Tag Archives: review

Review: Lana Del Rey, "Born to Die"

Lana Del Rey didn’t have a chance, but at least she’s aware of this fact. Titling her album Born to Die, the former Lizzy Grant is certainly in on the joke – even if her multitudes of humorless haters aren’t. Forget the authenticity questions and the bitter backlash, the greatest downside of Internet age musicians isn’t half-baked live performance – it’s the rush to capitalize on the first crest of celebrity.

In that sense, Born to Die is a typical album. It starts strong, including the two singles that fans first fell in love with, “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans.” But about halfway through, Del Rey is out of material. Nearly all the songs include orchestral swells, hip-pop beats, and a stable of of distorted vocal samples. Snares rattle and linger, strings weep. Considering the year that the spacey producers behind The Weeknd, Balam Acab, and Clams Casino had, it’s no surprise, but the sound can’t be sustained over a pop album.

Yes, the lyrics are immature, telling tales of teen girl fantasy. The imagery is heavy on the “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” qualifiers – bikinis, red nail polish, every liquor consumed in rap videos and strip clubs. But it’s all very intentional, and well suited for the intended audience. One of the more maligned lyrics, the breathlessly dropped “Pabst Blue Ribbon on ice” on “This is What Makes Us Girls,” is not to be taken at face value: it’s exactly the kind of drink that teen girls, dabbling in debauchery, would find palatable and popular. Just listen to the rest of the lyrics: “Sweet sixteen and we had arrived / Baby’s table dancin’ at the local dive… Drinkin’ cherry schnapps in the velvet night… A freshmen generation of degenerate beauty queens.” Pop music is chiefly for teenagers; nothing has changed since Please Please Me. Lana Del Rey’s lyrics will resonate with her audience, even if they don’t do anything for music critics.

The title track kicks off with an orchestral swell out of a Disney soundtrack, and then it’s “Off to the Races” (pun intended), on which Del Rey squeals and squeaks like the Lolita the song depicts. As expected, “Blue Jeans” and “Video Games” are the tightest, most nuanced pop songs on the record, but “Diet Mountain Dew’s” piano melody and upbeat drumming make it a contender, as well. Del Rey’s pouty spoken word lyrics on “National Anthem” are just that, describing the celebs-and-cash world in which her persona exists. An undercurrent of bass and strings reminiscent of “Bitter Sweet Symphony” distract from the fact that “tell me I’m your national anthem” is a bit silly for a rallying cry.

Here’s where the album loses itself. The music becomes repetitive and Del Rey’s lyrics and melodies aren’t enough to rescue it. “Dark Paradise” is a recast “Born to Die;” “Summertime Sadness” nearly shares a melody with “National Anthem.” With a verse like a Nicole Atkins b-side, “Radio” is promising, but its (literally) saccharine chorus loses the script. On “Carmen,” Del Rey muses about a girl “only seventeen, but she walks the streets so mean;” this is territory well-worn by contemporaries Marina and the Diamonds and Sky Ferreira. The outlier here is the simple “Million Dollar Man,” a jazz lounge number evocative of Fiona Apple which is surprisingly warm despite the unnecessary inclusion of digital noise.

These days, Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes have been reduced to 15 seconds, and albums are released before an album’s worth of material is ready. Worse yet, albums present an incomplete portrait of an artist. Where is the playful femme fatale of “Kinda Outta Luck?” Why omit the pitch-perfect bonus track “Lolita,” when it’s Sleigh Bells-meets-cheerleader cheer would be a welcome change of pace? On Born to Die, streamlining Lana Del Rey compresses her into an overproduced version of herself. Not coincidentally, Lana Del Rey’s lyrical fascination with the dark side of Hollywood (the starlet / harlot dichotomy, youth consumed and flames extinguished) is as applicable to today’s pop music world as ever.

Review: Zola Jesus – Conatus

“Conatus” is an archaic philosophical term that refers to an innate inclination towards continued existence and enhancement. Fittingly, it’s also the title of Zola Jesus’ latest album, which sees the gothic singer-songer’s continued transition from the bedroom to the nightclub.

Her third album in three years, Conatus flows from the template established on The Spoils and Stridulum: synthetic ambiance, industrial percussion, and the operatic vocals of Nika Roza Danilova. Once again, the record is marked by crystal-clear production, as on Stridulum, that leaves only the hint of the dissonance and feedback on Zola Jesus’ earliest recordings. The shift between this album and the last is not as dramatic this time, but there is a greater focus on atmospherics and Danilova’s vocals as the dominant instrument. Due to this textural approach, songwriting has taken a backseat: the hooks of Stridulum, both captivating and melancholy, are not as readily available.

Musically, Conatus picks up where Stridulum left off. Synthesizer melodies are brooding and ominous, and electronics buzz and chirp throughout. Lead single “Vessel,” with its pneumatic effects and cacophonous, metallic outro are reminiscent of Nine Inch Nails (an influence throughout the album). Strings, haunting and mournful, add another orchestral layer to the compositions.

The most significant change comes in the percussion. On previous Zola Jesus releases, drums thundered and stalked, but were little more than a metronomic heart beat. On Conatus, the programmed beats are danceable, owing more to synth pop than Skinny Puppy. The shifty beat on “Shivers” is decidedly modern. But don’t be mistaken: this is still a dark record. “Seekir” goes from queasy sub-bass and morphing synths to danceable dark wave and back again.

While there may be some changes to the formula, the main attraction of Zola Jesus remains constant. Danilova’s voice is overwhelming but not overwrought. On “Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake,” her vocals are powerful but with a hint of vulnerability (something you might not get from the strident title). Too often, unfortunately, layers of reverb and delay obscure her voice like a veil. It works in moderation (like the echoing overdubs on “Vessel”), but I much prefer the clarity present on the yearning but upbeat “In Your Nature.”

Zola Jesus has amassed an impressive amount of material in a short amount of time, seemingly recreating herself on each successive release. Conatus is the next step in that process. It may not reach the songwriting heights of Stridulum, but it plays in new sonic territory as comfortably as ever. No matter what’s next from Zola Jesus, it’s refreshing to watch a musician turn into an artist.

Review: The Weeknd – Thursday

The WeekndThursday (2011) [Self-Released] // Grade: B-

The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye is a star now, and he acts the part on his latest mixtape, Thursday. The second part of a trilogy of tapes (Echoes of Silence will follow this fall), The Weeknd continues his examination of the dreary side of debauchery and the failings of fame. In Act II of his musical journey, the Weeknd is further down his drug-induced rabbit hole. For Thursday, that means less hooks, more orchestration, less love, more regrets.

For the most part, the sound is still the same. This is music for the haze of the morning-after: downtempo beats and downbeat instrumentation. That smokey ambiance of House of Balloons still permeates. The thread throughout is Tesfaye’s voice, which ranges from a faltering falsetto (“Lonely Star”) to sharp and focused (“Rolling Stone”). With the focus shifted from his lyrics to his vocals, there’s some vamping and over-singing that distracts from the songs themselves.

The centerpiece of Thursday is “The Birds” couplet. “Part I” is quintessential Weeknd fare. While the caged bird metaphor is a little weak, the chorus (“Don’t make me make you fall in love with a nigga like me”) is the mixtape’s closest lyrical flourish to House of Balloon’s “Drinking Alizé with our cereal for breakfast.” Counterpoint harmonies and the epic drums of 808s and Heartbreak fall away to reveal a finger-picked guitar and Tesfaye, alone: his natural disposition. The screwed down “Part 2” is as much a sequel to “Wicked Games,” with plenty of guitar vibrato and orchestra hits that pack a punch. Sampling Martina Topley Bird’s “Sandpaper Kisses” is a not-so-subtle nod to the trip hop vibe that this album feeds off.

Thursday’s lone guest star is the one we’ve been waiting for: co-signer-in-chief Drake. On “The Zone,” Drake’s typical nonchalance is practically punchy compared to that of Tesfaye. He delivers his punchlines with a staccato flow, filling in the details of The Weeknd’s lyrically bare composition (“Lips so French, ass so Spanish”). And while Drake sang of “Houstatlantavegas,” The Weeknd aims higher. Above the sinister guitar riffs of “Heaven of Vegas,” either the cocaine is talking or Tesfaye has self-actualized. He sings, “They say, they want heaven / They say, they want God / I say, I have heaven / I say, I am God.” With the lifestyle he bemoans and besmirches, maybe it’s a combination of both.

Download: The Weeknd – Thursday

Originally posted on the Mishka Bloglin.

Review: Balam Acab – Wander/Wonder

Balam AcabWander/Wonder (2011) [Tri Angle] // Grade: A+

When Balam Acab released See Birds last year, simple math grouped him with the burgeoning witch house scene. There was the vaguely satanic name (actually, Balam Acab is a Mayan demigod), a dearth of information about the artist, and – most importantly – reverberating, dragged out beats. A deeper listening of See Birds raised questions about this assumption; Wander/Wonder blows it out of the water.

Water, it turns out, dominates any conversation of Wander/Wonder. As on See Birds, it is always gurgling, bubbling, or washing up against the shore. But here, some of it has evaporated: now, there’s an even greater focus on atmospherics. Throughout the record, Balam Acab (20-year old student Alec Koone) crafts songs with layers upon layers of ambience, building a sonic/kinetic energy, only to stop on a dime and cherish the empty space.

That approach to songwriting is evident from the start, on the appropriately titled “Welcome.” Layers of mechanical and organic samples, faint echoes, and Gregorian chant are percussive despite only hints of a drum beat. Out of nowhere, the song opens into a sweeping, orchestral turn, as if a curtain has been pulled back. While it’s the same layers as before, the tone is reversed – and only for a tantalizing moment, before moving on to the next composition.

Wander/Wonder is also a meditation on mainstream music, notably hip-hop and R&B. While others reach for a Cassie lyric or an Brandy chorus, Balam Acab is milling the smallest bits of melody for what they represent sonically, not nostalgically. Whether it’s hip-hop beats transmitted over a fuzzy AM radio or an R&B lyric pitch-shifted into unrecognizable oblivion, Balam Acab is clearly influenced by his forebearers, yet with no reverence paid to “how things are done.” As the album progresses, the ghostly vocals come into focus. Whereas the phonemes and gestures of “Apart” and “Motion” shade – rather than color – the songs, the echoing lyrics of “Expect” are almost decipherable behind the speaker-rupturing bass and a crescendo of violins.

Balam Acab does lovelorn romanticism better than his bedroom producer contemporaries, and unnerving and creepy better than his witch house ones. The most moving song on the record, “Oh Why,” is one of its most gentle. But while it’s melody is simple, it’s construction is not: he samples a skipping record, what sounds like a rain stick, the flutter of a bird’s wings, and some uneasy dissonance for a soundscape that is marked by juxtaposition. The record closes, ironically, with the song with the most in common with witch house. On “Fragile Hope,” water drips like plucked guitar strings, and ominous steps in the sand and uneasy breathing infuse the song with a sense of paranoia. A muffled, rolling drumbeat builds and builds until it’s suddenly gone; there’s a vocal in the distance, but it’s too late. Balam Acab has wandered elsewhere.

Originally posted on the Mishka Bloglin.

Review: Nero – Welcome Reality

NeroWelcome Reality (2011) [MTA] // Grade: D

With Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx recording soundtracks for sci-fi epics, it was only a matter of time before an act took it upon themselves to do the same, without the benefit of a film to score. On their debut album Welcome Reality, UK duo Nero aim for such orchestral grandiosity, adding a dubstep flair to the electro leanings of their predecessors. The result is a bloated companion piece for a Michael Bay flick that doesn’t exist.

Welcome Reality is over-the-top and formulaic, as if Nero took every stadium-friendly electronic music trend and simply added dubstep’s wobbly low-end to it. “Doomsday” is Bloody Beetroots’ mosh-pit electro; “Guilt” has the diva vocals and synth stabs of big room trance. Throughout the album, soaring guitar and synth lines battle four on the floor beats in a “cock rock vs. dance music” race to the bottom; the title of the plodding “Scorpions” has to be a hat-tip to the German glam rockers of the same name, right?

Du jour dance styles aren’t the only territory that Nero mines for Welcome Reality. Towards the end of the disc, there’s a suite of songs that rip mid-eighties pop without a sense of irony. Samples of the Jets’ “Crush,” Carmen’s “Time to Move,” and the coup de grace, Hall & Oates’ “Out of Touch,” prove that even your parents can enjoy dubstep!

Released more than a year after lead single “Innocence,” Welcome Reality has little in common with the sparse, luvstep romanticism promised on that track. “In the Way” is the only other time we get something that isn’t obnoxiously cranked to 11, its reverb-laced snares a brief respite from the album’s relentless synthesized explosions. The pair of tracks showcase how an act can combine dubstep’s aggression with poppy, mainstream sensibilities; it’s a shame Nero didn’t do more of the same elsewhere.

Originally posted on the Mishka Bloglin.

Review: Mz. Bratt – Elements

Mz. BrattElements (2011) [Self-Released] // Grade: B

Mz. Bratt first appeared on the grime radar in 2006, appearing on Mary Anne-Hobbs’ essential Warrior Dubz compilation. On Terror Danjah’s “Give It To ‘Em,” the then-15 year old established herself as a grime spitter with skills beyond her years. With a smattering of material since then, listeners have awaited a more complete release from Mz. Bratt. With the Elements mixtape, fans are even closer to seeing what Bratt has to offer.

Mixed by DJ Kayper, another female performer making waves in a male-dominated scene, Mz. Bratt offers her grimey but precise flow over beats from some of the best in the business. A member of of Wiley’s A-List Music crew, Mz. Bratt kicks off the tape with an intro from Wiley himself, who spits a bit over Lethal Bizzle’s grime anthem “Pow 2011.”

The tape starts off strong with Bratt’s single “Selecta” a Redlight-produced piece of dubstep meets bashment; Bratt’s swagger rides the breakbeat-driven track right into the Hi NRG grime of “Sidechain,” which reunites her with Terror Danjah and Wiley. Next up is a track that should be familiar to dubstep fans: first it was DJ Zinc’s “Nexx,” then it was Ms. Dynamite’s “Wile Out,” and now it’s Mz. Bratt’s “No Way Out.” “No Way Out” demonstrates Bratt’s singing talent, before it is perfectly mixed into Flux Pavilion’s massive wobbler “I Can’t Stop.”

After that non-stop start, Bratt slows it down with “Sleeping with My Memories,” a luvstep jam that features frequent grime-collaborator Ed Sheeran; Bratt is at her best with this type of evocative storytelling. The respite from bangers is a brief one: Bratt takes on Travis Porter’s “Make It Rain” with some ratatat rap.

Here’s where the tape loses focus. “Killin Em” and “Get Dark” sound like Swizz Beatz and Neptunes tracks, respectively. Bratt’s rapping is still on target, but forgoing her UK roots doesn’t do her any favors. For her pop crossover to land, it will have to be on songs like “Speeding,” which features Dot Rotten behind the boards and on the hook. The beat rolls with the energy of dancehall, before fading into a Bratt freestyle over Tinie Tempah’s crossover hit “Wonderman.”

The next generation of grime belongs to artists like Mz. Bratt: performers who do grime and pop, old and new with equal skill. Don’t sleep.

Download Mz. Bratt’s Elements For Free (Click Here)

Originally posted on the Mishka Bloglin.

Review: P Money & Blacks – Blacks and P (via Mishka)

P Money & BlacksBlacks & P (2011) [Self-Released] // Grade: B+

In American hip-hop, “OG” signifies “original gangster:” an old head who has roots and credibility in the rap game, the streets, or both. The same is true in UK grime (UKG), but in that country’s underground scene it has a dual meaning. “OG” is also Organised Grime, a rising South London crew who embody the same ideals of US OGs. Headlining Organised Grime are MCs P Money (who appeared on Starkey’s street bass masterpiece Ear Drums and Black Holes) and Blacks, a duo who recently released the Blacks and P mixtape.

From the first pulses of the Darq E Freaker produced title track, it’s evident that this is pure grime: symbiosis between unforgiving dubstep beats and hyped-up MCs who spit more than they flow. The tape’s behind-the-boards talent is as impressive as its vocalists; producers like Royal-T and Teddy Music are grime heavyweights. For fans of heavy, aggressive dubstep – with its sinister melodies, midrange wobble and all that bass – Blacks and P is over an hour of fire-starting battle tracks.

Along with original compositions, the duo refreshes some major, classic tunes (it is a mixtape, after all). Blacks freestyles over Nero’s luvstepper “This Way,” saving his ammo for the wobble-heavy verses and letting the female vocals breathe. “Saxon” by Chase and Status is the perfect soundscape for Blacks and P-Money to go hard over, as they do on “Timid.” For grime OGs in the audience, they even remix the recent update of Lethal Bizzle’s anthem “Pow” (a song so brutal and violence-inciting that it was infamously banned in several UK clubs).

A highlight of the mixtape arrives relatively early on in the form of “Effing OG.” The theatrical Lex Luger-meets-Girl Unit trunk rattler is an edit of 18-year old producer S-X’s “Bricks.” The chorus is more mission statement than hook (I stepped in like “Who runs this town?” / We can do this thing like it’s a Western shoot out / They’re looking at my face like “who the hell is he?” / Do your research, I’m a fucking OG), and the song features one of P-Money’s wittiest punchlines: “these rugrats are worse than Angelica.”

The question of grime’s mainstream appeal has been a source of contention since Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 breakout. But while an artist like Tinie Tempah partners with Kelly Rowland and Ellie Goulding for a top ten record, P Money and Blacks stay true to UKG’s namesake griminess rather than attempting a crossover. These OGs wouldn’t have it any other way.

Buy P Money & Black’s Blacks and P Over at iTunes Now!

Originally posted on the Mishka Bloglin.