Hello again from the new guy. I’m told Mark Meeks spent the weekend vacationing in the boonies, where he almost certainly stumbled into a horror movie-like grisly end (R.I.P. George Romero). But rest assured, I’m here to provide a “sunny ways” alternative to his regular brand of hilarious toxicity.
Didn’t get enough
last time? Comin’ at ya here with some new records from the past couple weeks.
Jay-Z – 4:44
People seem to really love this record. Indeed, it’s good to have Jay-Z back, even if 4:44 feels largely like a case of inflated praise. There’s good stuff here, particularly the horn-backed jazz joint “Legacy” and the Nina Simone-sampling “The Story of O.J.”, a sly and sophisticated look at a complicated black American history. “Smile” is a touching tribute to his mother and her coming out as a lesbian.
But this is wrongly being asserted as a companion piece to Beyoncé’s masterpiece Lemonade. That record was notable for the way Beyoncé weaved her personal kitchen sink story of fraught marriage within a larger narrative of Americana through the lens of black womanhood. In contrast, while Jay is being praised for his honest vulnerability on 4:44, it feels myopically specific. The revelations and confessions he’s having here —most evident on the title track—are hard to sympathise with coming from a man his age. Oh really? It took the birth of your child to appreciate BEYONCÉ?! Fuuuuuuck you. Dude’s got some serious Madonna-whore shit going on. Even in apologizing he has an inflated sense of his own importance, like when he suggests his absence as the reason for his wife’s miscarriages.
The opening mea culpa “Kill Jay-Z” sets the tone for a record that is absent of most of what has made him one of rap’s most enduring voices. In humility, Jay feels not just meek but lazy. It’s as conservative as one might expect for a guy known for braggadocio trying to make amends to the most-loved woman in America. His rhymes feel tossed off and the record has nary a really sonically-memorable track. The use of well-known samples often recalls better and more creative uses of similar songs by Jay’s contemporary, Kanye West. And when the feeling you get from an album is a desire to be listening to a completely different album, that’s usually a bad sign.
But 4:44 is a mediocre Jay-Z album, which means it’s still better than most other albums.
HAIM – Something to Tell You
This sister trio burst on the scene with their Wilson Phillips-sounding debut in summer 2013. Here on their perfect sophomore record they let their influences fly. This is a band who have clearly grown up on their parents’ record collection: Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson, The Eagles, etc. Over 42 minutes, Something to Tell You unspools hook after hook into what becomes a totally captivating rock-pop extravanganza. It’s such a joy to listen to a band with this intuitive a sense of songwriting. It’s produced with a gorgeous sense of restraint by Ariel Reichtshaid, especially on the minimalist “Right Now” that builds in a totally counter-intuitive way. The production never gets in the way of the musical ideas on display here—ideas that are complemented by the kind of infectious melodies and harmonies that seem to only come this naturally to artists with this kind of intimate relationship.
Something to Tell You is a goddamn delight. It might be the best record of the year. Put headphones over your earholes and lie on the floor.
Meg Mac – Low Blows
Meg Mac—not to be confused with the very cool and funny Meg MacKay—is one of those artists I had never heard of before browsing the Spotify New Releases section. I’m told “Low Blows” is the debut record from this Australian singer songwriter, who is quite good! This artist is in the pop-soul vein of someone like Emeli Sandé or Leon Bridges, with vocals prominent over rather simple, catchy arrangements. The gospel/soul influences clearly on display make for pleasant listening, especially when the accompanying lyrics are of the sad-funny variety as on the title track (“You took my money and you took my friends.”) and not the Girl Power 101 variety of “Don’t Need Permission”—”It’s my decision / I don’t need permission to be myself” would be an appropriate revelation from a 20-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, not so much an almost 30-year-old Meg Mac). Its production is so polished it might actually undermine the sheer raw strength of her vocal talent, but “Low Blows” is a debut worth checking out.
The Dears – Times Infinity, Vol. 2
“Taking care of things with fists / Crossing names off of our list / Don’t mind the apocalypse / Forget about the chains and whips,” Natalia Yanchack sings on the album opener “Taking It to the Grave,” one great lyrical run in a record full of them. Times Infinity, Vol. 2—the follow up to last year’s Vol. 1—is an album consumed with dread and sorrow. The Dears have always been a band that succeeds on dark, evocative melodrama, and this record is no exception. Never has the trod lyric “fuck the pain away” sounded as bleakly romantic as on the folk-soulful “All the Hail Marys.” I mean, there’s a track here titled “I’m Sorry I Wished You Dead,” for god’s sake. Vol. 2 is a blast, and one of the band’s most musically dense and interesting albums to date.
Silverstein – Dead Reflection
This album rips pretty hard on its opener, which can be fun, but it’s mostly downhill from there. These guys clearly have a thing, and they’re alright at doing that thing, even if it’s a thing that feels very much of the mid-aughts. It frequently emos too hard, and the whole thing is hampered by lyrics that read like bad teenage poetry—full! of! exclamation! marks! “I never knew there could be blood this thin / I put my fist through the face in the glass / (every mirror is just another seven years)” actually made me hurt my eyes from rolling them so hard.
I’ve always been bored by this band, even when I was super into this general style of music. Give me Underoath or BoysNightOut any day. I like “Demons” best on this record, probably because it sounds like a song by Rise Against, a better band. But hey, I’m a guy who wishes Linkin Park still sounded like they sounded in 2000, so what the hell do I know?
Mura Masa – Mura Masa
There’s not a whole lot going on this Channel Island producer’s debut album that’s particularly innovative, but it’s a blending of a lot of styles that speak to Mura Masa’s ear for the pleasantries of sound that make you want to move. The beats are good and the roster of guests keeps things interesting. The Jamie Lidell guested “Nothing Else Matters” is a total funk banger, the bass line on “Nuggets” sure is rad, and—questions aside of the appropriateness of Afro/Caribbean instrumentations being used by a super white guy—the steelpan drums and mlimba sound really good in this context. This guy is 21 years old and he made a pretty playful and fun summer record, so good for him!
Oh Wonder – Ultralife
The male-female vocal dyad is anything but original, from Fleetwood Mac to The XX, Of Monsters and Men, and Whitehorse (who also put out a good record this month). So that’s less of what makes Oh Wonder interesting than their songwriting itself ,and the way their arrangements, which range from simple to very dense, use the vocals in a way that pushes and pulls with the sounds like crashing waves.
There’s life in these songs of the kind missing from a lot of synth pop—there’s a heavy dose of synth, but it never takes away from the strength of the songwriting and the talent of the duo. Real instruments come and go to remind you of the genre influences outside electronic music—consider the great piano breakdown that comes a minute into “Heavy” and almost seems to harmonize with the synth. The romantic “All about You” and “Heart Strings” have real soul, especially when the latter brings in playful piano and horns. The totally glorious “Lifetimes” sounds like Chvrches and Jamiroquai as influenced by Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.” What a joyful record!
Coldplay – Kaleidoscope EP
Coldplay is a band that finally broke out of U2’s shadow with the adult arena spectacular Viva la Vida in 2008 before turning a corner into the moody electronic world of Brian Eno with 2014’s introspective Ghost Stories. They followed up that very good album with a misfire, 2015’s A Head Full of Dreams, a half-hearted shrug of pop positivity. This companion EP is in that same vein, but in the goofy mix of styles on Kaleidoscope there are a few interesting things happening.
The five-song EP runs the gamut in terms of sound. The slow-building “All I Can Think about Is You” relies heavily on the classic “Clocks” piano riff in its second half. “Miracles (Someone Special)” is pure beach pop, which, despite its dopey lyrics about the inspiration of Ghandi and Mother Theresa, has a great 80s vibe and a guest spot from rapper Big Sean. The odd time signature on the Eno co-written “A L I E N S” makes for the albums most interesting track and, appropriately, the one that works best as an amalgam of all the band’s attempted styles. The tribute to refugees comes off as more genuine and sophisticated than what could have been a Live Aid-style grab at international issues. The same can’t be said about the pretty embarrassing Chainsmokers collaboration “Something Just Like This (Tokyo Remix),” which exercises the worst impulses of an established band trying to stay relevant in 2017. But hey, it still manages to be better than the new Linkin Park. The closer “Hypnotised” is a classic (and effective enough) Coldplay arena ballad with some great guitar work.
If this is the last Coldplay release, it’s nothing to write home about. But if not, it’s hopefully a sign of a minor upward trajectory.
Here’s a photo of me with an ostrich. Have a great week.