They haven’t really recovered in the six years since, even if their albums have had fleeting moments. Their last effort, 2015’s “A Head Full of Dreams” was admittedly on the more solid side but it didn’t match their past glories. That album had a track called “Kaleidoscope,” which by the way, doesn’t have a presence on this EP.

The five songs here present an imbalance. Opener “All I Can Think About is You” sounds like the work of the old Coldplay, back when they were the little indie-rock band that could. Then, “Miracles (Someone Special)” comes on and it’s a glowing, bright synth-driven number that brings to the forefront all of Chris Martin’s cheesiest qualities. Add Big Sean into the mix and you are reminded that the band had much better luck incorporating hip-hop into their sound when Jay-Z added a verse to “Lost” back in 2008. Of course, that’s a much better song from the start. “A L I E N S” again seesaws back into more interesting territory with its Eastern tinges and its beat that verges on light “drum-n-bass.” As ear-catching as this track is for its elements, it still isn’t all that memorable, even if it is the second best song here.

A live (“Tokyo Remix”) version of their Chainsmokers collaboration, “Something Just Like This,” doesn’t help the song. Although with each successive spin, it becomes apparent that the real reason that this song is a dud is due to the Chainsmokers’ half-hearted production and rinky-dink beat-work. Coldplay do their best to sell it but it is EDM at its most soulless. The set closes with “Hypnotised,” a rather standard, but ultimately inoffensive ballad that wins a few points by sounding like Coldplay’s loose, spacey approximation of their answer of a Sigur Ros song. Although, there’s a bit of Bon Iver-like energy here, as well.

Ultimately, “Kaleidoscope” doesn’t leave as much of an impression that it should. It ends up being on the forgettable side. When dealing with a short release like this, there is more pressure for all of the songs to be winners and this brief collection unfortunately has gaps. Even the best songs aren’t anywhere near the classic level. This is the kind of place-filling release that runs a danger of being forgotten by even the band’s fans in a few years.

Focus Tracks:

“All I Can Think About is You” This is almost a perfect way to begin the set. Showcasing a version of the band that doesn’t show the damage caused by saccharine output like “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall.” Go back to the turn of the century and Coldplay used to be mentioned in the same sentences as Doves, Elbow and Turin Brakes. Granted they became the most popular and successful of those bands, but they almost lost their artistic integrity in the process. This slow-builder is this set’s only keeper. Maybe hope isn’t lost.

“A L I E N S” This is kind of bizarre and it doesn’t completely work, but it is a bit a somewhat worthy, left-field experiment nonetheless.

PHOTO: Coldplays new album, Kaleidoscope EP, was released on July 13, 2017. Atlantic/Parlophone UK
Coldplay's new album, "Kaleidoscope EP," was released on July 13, 2017.

Waxahatchee’s “Out in the Storm” (Deluxe Edition)

****1/2

If you have been paying close attention over the last decade I have been writing this column, you’ll know that Waxahatchee’s “Cerulean Salt” topped my year-end list in 2013. Since then, the band has grown from the one (or two) woman operation it once was. Crutchfield has gone beyond working virtually by herself or with her equally notable twin sister, Allison and has morphed the act into something bigger. Sure, to some extent, the home-made charm that made the first two Waxahatchee records sound so fresh has sort of left, but at the same time, Crutchfield is an ace songwriter who knows her way around an indelible hook.

This sounds fuller, taking a huge step from where 2015’s “Ivy Tripp” left off, but that’s to be expected. After the success of “Cerulean Salt,” Waxahatchee graduated from Don Giovani Records to the bigger Merge. In fact, earlier this year, Crutchfield opened up for the New Pornographers on their tour. I saw one of those shows. Accompanied only by a bassist, Crutchfield managed to turn these songs, which are upbeat (often fuzzy) doses of bright power-pop into sadder sounding country songs. That may not reflect what is on the record, but it speaks to the integrity of Crutchfield’s writing. Her compositions hold up even when radically reworked.

“Out in the Storm” is a brief, ten-song set, focused perhaps on a break-up. It frequently booms with intensity. “Never Been Wrong” and “Silver” both buzz with a grungy burst of energy while the organ-driven “Recite Remorse” is a cathartic, almost celebratory hymn of survival.

It does sound like Crutchfield is working a classic mold and if there is any justice, she will someday be seen as a classic figure herself. From her post-break-up sleep described on “Brass Beam” to the gentle descriptions of an argument that ends in retreat on “A Little More,” she knows how to set a scene with an intimate approach to detail. Sometimes she does this with very few words, Crutchfield’s work comes off as deceptively simple. She works often with straight-forward chord-structures, but there’s something unmistakably raw, confessional and relatable about her lyrical approach here. “Out in the Storm” is a luminous record but it also has its subtle points that perhaps won’t be grasped until further listens.

Crutchfield is a singer-songwriter at heart, using tools from both garage-rock and the grunge-era to great effect. If the standard mixes of these songs seem a bit more polished than you are expecting, pick up the deluxe edition which features the original demo versions of all ten songs, thus recalling the sparse beauty of both “American Weekend” and “Cerulean Salt.” “Out in the Storm” is a beguiling record that will have you hitting the repeat button if it hits you in the right way. Katie Crutchfield is among the most reliable singer-songwriters of her generation.

Focus Tracks:

“Recite Remorse” This two-or-three-chord organ exercise has an almost dream-pop-like sheen hidden underneath its surface. It shows the band working with subtle textures to create an enveloping track. Sometimes less is more. Even when this song builds to its peak, it doesn’t need to hit you over the head to make an impression. Its understated subtlety speaks volumes.

“Silver” This is a high-octane indie-rocker about seizing the day and letting go. Interestingly Crutchfield spends a large part of the chorus wordlessly vocalizing. Nevertheless, she still manages to tell a great story. This song is where the album gets its title.

“No Question” The highlight of this song is probably the ending where Crutchfield repeats the line, “It sets you free,” over and over, while the band gets progressively slower, even tuning the notes down as they go. It’s an impressive move and probably one that wasn’t easy to coordinate.

PHOTO: Waxahatchees new album, Out In The Storm, was released on July 14, 2017. Merge Records
Waxahatchee's new album, "Out In The Storm," was released on July 14, 2017.

Shabazz Palaces’ “Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star”

***1/2

Shabazz Palaces’ “Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines” ****

Yes, you aren’t seeing things. Shabazz Palaces did drop two new albums. If you aren’t familiar with the Seattle-based, spacey hip-hop duo, you are in for quite a few surprises.

Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire offer up more tripped-out, cryptic grooves. Butler’s voice will immediately be familiar to long-standing hip-hop heads. In the nineties he was Butterfly from Digable Planets. He’s obviously had a very busy year, considering last month a live Digable Planets album was also released, in honor of their recent reunion tour. If you were a DP fan, and remember discussing with your friends how “Blowout Comb” is an under-rated, bona fide hip-hop classic, the music of Shabazz Palaces is still a completely different creature which may or may not be an acquired taste.

Butler is rapping over skeletal electronic beats. His voice is sometimes pitch-shifted or tweaked in some way. While Digable Planets found him waxing poetic over classic jazz and funk samples, here he is musing about “the illuminati” and how he was born on another planet. To put it in jazz terms, if Digable Planets served as his straight-forward “bop” period, Shabazz Palaces is more akin to left-field experimentalism or fusion.

These two “Quazarz” albums are obvious companion pieces and there is definite growth when compared to their first two records, “Black Up” from 2011 and “Lese Majesty” from 2014. If anything, there are bits of accessibility sneaking into the mix, from the sampled, semi-orchestral backdrop on “Shine a Light,” to the warped R&B of “Effervescence.”

Of the two records, “Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines” is slightly more solid, even if “Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star” has its winning moments. The latter’s “Moon Whip Quäz” kind of comes off as a repetitive but likable romp and a theme song to the set. Calling a track on the former, “Love in the Time of Kanye” is perhaps both a nod and a targeted attention-grabber.

Listening to these records, it is evident that Shabazz Palaces are setting off to move the genre of hip-hop forward. Their narrative is part science-fiction, part Afrocentric beat-poetry but at the same time, in their own way they are trying to tell a story a story about our modern relationship to technology. In “The SS Quintessence,” when the words “a fascist jihad with hashtags” is uttered, it stops the listener for a second. The same goes for the concept behind “Self-Made Follownaire.” The internet has created a fleeting digital existence than can be quantified into a virtual currency. What that means to humanity in the long-run is hard to determine.

These two records provide a challenging but innately fascinating listen. If you are looking for something easy, this cerebral exercise isn’t for you. This is “art house hip-hop” for the space age and if you are down for the trip, it can be glorious.

“Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star” Focus Tracks:

“When Cats Claw” This track sounds very loose but effective, nonetheless. Butler’s chorus of “That ain’t cool. / This ain’t cool” perhaps purposely calls back to Digable Planets’ classic “Rebirth of Slick.”

“Shine a Light (feat. Thaddillac)” This is definitely different from the rest of the record with its more natural musical approach. It sounds soulful and alien at the same time.

“Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines” Focus Tracks:

“30 Clip Extension” This is an in-depth examination of “your favorite rapper” using “ghost writers.” Butler brushes through hip-hop history, but it is hard to not see this as a highly critical examination of what the genre has become. Insecurities and materialism reign supreme.

“Self-Made Follownaire” This is more beat-poetry than hip-hop in some places. It serves almost as the centerpiece behind both albums as we champion fame, internet presence and ego-massage more than skill. The stars are dictated by unseen, controlling overlords. There’s a cold, dystopian feeling to this notion.

PHOTO: Shabazz Palacess new album, Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star, was released on July 14, 2017. Sub Pop Records
Shabazz Palaces's new album, "Quazarz: Born on a Gangster Star," was released on July 14, 2017.
PHOTO: Shabazz Palacess new album, Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines, was released on July 14, 2017. Sub Pop Records
Shabazz Palaces's new album, "Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines," was released on July 14, 2017.

The Kickback’s “Weddings & Funerals”

****

The second full-length by Chicago-based indie-rock band, the Kickback is an assured, confident piece of work. The most polarizing moments come early on in the set. Some may not receive the laughing chorus on opener “Will T” well, but even that song’s bright, melodic construction lifts it above that one aspect. Perhaps setting the album off with the weakest song on the set was a strategic move, allowing the album to naturally bloom.

Their first album, “Sorry All Over the Place” was produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno, while this one was handled by famed producer Dennis Herring. These are perfect choices for this band, considering singer Billy Yost has a rasp that alternates between evoking associations between Elvis Costello and Spoon’s Britt Daniel. (Herring handled production duties on Costello’s album “The Delivery Man.”)

This is a back-loaded collection. Many of the strongest songs on the ten-track set are towards the end of the record, but on repeated listens this is collection has strong growth potential. It sinks deeper as time progresses. It’s also sonically diverse. The stalker-esque “Vision Board” has an early Replacements vibe while “Dating Around” has a lush, almost electro-lounge tone. “Rube” sounds like it was influenced by Weezer, while the whisper-to-scream-fueled “Hotel Chlorine,” almost effortlessly bursts into a giant chorus.

By the time, incredible closer, “Latest Obsession” comes around, the band has sold you firmly on their talent, combining strong power-pop and punk energy with some occasionally volatile left-turns. A song like “Pale King” for instance takes you on the full-range of their sound. Ultimately, they have a vintage, timeless backbone.

“Weddings & Funerals” flies by in under thirty-two minutes, but it gets the job done, showcasing a band working at a creative peak. Given the chance, this band has quite a future.

Focus Tracks:

“Latest Obsession” After an explosive beginning, this closer turns into a glorious, multi-hued, catchy rocker, worthy of blasting through giant speakers. Again, Spoon serve as a strong point of comparison. This album in many respects sounds like a fitting companion-piece to that band’s incredible album, “Hot Thoughts,” which was released earlier in the year. This is a really clear single with powerful cross-over potential.

“Rube” This is a hand-clap-worthy indie-rock nugget of the highest order. When it erupts into the soaring chorus, it wins you over completely.

“Hotel Chlorine” There’s something almost hypnotic about the way Yost whispers the lines, “I could be your swim-mate. / I could be your slave.” It’s rather subversive and the ambiguity of the exact meaning of such lyrics keeps things compelling.

PHOTO: The Kickbacks new album, Weddings & Funerals, was released on July 14, 2017. JULLIAN RECORDS
The Kickback's new album, "Weddings & Funerals," was released on July 14, 2017.

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