intro: This week John Mayer dropped the first installment in a series of EPs, Canadian turntablist Kid Koala teams up with Icelandic singer Emilíana Torrini, rock band AFI release their latest, indie-rock duo Foxygen deliver a brief, theatrical and retro-sounding set, we examine the latest from frequent Zero 7 vocalist Sophie Barker and electro-pop band Austra release an album with operatic appeal. 2017 seems to finally be kicking into gear.
quicklist: 1 title: John Mayer’s “The Search for Everything – Wave One” **1/2 text: Yes, John Mayer is releasing a new album this year but he’s releasing it in drips and drabs, collecting it in an assortment of EPs. I guess the thought is that by the end of the year these works will add up to cohesive disc. By selling several products instead of one, the record companies probably make more of a profit. Added to that, there’s a chance that a certain number of listeners who download this collection in its parts will also buy it physically if it ever is released in hard copy.
“The Search for Everything – Wave One” contains the first four songs and it is a textbook example of why the album is still needed as a medium for full musical expression. These four songs are alright on a passive, casual level I suppose, but they don’t show a lot of contrast and thus together they result in very little excitement.
“Moving On and Getting Over” is some “lite” jazzy funk that never really picks up beyond an elevator music pace, whereas “Changing” is a half-way decent piano-ballad that could still use an addition sense of lift.
“Love on the Weekend” has a near-shoegaze flavor to its main riff, but it is brought down by formulaic lyrics. Nevertheless, the unexpected guitar-textures make this the best track.
The whistle-led “You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me” sounds like something sweet and orchestral, but it also has a tender quality that borders on being too saccharine for its own good. It almost sounds like it could be a hit single from a kids’ movie from the eighties.
The musicianship, as always with Mayer’s releases is quite good, but this EP lacks a center-point that really sticks. It needs a more magnetic song akin to say “Bigger than My Body” or “Why Georgia” to give it weight. In the context of a whole album, these songs would arguably play better because they’d find their place presumably in a larger progression. As a spare, fifteen-minute window of time, this EP mostly feels like it is running in place even if you can tell there is a slight echo of momentum just under the surface.
“Love on the Weekend” The overall vibe of this track from a musical perspective is much more edgy and biting than you’d expect. It sounds like a cool, chilled piece of indie-rock. It’s a bit of a let-down that Mayer’s lyrics serve up a rather standard, unimaginative reflection on….you guessed it…. “Love on the Weekend.” Lyrically this isn’t as cloying or embarrassing as say the words to “Your Body is a Wonderland,” but it sounds like it was written to be an easy hit single. The sonic backdrop still makes it the coolest track on the set.media: 45024309
quicklist: 2 title: Kid Koala Featuring Emilíana Torrini’s “Music To Draw To: Satellite” **** text: Kid Koala is best known as an ace turntablist. We last heard from him five years ago with the remarkable “12 Bit Blues,” an album that merged modern trip-hop and hip-hop influences with samples from vintage blues records. On his latest, “Music To Draw To: Satellite,” he takes a different approach altogether. This is essentially an ambient chill record, exploring slow, mannered soundscapes. He teams with Icelandic vocalist Emilíana Torrini, giving this collection an appeal that should attract fans of Bjork and Sigur Ros.
This is a beautiful and lush piece of work and it earns its 72-minutes of length by never rushing. Torrini is on seven of the set’s 18 tracks and her guest spots make a nice complement to Koala’s soundscapes. She finds a thought-provoking sense of melodic momentum on “Adrift,” and maneuvers a bass-heavy, enveloping groove on “Beneath the Heat.”
Elsewhere, Kid Koala charts some new territory. His tracks alone sound like stunning, sparse bits of score. Longtime fans may bemoan the fact that the scratching work is somewhat infrequent, often hidden beneath the surface. If you liked earlier records like “Some of My Best Friends Are DJs” or “Your Mom’s Favorite DJ,” this set is comparatively a profoundly different animal, merging a near-classical focus with rhythms that are often downright glacial in their approach. This is a record for simmering down after a party and it might even serve well for near-meditative, nocturnal listening sessions, but even on a woozy reflection like “Novachord,” you will find yourself getting lost in the set’s admittedly captivating sense of minimalism.
“Music To Draw To: Satellite” sets Kid Koala up in new territory. He and Emilíana Torrini make a dynamic pair, and they should continue their creative union. This may not be the party-starting record you are probably expecting, but it is a mature, compelling set that will quietly demand your focused attention.
“Beneath The Heat” This track works to a slow simmer as Torrini casually whispers over the groove and bounces her voice off of a thick bass-line.
“Novachord” Kid Koala by himself makes what are probably merely slowed down, backwards notes possess the kind of focus you’d expect from a full orchestra.
“The Darkest Day” This eight-and-a-half minute collaboration with Torrini has the vocalist sounding like she is calling her performance in through a phone receiver, but the deep, incredible building quality that this track achieves is impressive. In the last two minutes or so, it really bursts into a grand explosion.media: 45023946
quicklist: 3 title: AFI’s “AFI (The Blood Album)” ***1/2 text: AFI follow up 2013’s “Burials” with the self-titled “Blood Album” which once again fuses their early punk and hardcore influences with some goth-driven new-wave touches. Davy Havok’s sometimes hits some nice melodic turns that sound much more mature and lower-key when compared to some of the band’s earlier work. Tracks like “Hidden Knives” and “Above the Bridge” fuse a post-eighties, synth-driven focus with the more delicate and respected side of emo.
There are tracks that rock out a little, too. “So Beneath You,” for instance shows a momentary bit of hard-edged rock. The same could be said for “Dumb Kids” or “White Offerings.” Does this album have a track as infectious as “Miss Murder?” No. But that track stands as a powerful high-point that holds up impossibly well on repeated listens.
This record is a capable collection with enough strong moments and enough tuneful fortitude to warrant a more than decent recommendation. Guitarist and synth-player, Jade Puget handles production of the record as well, doing a somewhat stellar job, considering that the band’s previous set was handled by rock heavy-weight Gil Norton. It is obvious though that Puget and Havok have an undeniable musical bond. In addition to their work in AFI, the two musicians also record as the more electronic-minded Blaqk Audio.
“AFI (The Blood Album)” is a dynamic record that should please both old and new fans of the band. Certain circles will hear many of these songs as anthems. “She Speaks The Language” perhaps in another time would have been a much bigger hit, than it probably will be in 2017. Even as a mere album track, it still instantly grabs you by the ears. This album is full of such tracks.
“Hidden Knives” The driving riff that fuels this song serves as its calling card and it bursts into a somewhat decent pop hook.
“Still a Stranger” This song would be perfectly suited for alt-rock radio in the early portion of the last decade, and it has an organic, earnest singer-songwriter quality while still maintaining a punk-like intensity.
“White Offerings” I’m not sure what this song is actually about, but it definitely possesses a hard-hitting sense of drive.media: 45024130
quicklist: 4 title: Foxygen’s “Hang” ** text: Foxygen’s fourth album is an insanely frustrating 32-minute record. The duo of Sam France and Jonathan Rado expand their lo-fi psychedelic tendencies into some sort of retro-seventies-sounding musical of sorts. This is a hard record to pin down and it is a little rough to criticize because they are backed by an orchestra of horns and strings that ends up sounding very good and well-arranged, but as an album, in general, this collection doesn’t really work. It ends up sounding derivative and too kitschy for its own good.
“Follow the Leader” works more effectively than the rest of the set, because it seems less self-aware. But it also comes off like it is trying to angle itself in the direction of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again.” “Avalon,” probably wants to be like a Randy Newman song, mixed with a few Abba flourishes, but it ends up sounding like a bizarre hipster approximation of a Tin-Pan Alley imitation.
Mostly this record sounds like France and Rado are aiming for Queen and Bowie territory. The influence of the “Ziggy Stardust” era is strong here, but the songs and arrangements are often a bit too busy and are frequently marred by affected vocal performances that are not up to the task at hand.
This will be a polarizing record. There are just as many elements to love here as there are distractions, which makes this record all the more unfortunate. Listen to the beginning of “On Lankershim,” and it sounds like they are aiming for Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” This brief set has a lot of classic rock ambition. It fails partly because its influences are so painfully obvious and the material here doesn’t compare in quality to the original sources.
This record will find its audience, but it doesn’t have the same charm as earlier albums like “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic.” It comes off like a half-baked, derivative rehash of better music from the seventies. It’s a bit of an awkward musical that too often wallows in its own cheesiness.
A lot of work obviously went into “Hang,” but it falls flat in spite of a few appealing qualities.
“Follow The Leader” The only track here that sort of works on all levels, this has the kind of retro-kitsch the rest of the album was trying to achieve. It actually sounds plausibly like a lost single from more than forty years ago.
“Mrs. Adams” Take Bowie’s “Life on Mars” and combine it with mid-seventies Billy Joel and some Elvis Costello-esque vocal rambling and you get the idea. This sounds like a reflection on depression and possibly suicide, but it sounds like it is delivered in a winking, snarky quality. It doesn’t completely succeed, but it is closer to a win than the rest of the set. Even if Sam France sounds like he’s putting on bizarre impressions with each of the track’s composition turns.media: 45024186
quicklist: 5 title: Sophie Barker’s “Break the Habit” ****1/2 text: Like Sia, Sophie Barker initially got famous as one of the rotating vocalists working with eclectic chill-masters Zero 7, most notably on their standout track, “In the Waiting Line.” Barker’s third solo album has the same kind of effortlessly seductive sophistication found in her Zero 7 work, but it also is an album that should push her to a higher level. She deserves the same level of international fame that Sia has attained. It’s obvious from the beginning bass-notes of the opening title-track this album is a going to be immediately impressive.
Mostly, Barker sings with a quiet sense of intimacy, but on “3 Things” when she enters with a surprisingly fuller voice, you are able to hear her truly dynamic power as a vocalist. She’s even able to breathe new life into a well-worn classic like Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman,” which has been also famously been covered by the likes of Hole, Karen Elson and others.
This is a full, texturally rich album for adults who enjoy well-orchestrated music. “Start Me” is as mature, jazzy offering, while “I Do It Myself” is a bright synth-heavy piece of pop. This is a record that never sells out its ideals for modern conventions and yet it is also the kind of record you wish radio would champion. Sophie Barker has long been a star that only a few people know on this side of the pond. If this tremendous offering is any indication that should eventually change. This may be the first truly great album of 2017.
“Break The Habit” This track is a slow-burner that should immediately earn Barker new fans on the very first listen. It’s a bold and yet often understated performance all around.
“Start Me” In some ways it feels like Barker is setting this up like Bond theme, but it also sounds like a track destined for martini-sipping parties. Barker has an effortless smooth delivery that often almost places her in a smooth-R&B realm. During the final minute and a half, the track builds into an impressive guitar burst as Barker sings along to the musical punctuation.
“Don’t Give It Away” Here Barker’s vocal line and the guitar riff work in a perfect call-and-response formation, while the groove remains silky and smooth.media: 45023801
quicklist: 6 title: Austra’s “Future Politics” **** text: Canadian synth-pop band Austra’s third album, “Future Politics” is a woozy, often dizzying and compelling step forward. Anchored by Katie Stelmanis’ impressive, classically-trained voice, this is pop with an operatic flare.
This is an album full of potential left-field club hits, like the chilled “Beyond A Mortal,” the sleek “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself” and the hypnotic “Angel In Your Eye.” Really, this is one of the many second or third tier dance records that could eventually break through to a bigger and wider audience and yet. It’s also a rather forward-thinking collection artistically, armed with specific, unique quirks.
This is a record for some that will be an acquired taste, but if you listen to it deeply, you’ll find plenty to enjoy. A song like “Gaia” for instance should appeal to fans of everyone from Kate Bush to the synth-ier side of early eighties Eurythmics.
“Freepower” is instantly alluring, while the harp-led instrumental, “Deep Thought” adds a sense of musical fortitude to the set on the whole. “I Am a Monster” combines a thought-provoking lyrical subtext with a sonic, digital swirl.
“Future Politics” is a sly, occasionally stunning and seductive record, thick with dense musical textures and nuance. It’s a record that doesn’t bend to conventions and at the same time, it has places where it sounds instantly familiar.
“Beyond a Mortal” The bare-bones minimalism of this track makes it all the more compelling and the keyboard riff that repeats makes this properly suited for extended listening sessions.
“Angel in Your Eye” This vaguely Goldfrapp-eque track finds Stelmanis almost talking her way through the verses. Considering that she sometimes favors more operatic techniques, this more straight-forward and more deadpan approach stands out and makes you listen to the words more closely.
“We Were Alive” This opener sets the album off on the right foot and slowly warms the set up well with an appealingly gentle quality. As the groove gains momentum, the song doesn’t lose its sense of sonic focus.
Next Week: New music from Japandroids, Ty Segall and more.
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