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Gorillaz: Senior Slump.

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Gorillaz: Senior Slump.

Well it only took about three great records for Gorillaz to make one shitty one (we'll count The Fall as more of a mixtape than a proper album, given how tossed-off and disposable it wound up being). Starting with their self-titled dub/punk toybox, Gorillaz have improved steadily with each record, Damon Albarn managing an impressive rotating door of curated guests and contributors, yet maintaining a real sense of identity the entire time. Demon Days utilized the Danger Mouse's exceptional talent to craft a shuffling, smoke-filled dance party; Plastic Beach saw his palette expand and resulted in a glistening, polished pop album.

Humanz seems to aim for sonic territory somewhere in between the two albums that preceded it, vacillating between Albarn's trademark lowkey, rainy-day-in-London sensibilities and shiny bangers. Easily one of Albarn's most defining — and enjoyable — gifts as both a musician and a producer is his ability to find guests who improbably mesh with his rainy-day vibe in the most unexpected and pleasant ways possible. For example, Popcaan fits perfectly over Albarn's saddish chorus on "Saturnz Barz," easily one of the record's highlights. Like the album's other standout cuts, it's just groovy enough to get moving, just gloomy enough to sound like a Gorillaz song. The problem is that Humanz comes with the inexplicable distinction of having several songs that sound dashed-off and half-baked, an odd occurrence considering Albarn's usual polish and perfectionism.

"Moments" is the first real forehead-slapper after a handful of mostly-pleasant opening tracks. "Ascension" all but begs to be skipped, its sophomoric hook highlighting one of the record's lazier moments, and "Strobelight" is fine but isn't grabbing anyone by the lapels. Arriving at "Moments," though, is likely to land listeners in their first real "what the fuck?" territory since The Fall came out. Featuring a wasted De La Soul and absolutely grating production, "Moments" is a jagged, four-to-the-floor mistake. "Submission" doesn't do any better, with Danny Brown yelping over an otherwise too-slick pop track, another example of a surprisingly mishandled guest spot. "Busted and Blue" is criminally boring, never going anywhere and critically forgetting to pair Albarn's raincloudery with any moments of levity, and it isn't until "Let Me Out" that Humanz offers any kind of convincing argument for being turned up.

In a lot of ways, Gorillaz are not a band that exist in the moment, but for it, as Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's creation seems intentionally engineered with the ability to pivot in mind. Each new album sees the band more or less re-formed, has a relatively distinct musical identity, and deals thematically with a new set of issues and anxieties. As such, each Gorillaz record — maybe with the exception of the first, which can perhaps be seen as a proof of concept — is a dive into whatever is most fucked up about the current geopolitical climate. At this point, after three records of doomsaying, Gorillaz seem to have hit their first stale moment. Maybe at this point Damon Albarn and company are as sick of talking about how fucked up things are as everyone else. If that's the case, Humanz makes it apparent.

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Birocratic: Nostalgic for the Future.

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Birocratic: Nostalgic for the Future.

It's pretty tough not to be impressed with a musical trajectory like Brandon Rowan's. Back around 2012, he started putting out beat tapes as Birocratic, none of his tracks stretching past the two-and-a-half-minute mark. Still, he showed a knack for carving out infectious grooves, cutting samples and chopping vocals to find unique rhythms and unexplored spaces within the recordings he was repurposing for his instrumental hip-hop jams. Think Dilla by way of a sunny New Jersey bedroom.

An early and influential member of the emergent online beat scene, Birocratic is back with his newest release, Beets 4. Coming on the heels of last year's Replaced EP — which found Rowan crafting songs whole cloth, playing all of the instruments on wholly original tracks for the first time in his career — the fourth entry in Rowan's Beets series is a return to form, albeit without the sag in quality the phrase tends to imply. Rather, while Replaced saw Birocratic proving that he could try something new and relatively different with his trademark approach and still knock it out of the fucking park, Beets 4 shows that exploring a bit of new territory only served to deepen Rowan's familiarity with and fundamental understanding of what was special about what came before it.

More than anything else in his catalogue, Birocratic's Beets 4 feels like a retrospective. If you're familiar with the rest of his work, making your way through Beets 4 is like listening to the spiritual sequels of your favorite Birocratic cuts. Chopped-up vocals samples and instrumental licks will make you swear you're hearing parts of songs that have been featured prominently on other Birocratic tracks in the past, making Beets 4 a release that simultaneously acts as a love letter to everything that preceded it, while never forgetting to chart new territory and explore new depths as Rowan continues to hone his craft and develop his talents.

It's clear that the Replaced experience taught Rowan a lot about structure. If there was anything I could find to complain about in the earlier Birocratic releases, it's that my favorite tracks were over in a minute and a half. Five years later, though, Rowan has learned to craft songs that live and breathe, rise and fall with their own senses of tension and release. This idea was finally brought to complete fruition on Replaced, as the challenge of making songs from scratch left Rowan no choice but to figure out how to create something that lives and moves on its own. What makes Beets 4 so exciting, though, is to see how Biro has folded that new knowledge into the work he's done leading up to Replaced. This newest release makes it clear that Rowan intends to keep pushing his craft forward as he did on his last EP, but Beets 4 succeeds because it makes a point to lovingly look back at everything that fed into its eventual creation while continuing to push in new directions.

Immediate as can be, Beets 4 makes its intentions clear right out of the gate: "Bob Ross Goes to Hollywood" slides into view first with razor edge slices of chopped disco, complimented with bouncing slap bass that eventually melts into a smooth slice of disco funk that Biro smartly garnishes with a dash of trap bass and a sliver of flamenco guitar. Who the fuck even knows how many different songs are at work in the opening track's first couple of minutes, but the end result is as seamless as anything. "Corporate Japan" is maybe the heaviest jam in the entire Birocratic catalogue, taking its time to explore a sampled Koto riff before Biro slices it up, rearranges it, and then hits you over the head with it until you're dancing as hard as you should be.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Beets 4 is its sense of familiarity. Part of me swears I've heard these songs before, but the rest of me knows that there's nothing this accomplished that exists in the Birocratic catalogue. To see an artist grow and mature is always an exciting thing...to see one not only display such a deep understanding of the strength and weaknesses of his own work, but then craft a record that expertly addresses both? Well that's what puts Birocratic in rarified air indeed.

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Sinkane: Sunny Livin.'

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Sinkane: Sunny Livin.'

Albums that are put together this well really don't come along very often. At all. England-born Sudanese pop masterchamp Ahmed Gallab has come a long way from his early days of putting out meandering, experimental jazz-and-krautrock-tinged thesis projects. Life & Livin' It is a perfect record: precise, catchy, and preeminently light on its feat, the record moves and breathes with a sunny freedom most pop records can only dream of.

Seriously, just about every track on Life & Livin' It is a complete home-run. "Deadweight" opens the record with a quiet synth line, before Gallab's hopscotch guitar work and African Beach Boy vocals join the party. The record avoids getting much more complicated than this, in terms of arrangement, and this decision is a smart one; the record absolutely doesn't need to. Produced to perfection by Gallab himself, Life & Livin' It sounds like an absolute dream. Guitars are crisp, the bass pops just the right amount, the drums sound church hall huge when they need to and deftly fill in the rhythmic details when they don't. Gallab's production and arrangement skills are on full force here, the finely-tuned skills of a true career musician, brought lovingly to bear on each and every track in exactly the right way.

 

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Throwing Snow: Monolithic Motors.

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Throwing Snow: Monolithic Motors.

Big sounds do not always mean big emotions. Misplaced grandiosity can suck the meaning right out of a piece of music, and this tends to go doubly for electronic music. Creating a sense of ownership over a completely synthetic production can be a lot more challenging than it might seem at first blush, and it's exactly here where Throwing Snow shows his highest level of accomplishment. Ross Tones' command of space and atmosphere is on full display with Embers, his second full-length release on the Houndstooth label.

Dark, brooding, and propulsive in equal measures, Embers is the kind of album that just dares you to remember title applies to which track. The album's artwork serves as a bit of a tipoff: Embers arrives seamless, smooth as a weatherbeaten stone. You could easily start it on any track and just let the thing keep playing with the loop setting engaged: songs dip and blend into one another, ambient droning interstitials (that more than once prompted my roommate to pop his head in my room and quizzically ask what I was listening to) bleed into thumping grooves effortlessly. Embers is an album of masterful movement, and at an hour long it's one that rewards a good bit of patience. Even its incredibly strong opener requires that you sit through an extended introduction track, but the resulting effect is a rewarding one. The ambient rainstorm and slow arpeggio of "Cantor's Dust, Part 1" (named for a mathematics concept that you're welcome to pick through) slowly surges into the swelling, growling motors of "Cantor's Dust, Part 2," which functions as both the album's first proper track and first real highlight.

What follows is a tightly-controlled display of both groove and ambience as Tones carves out an interesting sonic space for himself; think a ramped-up Burial by way of Boards of Canada. Embers (not unlike Gesaffelstein's equally-cinematic post synthwave masterpiece Aleph) is best taken in as a whole. It's an album of movements, with most tracks lacking even a moment of dead air separating them from their neighbors. Tones clearly meant for it to take the listener on a bit of a journey, and it's definitely one worth taking at least once.

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SOHN: Soul Fed.

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SOHN: Soul Fed.

Grooves are good. There are just no two ways around it: when it comes to grooves, there is a Universal Truth, and it is that they are Good. This theorem is well evidenced on SOHN's first record, Tremors, as it was always at its best when the grooves were present in full force. Christopher Michael Taylor is a solid enough songwriter and a pretty excellent producer, but his first record saw him falling into the same sleepy tracks, with enough of the tracks rendering themselves forgettable to keep Tremors from being a great record, instead of a pretty good one.

Rennen avoids these pitfalls, using an expanded palette in terms of songwriting, structure, and instrumentation to very pleasing effect. The record opens with a real one-two punch of a mission statement, as "Hard Liquor" introduces the groovier side of SOHN's so-called PBR&B songwriting that will be showcased throughout the record. His more subdued brand of electronica-heavy R&B production is enlivened by a heavy injection of soul, most of it having more in common with "Artifice" than the rest of the much more thoughtful and quiet Tremors. "Conrad," easily one of the record's standout tracks, introduces a bit of live instrumentation, new to SOHN's agenda and smartly used throughout a few of Rennen's tracks (something else that sets it apart from its predecessor in an exciting way). The full moon drums blend perfectly with the rest of SOHN's aural agenda, and help highlight one of the things that made the first album as exciting as it was: Christopher Michael Taylor is a hell of a producer.

Even the more quiet moments are more successful on Rennen than they were on Tremors. While SOHN's first record doesn't necessarily have any tracks that are outright skippable, it does have a few that tend to blend together. Forgettability isn't a problem that Rennen finds itself dealing with: each record has a unique identity and does at least one thing that makes it worth remembering. "Primary" builds beautifully, climbing from the slow and thoughtful pairing of Taylor's voice with an electric piano to the pattering and hushed flurry of its galloping beat.

Maybe the only thing Rennen doesn't stick is its landing, in fact. Penultimate track "Still Waters" doesn't exactly go anywhere, rendering what could have perhaps been a textured and layered exercise in vocal atmospherics in the vein of Bon Iver or James Blake uninteresting and muted. Finale "Harbor" closes the album with a hard-hitting buzzsaw of a synth line, but it's a repeated riff that is completely divorced from the forgettable song that comes before it, which takes a lot of the air out of what should have been a powerful and emotional build, had it been executed properly. If the first half of "Harbor" actually had any meaning to it, and if it felt more connected to its finale, it would be impressive. The back half of the song is comprised entirely of one repeated synth line, and its a good one...but it means nothing on its own.

The sophomore slump is a tough thing to avoid, but with Rennen, SOHN has dodged it with an impressive dexterity. Christopher Michael Taylor has introduced a variety of new sounds to SOHN's palette, utilizing a number of new ideas and textures, all to very pleasing results. Having expanded his sound and carefully focused his songwriting, his second record shows that he knows exactly what he's doing.

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Kanye West: Revenge Dick.

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Kanye West: Revenge Dick.

Careful! If you make Kanye West mad, he’s probably not going to let it go. In fact, it’s almost certain that he’ll retaliate with some type of punishment. And, judging by a lot of what he’s got to say on Yeezus, said punishment will, in some way, involve his dick. West spends a lot of time on Yeezus talking about his dick. Like, a lot. Specifically the people and/or things he’s going to be putting it into. Also the things onto which he intends to ejaculate (often this is also used as some sort of retaliatory gesture).

Kanye! You can’t just go jizzing all over everything!

Doesn’t matter. Kanye is going to brick all over your wife, and all over her clothes, and he’ll probably get some on you, too, if you don’t watch yourself. Such is the warning implicitly contained within Yeezus.

The dude’s clearly in a vengeful mood, and his trajectory as of late has been kind of an interesting on. We got My Beautiful Dark, Twisted Fantasy which was something of a self-examination (unsurprising, then, that DTF stands as his most bombastic and grandiose album to date) and Watch the Throne which was something of a “LOOK AT MAH SHIT” that plopped right on the floor at the same time as the relatively doomed Occupy Wall Street. Now ‘Ye is pissed, and Yeezus is a glistening, throbbing “fuck you” of aggressive defensiveness.

Opener “On Sight” lands like snake spit, with acid keyboards that didn’t come here to make friends. The first three tracks, produced by Daft Punk make it clear that West has set out to do something radically different, SOMETHING THAT HAS NEVER BEEN DONE BEFORE.

Well, unless you’ve listened to Saul Williams’ Niggy TarDust, to only name the most obvious example that comes to mind.

Still, this is different for Kanye. Existing in some weird space right between maximalism and minimalism, Yeezus is a dark wash, rife with sharp edges. This album is all sinew and bone, and it shows West for the expert curator that he is. Behind the boards, he really knows what he’s doing. Yeezus is an unreserved assault, but still manages to show a smooth edge here and there (Justin Vernon is a welcome presence on pretty much any album, it turns out).

It’s hard to think of Kanye West as having something significant to say when he spends so much time talking about nutting all over various things. Still, the guy shows his penchant for wordplay every once in a while, and seems mostly aware of how fucking ridiculous he is.

“Hurry up with my damn croissants” became an Internet sensation the day the album leaked, and that happened because West knew it would. He put that line in the song because it’s an obvious Kanye-ism, something we’d all expect him to say. The music cuts out around it, and it becomes at least a bit clear that the line is meant to carry some comedic weight. Still, it’s delivered in earnest and with a privileged intensity that’s usually reserved for a certain kind of asshole. West might be capable of shining a light on himself...but self-effacing he will never be, and changing is something he’s unlikely to do. So a different-sounding record will have to be it.

West knows he’s not easy to love, and Yeezus is his assured embrace around that fact. If you don’t like it, be careful.

He might just yeeze all over your face.

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Tunes: May Playlist. In June.

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Tunes: May Playlist. In June.

Well, it's been a slow several weeks over here at idiots_delight. I've gotten really into vacuuming lately. While that made it tough to blog while I got my vacuuming ya-ya's out, it definitely didn't stop me from listening to a pretty good amount of music.

Whether or not the music itself was good is totally up to you. But the amount of music that I listened to was definitely good; there's no disputing that.

Anyway, here we go. Let's do this.

1. Daft Punk - Doin' It Right

I kind of couldn't help but include "Get Lucky" on my last monthly playlist. I know it was the most ubiquitous song in the world at the time, but I feel like that happened for a reason. And that reason is that "Get Lucky" is a stupidly infectious groove.

That being said, so is "Doin' It Right." It might not have the level of universal accessibility that "Get Lucky" had. Indeed, its dynamics are basically an anti-build; the song keeps rising and rising, but never seems to crest that first hill. The tension is fantastic, and Panda Bear's stadium-sized voice complements Daft Punk's deft use of a simple chord progression like nobody's business.

2. The National - I Need My Girl

May was an awesome month for music, and there's really no two ways around it. The National's Trouble Will Find Me was just one of the awesome releases that saw shelves that month, and "I Need My Girl" is arguably one of the album's highlights.

The National makes music that's weighed down with a very somber type of emotional deadweight, but few musicians can use this to their advantage the way Matt Berringer and his bandmates do. "I Need My Girl" is as emotionally stirring as it is simple and catchy.

3. Knife Party - LRAD

Gonna be playing video games anytime soon? Might want to put this on in the background. It can be easy to get overwhelmed/sick of/offended by those growling robot-shit EDM synth sounds that seem to be so unavoidably popular these days, but Knife Party, for the most part, are doing it right. "LRAD" is a throbbing, pulsing death ray of a song, and that break towards the end is relatively minimalist glory. We get a solid build, but instead of going super nuts, Knife Party drop almost everything out except the beat and what sounds like a fucking gargantuan PVC pipe getting hit by a bunch of giants. Awesome.

4. Alpine - Hands

This slick, ladyvoiced indie rock sextet from Australia put out one of the best albums of the year so far with their A  Is for Alpine. Consistently solid, these guys and gals really know how to make the best out of an open D chord.

5. Kavinsky - Billzard

I spent May playing a decent amount of video games, and this playlist definitely reflects that. You might remember "Nightcall" from the Drive soundtrack, which appears on Kavinsky's Outrun album along with "Blizzard." The first proper song, "Blizzard" is a good example of everything Kavinsky does right, even if it does sound just a tiny bit 2008.

6. Queens of the Stone Age - If I Had a Tail

...Like Clockwork is another one of the best albums that has seen release in this first half of 2013, and "If I Had a Tail" is one of the standout tracks.

7. ShockOne - Chaos Theory

It's one of the rare songs that's best delivered when it comes paired with the album intro that actually comes before it. ShockOne are doing some pretty interesting stuff when it comes to what's being described as "techstep," and "Chaos Theory" is a great example. The song's about as heavy as it gets, and when the second drop cuts the time signature in half, it's hard not to chuckle a little bit as you nod your head.

8. Kill the Noise - Thumbs Up

Ah, another track that begs to be played alongside some of your favorite first-person shooters. (Seriously, if you've got CounterStrike: Global Offensive, just listen to a combination of Kill the Noise and Knife Party as you play it and you'll win every single game, guaranteed.) Kill the Noise doesn't always hit the nail on the head with the whole aggro-dubstep thing. It gets a little repetitive, and it's definitely not very original at this point...but "Thumbs Up" is a heavy dose of undeniable fun. Plus, heavily-used sample that gives the song its name is that little kid who's endlessly stoked about having ridden a bike for the first time, and it's one of the most awesome things ever.

9. Letherette - After Dawn

While it might seem like the opposite is true, there's always room for another electro-dance act, if you ask me. Letherette's first, self-titled album is a wee bit inconsistent, but mostly keeps it pretty real, as evidenced by the smooth, shuffling "After Dawn."

10. ShockOne - Big Bounce

Yet another superheavy track from ShockOne, "Big Bounce" heads more in the direction of all-out dance than its aggro-step infused cousin "Chaos Theory" does. The result is a buoyant, kinetic jam that, again, totally sounds like it was meant to be played alongside a video game, lasers firing in all directions. Good times.

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Musics: April Jambs. In May.

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Musics: April Jambs. In May.

So I'm going to go ahead and share some playlistery, here. I've mentioned before that I'm a pretty huge fan of Spotify, despite how seriously I would freak out if whatever powers that be decided it just wasn't working out for them anymore.

At any rate, what's fun about Spotify is that it makes grabbin' new music pretty much an instantaneous thing. Oh, there's such and such a new album out? Cool. Click, click, tap, and click. Saved. Perfect.

And with a relatively clean conscience, too!

So far, May's shaping up to be an incredible month for music (The National, Daft Punk, Vampire Weekend), and June looks like it's going to be pretty great, too (Sigur Rós). April, as it turns out, wasn't too shabby, either!

These were my favorite jambs during the month of April.

You're warned. Some of them are pretty dangerous.

01. Koudede - Golf

I wound up finding this guy because his track was used as a sample in something I really dug. Now I can't, for the life of me, remember what it was.

02. Caravan Palace - Jolie Coquine

My roommate and I stumbled upon this emergent genre of music called "electro swing." Basically it's exactly what it sounds like. And it's awesome.

03. Junip - In Every Direction

Wound up going back to listen to their first record after noting that they had just released their second one. I love just about everything José González has done, and I think this song is Junip's best.

04. Lorde - Bravado

The best track off their nifty little EP.

05. C2C - Happy

A friend of mine sent me this track, which is basically electro swing, but with a different tradition.

06. Parov Stelar Trio - Chambermaid Swing

07. James Blake - Retrograde

An amazing single off an amazing record.

08. Genesis - Mama

Solid.

09. Foals - Inhaler

Can't really say the same for the rest of this record, but "Inhaler" is a sufficiently heavy jamb.

10. Major Lazer - Jah No Partial (feat. Flux Pavilion)

Ah, Diplo. His work is getting a bit more shaky these days, and the second Major Lazer album definitely doesn't deliver in quite the same way the first one did. This song, though, is a powerhouse, in every way that a good Diplo song tends to be. It's just. so. much. And my roommate hates it, which is...unfortunate for him.

11. C2C - Arcades

Another great cut from C2C's album Tetra.

12. CHVRCHES - Recover (Cid Rim Remix)

This new band from Glasgow has two awesome things: a) a singer with whom I am in love, and b) an EP that is very much worth your attention.

13. Daft Punk - Get Lucky (feat. Pharrell Williams)

Sorry.

14. Boom Bip - Roads Must Roll

I'm very late to the party with this guy, and I know it. But I love the work he did (and does) with Gruff Rhys as Neon Neon, so it's just been a matter of time until I got around to enjoying some Boom Bip. This is a great morning coffee kinda song.

15. Sigur Rós - Brennisteinn

I seriously can't wait for this new Sigur Rós record. The last one was just a bit disappointing, so it's good to hear that it sounds like they're trying to move forward in a notable way.

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Boards of Canada: Tomorrow's Harvest Out June 11.

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Boards of Canada: Tomorrow's Harvest Out June 11.

Boards of Canada have announced the release of their first album in nearly a decade. It's been eight years since The Campfire Headphase.Tomorrow's Harvestcomes out in just about a month and a half, on Warp.

You may or may not have heard that the sufficiently mysterious Scottish duo have been dropping random hints and clues ever since Record Store Day, when a couple of odd vinyls showed up.

Then there were more.

Then there was an Adult Swim commercial.

Then there was a weird website.

Then someone figured it out.

"Entering the password 69974262831517228936557813386519225 into cosecha-transmisiones.com resulted in a link to this video and the Bleep preorder page."

Calendar: marked.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/l6Bj9DvhBMw]

tomorrows_harvest
tomorrows_harvest

tracklist:

01 "Gemini"

02 "Reach for the Dead"

03 "White Cyclosa"

04 "Jacquard Causeway"

05 "Telepath"

06 "Cold Earth"

07 "Transmisiones Ferox"

08 "Sick Times"

09 "Collapse"

10 "Palace Posy"

11 "Split Your Infinites"

12 "Uritual"

13 "Nothing Is Real"

14 "Sundown"

15 "New Seeds"

16 "Come to Dust"

17 "Semena Mertvykh"

source |pitchfork

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Justin Timberlake: Seriously.

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Justin Timberlake: Seriously.

When an artist like Justin Timberlake shies away from the microphone for seven years and then unexpectedly releases an album like The 20/20 Experience, it's more than likely going to be met with something of a hyperbolic response. This is par for the course, though, so when you see Pitchfork make an observation like the one that the album mixes up "entire critical value systems," you can understand—as soon as you're done laughing and cleaning all the milk off your monitor—that these guys are really just using a fucking unnecessary sentence to say something pretty apt: this album is complex and simple, all at once. Timberlake isn't trying to bend space and time with his songwriting, so he smartly lets his work coast on the power of his vocal performance and Timbaland's mostly flawless production. This is a smart move, but is made all the more endearing by the fact that Timberlake's lyrical content is never so simple that it's alienating or frustrating. The 20/20 Experience brings with it a directness and relative simplicity that complements its bold arrangements and kinetic structure.

FutureSex/LoveSounds is a pretty special record, and saw Timberlake asserting himself as something of a serious artist. Sure, Justified was a great pop record, but FS/LS saw Timberlake and Timbaland taking things a step further. Of course, the album's ambition was its strength and its weakness at the same time, as the only thing wrong with the record as a whole was that it had a tendency to wander just a bit, here and there. For the most part, The 20/20 Experience strips a lot of the fat, and keeps things nice and lean. JT and Timbaland have build a collection of tracks that's forward and direct, with just a couple of breaks for things to slow down a little bit.

"Strawberry Bubblegum" is a bit more low-key than the rest of the record, but still moves forward with a rolling kinesis that makes it just as good as the rest of the album's dancefloor jams. Of which "Let the Groove Get In" is a very serious example. Seriously, I've probably played this song four or five times per day for the last couple of weeks in a row. It's that awesome. Unlike—as far as I'm aware—anything else JT has ever been done, this track is a straight-up jam festival, combining African underpinnings with a heaping helping of Latin flavor before sliding into a slick R&B coda. The rest of the album follows suit, bringing a ton of ideas to the table but never losing its focus.

"Don't Hold the Wall" is another serious groove, starting with a sparse Bhangra rhythm before giving way to layered R&B vocal harmonies. The trend continues on the rest of the album; JT and Timbaland do an excellent job of blending classic sensibilities (R&B, Motown, funk, soul) with a modern sheen that positively slices out of your speakers. If FutureSex/LoveSounds was Timberlake figuring out how to stretch himself artistically, The 20/20 Experience is that same artist now flexing those same muscles with some serious confidence.

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Au4: Bringin' Down the House.

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Au4: Bringin' Down the House.

Every once in a while we get the pleasure of somehow randomly stumbling onto a band whose capabilities make it surprising that they're not one of the most famous acts around. Au4 is one of those bands, at least as far as I'm concerned. In 2006, when I was a staff writer at the college alternative weekly in Long Beach, I found myself clutching a promo copy of their debut album, On: Audio. The album was a magnificent one, a forward-thinking hybridization of trip-hop and hard rock, something akin to Nine Inch Nails by way of Björk. On: Audio featured bold live arrangements set against a backdrop of electronics, and set about telling its story in grandiose terms, each song more epic and thick than the last. Au4 were clearly aiming high, and doing so right out of the gate. Their first album was an impressive effort, well-produced and sounding good, whether it sound was necessarily your thing or not. There's really no arguing with the fact that Au4 is a group of talented musicians who know their way around songwriting and arrangement. "Everyone Is Everyone (and Everything Is Everything)" [soundcloud url="http://soundcloud.com/au4-band/everyone-is-everyone"]

(Download the album for free right here, why don't you?)

Of course, this was all seven years ago. It's been nearly a decade, and while I never forgot about On: Audio, I was never sure whether or not I'd hear from Au4 again. Then, in January, I got an email from a friend (one with whom I had shared Au4 a while back) telling me they had put out a new album. And holy shit.

Au4 have shown themselves to have much more than just one fantastic album in them, and seven years was seriously worth the wait. Their second album ...And Down Goes the Sky is pretty goddamn masterful, expanding their sound and introducing new elements in ways that bring an incredible depth of emotion and energy to the table. Epic in scale and huge in scope, ...And Down Goes the Sky improves upon the formula Au4 created with their first album, boasting impeccably-produced songs that form a cohesive and complete work. Though the materials on their website make it clear, you don't need them to realize that ...And Down Goes the Sky—much like On: Audio—is meant to be taken as whole, listened to in single sittings, all the way through. The experience is a rewarding one.

...And Down Goes the Sky walks a landscape of different textures, managing to keep them all rooted in a signature sound. Penultimate track "Planck Length" is one of two straight four-to-the-floor jams that Au4 pull off with surprising dexterity, and they're embedded within an album that primarily finds its footing in hard rock. The live drums that made On: Audio such a fun experience are definitely still present here, alongside a good deal of other live instrumentation, but the Brothers Wiley and bandmate Jason Nickel make it clear that they're as interested in painting with an electronic palette as they were seven years ago.

What works the best for these gentelmen is the degree to which they're able to work hard rock into their epic, storytelling-oriented style of music-makery. "The Propagation of Light (Through the Ether of Emotion)" is a propulsive electronic dance track that nestles right up against standout cut "So Just Hang On, Beautiful One" (a song that's both soaring and intimate at the same time), which seamlessly bleeds into the swaggering bass line of "In Three Seconds I'll Be Gone." For a band that's put out two albums over the course of the last seven years, these dudes really know what they're doing.

"So Just Hang On, Beautiful One" [soundcloud url="http://soundcloud.com/au4-band/so-just-hang-on-beautiful-one"]

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How to Destroy Angels: Future Perfect.

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How to Destroy Angels: Future Perfect.

Man, Trent Reznor is really not so sure about the future. The man's always been very interested in probing the things that make us weak as people and as a society, and this melted into a discernable sentiment of "Yeah, I'm really not so sure that good things are on the horizon" with Nine Inch Nails' 2007 album Year Zero. In the following few years, NIN put out two more albums, disbanded, and got back together. Trent Reznor, in the meantime, got real cozy with Atticus Ross and scored two films, then tossed his wife Mariqueen Maandig into the mix (adding real-time visual contributions from the brilliant Rob Sheridan) and formed How to Destroy Angels. Also, the band's name may or may not have an underscore at the end of it. In a lot of ways, HTDA's debut album Welcome Oblivion feels like a spiritual successor to Year Zero, and I'm not the first person to make that observation by any means. Of course, these similarities are largely thematic, as Reznor's anxiety about our arguably unsustainable way of living in the present boils over into a straight-up paranoia about what kind of future we might be setting up for ourselves. Lyrically, the album is about as lean as it gets. Reznor has always been a strong songwriter, and he works very well on a team with his wife. Throughout the album, the lyrics remain clean, simple, and clearly-delivered, never getting obscured by the mix or weighed down by unnecessary wordplay. By keeping it simple, Reznor and Maandig allow themselves to create deeply-layered, yet accessibly-structured songs that are as easy to listen to as they are to comprehend.

Reznor and Maandig share vocal duties almost equally throughout the record, with the former actually serving as a pad for the latter more often than not. Ross and Reznor are always a great pair, having shown that they work impeccably well together on the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Social Network soundtracks, both of which saw the musicians casting their eyes in directions that'd be fully explored by way of How to Destroy Angels' work.

Welcome Oblivion is a good debut, and a solid record overall. Reznor, yet again, shows that he's the master when it comes to blending his dark and angsty tendencies with surprisingly impeccable pop sensibilities. If there's one thing that really does this record in, though, it's a lack of variation. While there's not a single song on this record that really demands to be skipped, there are ones that don't quite stand out as well as others. The HTDA formula seems to consistently involve a heavy, propulsive beat; excellent use of texture and sonic space; and a killer hook. Songs like "Too Late, All Gone" and "How Long" see this formula utilized to its fullest effect. On the other hand, tracks like "On the Wing" and "Strings and Attractors" quickly remind the listener that, while the formula is a winning one, it can cause songs to run together a little too easily, and ultimately winds up making the album's journey seem like something of a short one.

The worst this album does, though, is simply fade into the background. At no point does it ease up with its forward-moving, kinetic beats; Ross and Reznor have proven themselves yet again to be masterful producers, crafting songs that blend soft ambience with hard-edged synths. Welcome Oblivion is a confident first record, which makes sense considering it's really not a first record for anyone involved. In their songwriting, Reznor and Maandig tackle big themes and heavy ideas, but do so deftly, never feeling like they're cheating their message in service of simplicity. Atticus Ross brings a lot to the party, and his work with Reznor is a wonderful stitching-together of sonic textures. Oh, and Rob Sheridan? Well, he designed one hell of a cool album cover. So there's that, too.

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Atoms for Peace: Controlled Chaos

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Atoms for Peace: Controlled Chaos

Thom Yorke's been a pretty busy guy over the course of the last several years. Which is a nice thing for Radiohead fans, who are typically used to sitting in silence for like, five or six years whilst waiting for their favorite band to maybe put out something new. When the Thom put out his first solo record, it was definitely a pleasant surprise. The fact that he put together a supergroup comprised of Flea, Nigel Godrich, Joey Waronker (of Beck and REM fame), and Mauro Refosco (badass Brazilian percussionist) was another awesome surprise, but it was one that made a lot of sense. Thom Yorke's music (Radiohead-related and otherwise) has never really stopped evolving over the course of his decently long career, and its latest iterations have been some of the most bold and exciting. Sure, Thom and Co. have always known their way around the studio; they've produced some of the best-sounding records around. It's not really a secret that they're through-and-through performers, either. In the last several years, though, Yorke and his collaborators have found new and interesting ways to bridge the gap between these two settings, creating live versions of songs that might operate within the same framework as their studio counterparts, but that often wind up sounding completely different altogether. The result has been a dynamic and ever-changing musical presence that really comes into the forefront on Atoms for Peace's newest record AMOK. Apparently recorded over the course of a three-day jam sessionAmok has been said to feature a lot more African influences ("We got wasted, played pool, and listened to Fela Kuti all night," reports Yorke), and it certainly does. Yorke's guitar work is, for the most part, kept in the higher register: album opener "Before Your Very Eyes..." leads you in with a tinkling clean electric guitar, one of those noticeably "brittle" sounds that Yorke referred to in interviews leading up to the album's release.

Of course, perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of this release is the fact that Flea plays on it. His presence on the Atoms for Peace live tour a few years ago was definitely cause to write home, and it was exciting to see how he would move within the recorded space of this new record. Flea is, of course, a true professional and artist, and this is apparent when you listen to Amok. His playing and style still bears that incredibly familiar taste that really can't belong to anyone but Flea, but he keeps it tame, instead opting to communicate by way of his unique cadences and bending grace-notes. You might not hear his signature slap funk painted all over this record, but a close listen to any bass line will reveal a finesse that really can't belong to anyone else.

In relation to the rest of Thom Yorke and Radiohead's work over the course of the last several years, Amok fits right in. It's a bit abstract and sonically thin, a lot like The King of Limbs, but it's also stark in the same ways that The Eraser was. When Godrich and Yorke work on Atoms for Peace, they're certainly not about to shy away from the latter's trademark reverb-drenched vocals, but the former definitely seems to have a great time keeping things in check. Nothing is ever overdone, and the arrangements never forget to give themselves room to breathe; it's obvious that Amok was recorded by a ton of people who have been working in music studios for the majority of their lives.

As far as its actual content, Amok is a pretty attractive record. "Before Your Very Eyes..." makes it clear that Yorke has no intention of being bound by any kind of structure when he doesn't want to; the album's first track starts out one way and quickly morphs into something entirely different. This theme pushes through a lot of the record, as songs will often start to head in one direction before revealing themselves to be something entirely different. "Ingénue" is easily one of the album's standout tracks; its oscillating synth sounds wobble and revolve like they're weighted on one side before forming a soft pad on which Yorke's vocals easily float. "Stuck Together Pieces" slides in with a reminder as to why it was such a great idea to put Flea in a band with Thom Yorke in the first place, and the more straightforward "Judge, Jury, and Executioner" has some of the album's best vocal moments.

It's nice to not have to say that a Radiohead album was worth the wait, for once. Thom Yorke has kept himself pretty consistently busy lately, and the efforts are paying off in a very positive way. The band is apparently about to record a new album this summer, once Atoms for Peace finish touring in support of Amok (something which will, almost undoubtedly, yield a few exciting new versions of songs featured on the record, as well). Basically, it's a great time to be a Radiohead fan. Even if you aren't, though, Amok is definitely an album that's worth your time.

BONUS!

Here's an awesome video of Thom Yorke dancing to "Ingénue," because that's what he does.

[embed][youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpVfF4U75B8&w=560&h=315][embed]

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The Best Jams of 2012

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The Best Jams of 2012

Kendrick Lamar - Good Kid, m.A.A.d. CityHoly shit, what an album. After two incredible mixtapes, it’s really great to see Kendrick Lamar swoop in and fuck shit up so properly with his debut record. With its accomplished storytelling and Kendrick’s basically unstoppable flow (not to mention Dr. Dre's immaculate production), Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City is going to go down as a classic, for sure.

Indian Wells - Night Drops The electronic music of today probably has some of the most unfortunate terminology associated with it. The term “post-dubstep” is going to make just about anyone groan (as well it should), but acts like Mount Kimbie and James Blake have turned out some pleasing sounds by utilizing some of dubstep’s more recognizable generic conventions. Similarly, Indian Wells falls into the post-dubstep genre by default. Night Drops, however, is an album whose beautiful textures and impressive song structures showcase a talent that goes far beyond hitting some keys an twiddling some knobs.

Frank Ocean - Channel ORANGE We were all waiting for the first studio record from Odd Future’s resident crooner, and Frank Ocean did not disappoint. Channel ORANGE is a mature, self-assured R&B record with a healthy dose of experimentalism, for progressiveness’ sake. And progressive it is: if this album had come out a year earlier, it’d be giving The Weeknd a run for their money.

Alt-J - An Awesome Wave One of the most fun art-rock records that came out in 2012, Alt-J’s debut is complex, yet flawlessly executed. These guys, though unfairly compared to Readiohead and dismissed by some of the more prominent music blogs, boast a unique and refined style in their early efforts that most bands take years to develop.

Mala - Mala in Cuba One of the guys who basically invented dubstep, Mala cruised down to Cuba to make himself a record with a bunch of Cuban influences. The result is basically exactly what you’d think it would be — sparse, atmospheric dubstep with a healthy dose of traditional Cuban music — and it’s awesome.

Jack White - Blunderbuss Those of us who were wondering what Jack White’s solo album would sound like were not disappointed. He basically took everything that was awesome about his previous projects and put them into ONE project. The White Stripes’ earnest, heart-on-the-sleeve songwriting gets mashed together with the full-frontal rock of the Raconteurs and Dead Weather for an album that will be thought of as important for years down the line, most likely.

Tame Impala - Lonerism It’s not really a surprise that Tame Impala’s second album is a great one, because their first record came with the kind of quiet, subtle excellence that speaks to some serious talent. Sure enough, Lonerism builds on just about everything that made Innerspeaker great.

Fiona Apple - The Idler Wheel... It’s really a shame, what happened to Fiona Apple’s last album. Anyone who’s heard the Jon Brion-produced sessions that never got a legitimate release know that Extraordinary Machine should have been a much better album. Thankfully, The Idler Wheel... sees Fiona Apple ditching the drums and electric guitars that hip-hop producer Mike Elizondo (a great producer, just mis-matched with Apple) brought to the mix on Extraordinary Machine, instead opting for her more traditionally eclectic arrangements.

Cat Power - Sun Chan Marshall wanted desperately for her newest album to be a bit of a left turn, and she was successful. After apparently throwing out a record’s worth of work because someone told her it sounded like her other material, Cat Power created a record more textured and varied than anything she’s worked on previously.

Metz - Metz These Canadian noise rockers showed up out of nowhere and basically just tore the roof off of whatever building they found themselves in. If you want an album full of excellent beating-the-shit-out-of-people music (or working-out music; whatever you're into), Metz is a great choice.

Django Django - Django Django An album that makes you feel like you’re at a party in a digital desert, Django Django’s debut record joins awesome efforts by bands like Yeasayer and Bear in Heaven, crafting spacey, psychedelic songs around organic-sounding pop frameworks. Great for the touch-screen Bedouin in all of us.

Solange - True This EP, produced by Blood Orange’s Dev Hines, finds Solange busting out some serious songwriting chops, finally sounding like the accomplished artist we all knew she was.

Opossom - Electric Hawaii The album starts off with an almost too-simple summertime jam, but quickly gives way to an intense, psychedelic head trip that will make you want to have yourself an acid-fueled, beachside hippie freakout.

Born Gold - Little Sleepwalker In interviews, Born Gold’s Cecil Frena has said that he intended for Little Sleepwalker to be the polar opposite of his first album, Bodysongs. He succeeded. While the previous album was great, the second album heads in a completely opposite direction. As it turns out, Little Sleepwalker’s ice-cold electronica is just as compelling as Bodysongs was enjoyable.

THINK I MISSED ANYTHING? Let me know in the comments! I'm always on the lookout for some new tunes.

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