Reviews

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

Sufjan Stevens eight studio album ‘Carrie & Lowell’ was released in 2015 and met with acclaim from pretty much everyone. I got into his work whilst in college, starting with the massive and brilliant album ‘Illinois‘ and then ‘Seven Swans‘. I kind of came across him because of his work with The National too, but either way, I’m glad I did. In the past, Stevens has done some pretty far out stuff, such as his album ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit‘ which makes no sense to me. With ‘Carrie & Lowell‘ however it is much more direct indie folk like the music he made when he first came on the scene.

Stevens say’s that of the album that it “I fell deeper and deeper into doubt and misery. It was a year of real darkness”. He also says that with he previous work he felt he got something in return, but not with this record. That comes across throughout the album as the tone, sound and vocals are downbeat and faded. The album opener ‘Death With Dignity’, as with many of the tracks, is beautiful to hear. Stevens change in pace and vocal range makes for a seemingly sad song but there is also a hopeful edge as the piano sheds some light on the track. His unique voice is highlighted with this track in particular. ‘Should Have Know Better’ is one of the best tracks on the album in my opinion. A song about his mother’s death and how he didn’t grieve, the song has that regretful theme before turning slightly more lighthearted when he sings about new life. It was also released as a single. Here are some lyrics from the song:

“I should have know better

Nothing can be changed

The past is still the past

The bridge to nowhere

I should have wrote a letter

Explaining what I feel, that empty feeling”

 

The following track, ‘All Of Me Wants All Of You’ is a love song where Stevens adds a little ‘ohh’ to the end of every few lines and it’s interesting how something so simple can bring that feeling of wanting with it. So simple, so smart. ‘Drawn To The Blood’ makes reference to Stevens religion and faith and how he feels let down because of the tragedy he is facing. The album is built around his reflections on the death of his mother and I guess with this track he is looking for answers. ‘Eugene’ is another song about looking back, this time to his childhood. As the next track, ‘Fourth Of July’ beings, as I’m playing the album through, I’m reminded of why Stevens is unique. His stuff is just so fucking good. His albums are like an amazing chocolate cake, he knows all the right ingredients. He even put sprinkles on top! ‘The Only Thing’ begins like many of the other songs on the album but that repetition doesn’t become annoying or get boring. The vocals are soft and there is a little electric guitar towards the end. You’ve to really listen to these songs and its vocals to get its value. The structure of the songs are as simple as they were on ‘Seven Swans’ but that’s just the way it is. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

‘Carrie & Lowell’ picks up the pace of the album and I gather that it is another song in which Stevens reflects on his youth and his mother. This track was also released as a single. The 9th track, ‘John My Beloved’ is an absolutely beautiful track, one of his best in my opinion. A weary up and down change in vocals brings it to life and in a sense it’s the most melodic track on the album. Very very easy to listen to. In ‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’ Stevens sings “Fuck me I’m falling apart” as he details his demise after his mother’s death. It’s short and direct so you get the message pretty quickly. The final track is ‘Blue Bucket Of Gold’ and it’s another pretty short one. He seems to be searching for someone to fill the void left by his mother. This comes across in the chorus as he sings-

Raise your right hand
Tell me you want me in your life
Or raise your red flag
Just when I want you in my life”

It’s a solid end to the album but you can’t help but feel he didn’t get the answer he was looking for by creating the album, as he had stated in the snippet I included earlier.

I should probably do more reviews of Sufjan Stevens work because it’s so diverse. You also need to be in the right place to be able to listen to one of his records straight through. Some records work when you’re just walking down the street, others are best kept for the less rosy moments of your life. You need to invest the time in a way. However, it is time well spent. Thanks for being miserable Sufjan!

G.M

Photo Credit: music.stevens.com

Santogold – Santogold

Santogold‘ is the debut album released by Santigold. It came out in 2008 and was preceded by the single ‘Creator’. She was know as Santogold at the time but changed her stage name slightly since. A whole bunch of producers were part of the creation of the album, but Diplo is the only one I recognise. The album itself spans several genres including hip-hop, pop, reggae and dub. It’s very out there and alternative, but good.

The album opener ‘L.E.S Artistes’ is my favourite track on the album, and the same probably goes for many people who listened to it. The lyrics are a bit confusing but the gist I get from it is that she’s trying to say ‘I’m here now, watch out’. However, the lyrics are hard to interpret so I could be wrong. There are 3 other tracks that really stand out for me which are ‘Creator’, ‘My Superman’ and ‘I’m A Lady’. ‘Creator’ has a savage intro and a dub sound with a hip-hop beat, with Santigold rapping about how she’s “up on the radar”, She plays the confident and cocky rapper throughout and when you hear it you think OK, sounds cool, but when you read the lyrics it’s a bit all over the place. I like ‘I’m A Lady’ for the refreshing vocals and sound. Though it was not released as a single I think it could have been, and it also would have showed she can change her style. With ‘My Superman’, it’s short and sweet. She’s rapping about someone she considers her superman but also how they started to fade in her eyes. It’s more that the song has a catchy beat and hook that appeals to me.

There is a blend of genres the album which is pretty cool and I’m sure wasn’t easy to pull off. However, apart from the tracks I’ve said stand out, the album kind of plays itself through. You hear the odd track that’s pretty cool, but I think it’s more the sound that stands out rather than the lyrics. The likes of ‘Unstoppable’ and ‘Light’s Out’ sound great, but there’s no real substance to them. I think the lyrics actually fall flat, and that her themes are pretty poor. It’s the genre blending and unrestricted sound that makes the album what it is.

Throughout the album I also found her lyrics kind of muffled and hard to understand. I know this album isn’t for everyone but at the time it was pretty cool. I enjoy it and I do think it’s good but I couldn’t play it back to back. It’s not boring by any means, it’s just not solid enough as a whole to keep you coming back.

G.M

Kendrick Lamar- DAMN

 

Now that Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN‘ has had time to settle in, I think it’s time for a review. I’ve been a big fan of Lamar for about 3 years, some time after the release of ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’. I stumbled across him in a (hipster) coffee shop in Vancouver where his music was blaring and all the male barista’s had a mustache. ‘Good Kid,..‘ was my first port of call and I was blown away by it, I couldn’t find fault and I was sickened I hadn’t been listening to him years before.

A few years ago, 2013 I think, during an interview with Zane Lowe, Kanye West said “rappers are the new rock stars, and I’m the biggest of all of them“. He’s right about rap being the new rock, but he’s the biggest star? Not anymore. If he even was at the time it was only because of controversy. Kendrick Lamar has now taken over and kind of become a benchmark, creating stories people such as myself can understand, and music a badger with no ears would be drawn to. If rappers are the new rock stars, and they pretty much are, Lamar is John Lennon. With every new record there is a world of excitement, people anticipating what direction he’ll go in next. In an interview with Rick Rubin before the record came out he said of his 2015 landmark record ‘To Pimp A Butterfly‘ that that was just who he was at the time and what he was feeling. So with that, he made no promises that he was going to continue to try to take down the man.

What we got with ‘DAMN’ is something special. ‘TPAB’ is massive, monumental, influential and it will be referred to for years to come. ‘DAMN’ is probably his most experimental record yet but there’s still his ability to make every track count. He remains a storyteller and keeps up the spoken word trend he does, the opening track ‘BLOOD’ telling the story of a woman he tries to help only for her to kill him. ‘DNA’ follows up and is one of the best tracks on the record, he blazes his way through 3 minutes rapping about who he is and what he is seen as. It’s probably the most fierce track on the album and the one where he vents his rage most. It also includes a clip from a Fox News report when they made reference to his BET Awards performance, “This is why I say Hip-Hop has done damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years”. Don Cheadle appears in the video too. ‘YAH‘ cools down the tone but he once again makes reference to the Fox News incident. ‘ELEMENT’ for me is one of the most catchy tracks on the record. I don’t think he plays it safe with this album but this is a more direct hip-hop track, a sound which could be found on many other artists records. Still though, his lyrics set him apart, his flow is unreal and the chorus is actually kind of funny. Next up is ‘FEEL‘ and it’s a much more straight forward effort as he goes through his emotions and worries and wonder’s whose looking out for him while the world look to him for answers. The track turns aggressive towards the end, which I like because it shows his passion for what he is saying.  ‘LOYALTY‘ is a track I have mixed feelings about as I’m not sure if it fits rightly in the album. It features Rihanna and has a pop feel to it, which I understand he might have felt he needed, but I’m not convinced yet.

PRIDE’  and ‘LUST’ are two tracks that I do like but are perhaps a little overshadowed by the the rest of the album. Lamar talks about his pride and also brings a religious theme to ‘PRIDE’, using a lower tone of voice for most of the track as if he is sorry for feeling proud. ‘LUST‘ to me is about making the most of what you’ve got. He raps about how men and women waste their day, dreaming of bigger things but falling back into the same useless routine. There’s also sexual references throughout and I actually like the beat on this one.

My three favourite tracks on the record are ‘HUMBLE’, ‘LOVE’ AND ‘XXX’. There’s something unique with these tracks that have me playing them on repeat. ‘HUMBLE’ is bold and rough, featuring an older hip-hop sound with a hint of 2017 and Lamar cements his place on top of the rap world. He wants us to be humbled by his presence and lyrics, and the video also highlights this. ‘LOVE‘ features a Soundcloud artist called Zacari and although it is a pop-ish track like ‘LOYALTY’, I find it far more infectious. I think of ’21 Questions’ by 50 Cent and the meaning of the song when I think of ‘LOVE‘. Lamar is asking questions of this woman in his life and whether she would stick around in certain situations and if he didn’t have what he does have. It’s a hip-hop love song I guess. ‘XXX’ is absolutely unreal. As in, one of the best hip-hop songs I’ve ever heard. It’s about three songs in one and features, yes features, U2!! That’s a pretty impressive haul in fairness.  There’s a religious theme to this track so the U2 feature makes sense, but there’s also a violent tone as he talks about the death of a friends son and retaliation.

FEAR‘ follows and Lamar gives us a front row seat to his thoughts and fears, as he talks about his rise to stardom and the pressures of continuing his success. It’s an open and honest track and you can see things from his side and see that being the biggest hip-hop star on the planet ain’t all roses! ‘GOD’ is another track I love. “This what God feel like” he raps as he talks about the other side of success, how it has made him feel like a God. He’s always dreamt of success and now that he has it you can’t take it away. It’s actually catchy as hell too. We’re see out by ‘DUCKWORTH‘, a story about Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Tiffith and Lamar’s father, and how Tiffith was going to kill Lamar’s father but ended up deciding against it only for Lamar and Tiffth to end up recording together. I guess you just have to hear it. Lamar see’s us out with “So I was taking a walk the other day..”

He cements his claim to the hip-hop crown several times over throughout this record, be it with the flow of his lyrics, how he uses different genres and still makes it effective, his star studded features or the most obvious, his storytelling. It’s a great time to be a rap/hip-hop fan because on one side of the pond you have that simple catchy rap and on the other you have guys like Kendrick Lamar and A Tribe Called Quest, and possibly J.Cole and Joey Bada$$ now. I doubt you haven’t heard some of this record by now but if you haven’t heard it all, get it. Just as ‘TPAB’ was before it, ‘DAMN’ will has rasied the bar and left everyone else clinging to the side of the boat.

G.M

Photo Credit: theskylineview.com

Tom Waits – The Early Years Vol. 1

Tom Waits released ‘The Early Years Vol. 1’ in 1991 and ‘Vol. 2′ in 1993. The recordings of both albums were made in 1971, before Waits had released his debut album ‘Closing Time’ in 1973. Some of the tracks on these two albums did actually make it onto albums, but these early versions carry with them their own soul despite being rearranged for the future albums.

Personally, I think that Vol. 1 is one of his best records. It shows how good he was so young and if he had actually put these versions on the studio records, I feel they still would have done well. Tracks like ‘Poncho’s Lament’, ‘I’m Your Late Night Evening Prostitute’, ‘Ice Cream Man’ and ‘Midnight Lullaby’ sound so innocent and untouched. Not to say the final versions are tainted because they are still perfect, but there’s a realness to this album. It’s like a top notch b-sides record! We still get to see his songwriting abilities and because it was before he had released an album, I think it makes it all the more special. The album is still able to play through like a regular album for the most part, though at times it can be a little messey.

We also hear the little things that would be cut from the final versions of tracks but can still make the song sound special. Whether it’s Waits scratching his beard, the intro and arrangement of ‘Ice Cream Man’ or his whistling on ‘Little Trip To Heaven’, you feel a little more in touch with the songs. The production value of the album is also very good, nothing was recording or mixed too hastily and Wait’s early voice, un-rusted, is enjoyable. Whatever happened to him after I don’t know! It’s also fun, with such tracks as ‘Ice Cream Man’ and ‘Looks Like I’m Up Shit Creek Again’ bringing a laid back sound.

This is a great album to pick up if you like Tom Waits, you get an idea of what his early career and songwriting subjects were. The rough sound gives it that old feeling which is something I actually like to hear, and the older versions of tracks you might know will get you thinking. On to the next one.

G.M

 

Photo Credit: amazon.com

Josh Ritter – The Beast In It’s Tracks

Josh Ritter’s seventh album ‘The Beast In It’s Tracks‘ was released in 2013. Anyone who listens to Josh Ritter knows what a fantastic storyteller he is. He has also written quite a lot of songs abut America but doesn’t do the personal thing too much. With ‘The Beast In It’s Tracks’ he finally goes personal. It’s pretty much all about his separation from his wife a few years earlier. I remember when I first heard the record I wasn’t sure about it. However, it has since kind of grown on me and some tracks in particular.

Away from the fact that the theme of this record is different from the usual Josh Ritter record, or at least the few proceeding it, there is also a slightly different sound. The album opener ‘Third Arm’ is a short love song about a girl who reminds him of a past love(wife). The second track ‘Evil Eye’ is a bit more chirpy and a sound you would expect to hear from Ritter. He sings about his ‘new lover’ in ‘A Certain Light’ and about being ‘happy for the first time in a long time’. His decision to open up more on this track starts to explain to you what the album is about. He feels he’s coming out of a winter and that things are looking up. So it’s a hopeful tune, and a sound to match. The standout track for me is up next in the shape of ‘Hopeful’. A true example of his excellent songwriting capabilities as he tells us of his wife leaving him but she still see’s good times ahead for him, despite the fact she’s just not the one. ‘Who’ll keep the whole world spinning when she went away‘. BOOM. Have a listen to this one to get the perspective of a guy who’s just been dumped but keeping it positive. ‘Nightmares’ is a little darker lyrically, he even talks about the dreams nightmares have! He follows one of his nightmares down to hell and ‘spends some time there as well‘.

‘New Lover’ has a great opening minute as he builds and builds with his acoustic guitar in a kind of Bruce Springsteen fashion before declaring he ‘can’t pretend as is well’. He also goes on to sing ‘I’ve got a new lover now I hope you’ve got a lover too’. I find that line pretty ballsy, fair play to him. ‘Hearts Ease’ is about his wish to get away and have it easy, to be where he loves to be and with who he loves. It’s about finding peace. The sound matches the relaxed vocals and ‘In Your Arms Again’ continues this type of sound and goes back once more to his search for a lover. The next two tracks, ‘The Appleblossom Rag’ and ‘Bonfire’ are also very good with ‘Bonfire’ picking up the pace after a few low key tracks and it’s actually very catchy. A funky enough kind of country track pop’s up with ‘In Your Arms Awhile’ and it actually brightens up the record. It’s the type of song you might expect to hear around a campfire or something, simple but effective. The last two tracks are ‘Joy To You Baby’ and ‘Lights’. It’s in these two tracks that I can see the value in the record. I didn’t feel like skipping any track along the way, I was really heeding each line throughout. ‘Joy To You Baby’ is so so good. It’s like it was playing hide and seek waiting for a flashlight to catch it take a breath. Perfectly balanced between a pop rock sound and a love song, it could actually work on the radio as a single. ‘Lights’ closes out the album in a slow peaceful way. He takes his time to say goodbye and its a fitting finish.

The title’s of the tracks will also tell you what to expect. ‘New Lover’, ‘Hopeful’, ‘In Your Arms Again’, ‘Joy To You Baby’ and ‘In Your Arms Awhile’ all try to explain that concept of the album. It’s a break up album but he’s not sulking, he’s getting over it and moving on. Throughout Ritter’s records there is a positive guy writing the songs. He wants to tell stories and in fairness you can listen to his albums anywhere, at anytime. His follow up record, ‘Sermon On The Rocks‘ returned to a full on happy vibe and I’ll get to that one some time in the future. For now, enjoy ‘The Beast In It’s Tracks’.

G.M

 

Photo Credit: Twangville

Def Leppard – Hysteria

Def Leppard’s fourth album ‘Hysteria‘ is 30 years old this year. That’s older than myself. A few years ago I bought one of their greatest hits albums (can’t remember the name) because ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ was on it. That then lead on to me playing it for a friend who also loved it, and THAT lead on to us singing at every karaoke night or wedding we’ve been to since.

Prior to the recording of the album, and during, Def Leppard encountered some major setbacks, such as drummer Rick Allen losing his left arm after a car accident. He amazingly carried on with a drum set built to suit him, and appeared on this record. They also released a book which was written about their experiences which covered the 3 years it took to record the album. The album fared well in England because of their popularity but in America it didn’t take off until almost a year after being released, because of the success of ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’.

Now, you may know some of the hits such as ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’, ‘Animal’ and ‘Rocket’, which is great because they are now 80’s rock standards, so you’re on your way. To be honest with you about the record, which was well received and is still highly regarded as a classic, it’s the first 6 tracks that do it for me. They seem to have some actual sound or purpose, whereas the last 6 tracks are kinda muddled and ”meh“. ‘Hysteria’ is in that final 6 mix, but it can’t hold it up. I tend to skip through some of the tracks which is fucking terrible, considering the effort they put in to record them. You still gotta respect that.

The first 6 tracks are classics because of the hard rock mixed with a bit of glam and love. ‘Women’ is a belter and fairly hard rock in sound and ‘Rocket’ which comes in next is pretty similar. The structure of this one is a bit mixed as they change from hard rock to chorus and back quickly. It works though I guess. ‘Animal’ was a leading track and is one of their best know tracks, with good reason. Even the way Joe Elliot sounds on this one is all rock, its well laid out and easy to listen to. So they absolutely prepared this one for the radio. ‘Love Bites’ and ‘Armageddon It’ sandwich ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’. ‘Armageddon It’ is a solid rock track and follows the same formula they had set themselves, not exactly pushing the boat out so far you would get your shorts wet, up above the ankle no less. ‘Love Bites’ is gas in fairness, Def Leppard, going from songs filled with sexual innuendos to a full on love song, playing the caring card but also doing what every 80’s rock band did. They all needed a track like this to break up an album but also a show. ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ is the stand out for me and I still love to hear it today. Whenever or where ever that may be I also sing along, its got an infectious sound a rhythm to it.  “LOVE IS LIKE A BOMB A BOMB A BOMB” yeeeaaaaah. So catchy, shredding guitar in that 80’s way, building all the while, pure class.

I like this record because of the 80’s rock sound and feel, with all the frizzy hair and denim and hairy chests, rock love songs that are shite really and risky album covers. ‘Hysteria’ is one of the records you have to tick off you list when you go back, and its a trip worth taking.

G.M

Photo Credit: