Archive | November, 2018

Noname ‘Room 25’ – Review

29 Nov

Noname’s sophomore album ‘Room 25’ is delighted by its own ability to surprise and shutdown its critics. ‘You really thought a bitch couldn’t rap huh’ she asks after stringing together a delirious, hilarious list of half rhymes, puns and putdowns on album opener ‘Self’. Within about a minute of ‘Room 25’ it’s clear that this Chicago rapper is a prodigiously talented wordsmith; with a laid back flow, she nonchalantly delivers technically proficient and thematically audacious rhymes in a way that puts the bigger stars on the Chicago scene (such as some-time collaborator Chance the Rapper) to shame.

‘Room 25’ is a skewered coming of age story, that zooms in and out on the small, life-altering events that in your late 20s multiply awkwardly. ‘Window’ is a piercing portrayal of romantic disappointment and coming to terms with your own sexual inadequacies, a depressing epiphany that is converted in to proud defiance on the liberating ‘Montego Bae’. Less successful perhaps are the moments where Noname turns the lens outwards. On the album’s poppiest song, ‘Blaxpotation’, she whizzes through hot topics with all the speed and attention of someone scrolling through their twitter feed, latching on to targets that will rattle the left and right (Hilary Clinton ‘watermelon-ed the system’, whatever that means) but drawing no blood. Her righteous indignation, however well placed, lacks focus and depth, and her voice lacks the tonal conviction these kind of lyrics need.

Everything is so laid back, which is one of the album’s selling points but it’s also to the detriment of the more incendiary rhymes. The rattling triplets and slinky bass line of ‘Part of Me’ present perfect examples of where ‘Room 25, can be both lovely and infuriating. The sounds are nonchalantly beautiful for about thirty seconds but become boring over the course of the song. The lack of development, variation in structure and tone, makes the song feel quite stilted, especially as the formula is repeated on the very next track ‘With You’, and indeed many of the other numbers.

It’s no surprise that Noname honed her skills in Chicago’s spoken word scene. Her considered delivery feels detached from the smooth neo-jazz and soul that swells like an ocean underneath. Occasionally it feels like the rhymes dictate the songs’ progressions a little too much. Word association leads to somewhat splintered narratives, and this takes the album in jarring directions. On an aesthetic level ‘Room 25’ is often stunning – dig a little deeper though and you’ll often find a well intentioned hollow. The album scratches the surface, and it feels promising. Let’s see where Noname goes next.



Cloud Nothings ‘Last Building Burning’ – Review

24 Nov

Early last year when Dylan Baldi declared that their music would now sound ‘new age’ and ‘inspirational’ fans were understandably surprised. The band had become known for their restless anger and probing inquisitiveness. The new found maturity and optimism seemed to play against their musical talent for propulsive, aggressive rock music. Some critics overstated the extent to which ‘Life in Sound’ diluted the band’s natural restless energy – it still rocked pretty hard at points – but ‘Last Building Burning’ is a corrective of sorts; it cranks up the feedback, the tempo and the pessimism to make something that in both body and spirit resembles Cloud Nothings as we know them.

Songwriter Dylan Baldi promised ‘bursts of intense, controlled chaos’ this time around and that’s exactly what we get within about ten seconds of ‘On an Edge’. The song is more menacing than anything the band have recorded to date, capturing the whip crack intensity of their best music with none of the melodic sweetness to counterbalance it. This sinister edge digs in to almost every song, with the exception of the (relatively) gooey ‘Here and Nowehere Else’ throwback, ‘Leave Him Now’. It’s particularly prevalent on the eleven minute part-dirge /part battle cry ‘Dissolution’ and it’s breath-catching follow up ‘So Right So Clean’. Their last album was notably measured, something Baldi had a habit of pointing out in press interviews. On these songs he’s back in the grip of a claustrophobic cynicism. ‘Oh perfect thing, I wish I could believe in your dream’ he growls, barely bothering to register the sarcasm. ‘It doesn’t mean anything, no, no’. This mood prevails for a half hour record that feels much longer, and much heavier, than it actually is.

Cloud Nothings are a hurricane of energy and noise – it doesn’t take much to get caught up and captivated by their ferocity and conviction. Their songs are propelled forward by Jayson Gerycz , the finest rock drummer of his generation; someone capable of banging straw in to gold. If he sounded restrained on ‘Life in Sound’ then the elastic has been released on ‘Last Building Burning’ where he hurtles tunes forward with what must surely be an unsustainable intensity. On ‘Echo of the World’ he plays like a man positively deranged, oblivious to everything around him, wrapped up in his own fills, always on the brink of bringing his band mates down with his chaotic drumming. To the extent that it’s possible, the other instruments become background noise. The guitars howl and the bass gurgles acid but they are no match for the chaotic backbeat.

For an artist who has already progressed and innovated more than would be expected from an indie rocker (and let’s not forget that Baldi started by making crunchy bedroom pop nuggets), it might be harsh to expect the progressive projectory to continue indefinitely. Nonetheless, you can’t help feeling that ‘Last Building Burning’ is something of a backwards step in some respects; an album that scales back on the ambition of its predecessor and returns to a sound they definitively explored seven years ago. On a musical level ‘Leave Him Now’ sounds like ‘Internal world’ whilst ‘Dissolution’ plays the same tricks as ‘Wasted Days’. But even the album’s mood, its cover art, the number of tracks, the pacing – it all feels familiar. This is the sound of an accomplished band playing to its strengths to negate risk. It’s as good and as disappointing as that statement suggests. Even so, in 2018 you’re unlikely to hear anything that rocks with as much courage of conviction as this.



Joji ‘Ballads 1’ – Review

8 Nov

Joji, aka George Miller, aka Pink Guy, aka Filthy Frank, has built a successful career as a YouTube prankster – a career that seems at odds with his new direction, as a balladeer. Everything from the moody press photos to the album title, ‘Ballads 1’, speaks of someone trying very hard to be taken seriously. The addition of the 1 in the title hints that this is a redo of sorts, but nothing about the content suggests it’s one that Joji is particularly attached to. It’s not that he still has the vibe of prankster, it’s that there is a calculated design to the album that plays against the intimacy and sincerity of the form he’s chosen. Its another disguise. Many of his artistic impulses – not least the curtailed and oh so trendy mix of trap, quiet storm, sound cloud rap and alt-r&b – result in the moodiness coming across as just another aesthetic choice designed to appease a niche but influential audience.

When it works, ‘Ballads 1’ can be surprisingly endearing. It opens with ‘Attention’ a pretty piano noodle that recalls nothing so much as Youth Lagoon’s emotive lo-fi masterpiece ‘Year of Hibernation’. In fact the album as a whole sent me back to that dark, alternative streak that ran through Li-if r&b at the start of the decade. ‘Slow Dancing in the Dark’ mines the same ground as Twin Shadow’s similarly titled ‘When We’re Dancing’ and conveys a moonlit romance unsettled by the sinister production from Chairlift’s Patrick Wemberly (the latest in a line of startling productions by Wemberly this year). ‘Yeah Right’ stands out; with its spluttering beat and vapid hook it has the vibe of early 00’s N.E.R.D and in contrast to much of the album, is notable for how much Joji seems to be trying to convey more than indifference.

There are subtle musical surprises at points – the noisy interlude of ‘Why Am I Still in L.A, the blast of pitch distorted 80s synths on ‘Slow Dancing…’ but these risks are not enough to rise above the predictable, glum atmosphere created by twelve slow paced confessionals strung out in a row. ‘Ballads 1’ is derivative of Kanye’s far more groundbreaking ‘808s and Heartbreaks’ and Drake’s ‘Take Care’. But whereas those artists carved their masterpieces out of life or death necessity, Joji sounds like he’s weaponising heartbreak for career progression. There is a lack of conviction at odds with the genre Joji has dedicated himself to, and he fails to do his ideas justice with half cut mumbles and generic trap beats. It’s something he seems aware of – at the very opening he states ‘I know I’m cryptic and I’m weird / that shit comes off as indifferent.’ That’s the kind of self awareness that suggests these ballads are coming from the brain instead of the heart. Joji trades mainly in affected cliches and vague proclamations, usually detailing some kind of romantic break down or defiant revenge. His lyrics are often too steeped in loathing to be romantic, too self interested to be truly connective and too vague to offer precise insight.

Throughout the album Joji delivers the kind of heart in mouth lines with all the bluster of a leaf floating across the skyline on an autumn day. ‘I would die for you’ he mumbles on ‘R.I.P without the conviction to convince me, let alone the object of his affections. The undersell might work if you didn’t get the distinct impression that ‘Ballads 1’ is all too conveniently stylised like this to appeal to a young, Hipster audience. His vocal tics and affectations are particularly trying. Everything from the dozing melodies to the the auto-tuned vocals, the half arsed trap beats to the shadowy synths, suggests somebody overly indebted to the current fashion. And the problem with adhering so closely to fashion is that before you know it the moment has passed and people have moved on to the next thing. The album’s back half in particular is clogged with the type of druggy slow jams that How to Dress Well, The XX and James Blake put to bed eight years ago with classics like ‘Love Remains’, ‘Coexist’ and ‘James Blake’. Joji is not short on talent but ‘Ballads 1’ is too preoccupied with its moment to truly transcend it.