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Album Review: Kanye West – Yeezus [Def Jam]

“How much do I not give a fuck? / Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up.” These are the words Kanye West spits out in the bridge to the song “On Sight,” the opening track off his new record Yeezus. It’s likely he’s addressing the media when saying them, however it makes a grand statement about the album as a whole. After a few records of ever-evolving but always smartly constructed and commercially accessible hip hop, West has had enough. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a crowning achievement of the highest order, enough to be called one of (if not THE) greatest records of the century. Crafting a follow-up certainly wouldn’t be easy, but in many ways West makes it look like child’s play. Those looking for challenging and obtuse in their hip hop will find it on this new album in spades, and though he’s purposely tried to avoid releasing any singles, it’s going to happen anyways since “Black Skinhead” has caught on.

Unlike the boisterous arrangements and orchestral flourishes that populated his last record, Yeezus goes for the stripped down, attack dog approach. West is angry at the world it seems, and though he throws out a lot of hate, he rarely threatens actual violence, which has largely been the case since the beginning of his career and has helped to separate him from his peers. Still, women don’t fare well on this record, particularly on the extremely sexual “I’m In It,” which includes lines like, “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign,” and the cringe-worthy “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce.” The only real “redemption” (if you can call it that) for women comes on the final track “Bound 2,” which is rumored to be written about his relationship with Kim Kardashian. Elsewhere he chooses to go anti-corporate advertising with a track like “New Slaves,” slamming corporations and any famous people (especially other rappers) accepting goods in exchange for promotions and shout outs. Ironic then how closely his pal Jay-Z is working with Samsung for the release of his new album. Also unlike his last album, West keeps the guests to a minimum on Yeezus, and several tracks feature only his voice, though with a fair number of samples and “producers” working on them. Frank Ocean shows up for a few seconds on “New Slaves,” and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon gets a couple of dramatic vocal workouts on “I Am A God,” “Hold My Liquor” and “I’m In It.” Though Kid Cudi shows up for a verse on “Guilt Trip,” the only other guests are up-and-coming Chicago rappers Chief Keef and King Louie, on “Hold My Liquor” and “Send It Up,” respectively. Everybody’s great, but West truly shines when he’s flying solo.

The divorce drama of “Blood on the Leaves” is the absolute greatest and most powerful piece on the entire album, buttressed by a Nina Simone vocal sample and a piece of TNGHT’s “R U Ready” that provide a profound mixture of sadness and venom. The acid-house squelch sample from Phuture’s 1987 classic “Acid Tracks” cut, which inspired a generation of rock bands from that era (Nine Inch Nails included) helps drive “On Sight” to an intense degree, and brings a certain synth element to this record that West has never attempted before. That sort of sound works well on a number of album tracks, but perhaps “I Am A God”‘s Blade Runner-esque haze with a Daft Punk production assist matches up best overall, somehow able to handle both a goofy eye-rolling moment like the line, “Hurry up with my damn croissants,” and the terrified, breathless screams that show up at the end. The only track that really breaks from the unified bare-bones production on this record is “Bound 2,” which smashes together The Ponderosa Twins’ “Bound” with Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s” and Wee’s “Aeroplane (Reprise)” in a melody that sounds like t was ripped straight out of one of West’s first two albums.

Still, the generally minimalist (down to the cover art) and rock n’ roll-like approach he takes on much of Yeezus is new territory for him to explore, and something that feels informed at least in part by some of the incredible, anti-commercial anger that has earned Death Grips the right kind of attention over the last couple years. Hip hop in general could use more of this type of boundary exploration. In this particular case the strategy is likely West’s attempt to feed his own ego; to prove that no matter what he does or how much he alienates his own fans, he will still be praised as the greatest thing to ever happen in music. The worst part about it is, to some degree he’s right. Very few, if any, rap artists can claim to have such an acclaimed and lucrative career over a 10-year period. The same can be said about almost every musician outside of that genre too. You hate to give such a self-aggrandizing figure even more ammunition, but full credit where credit is due, Yeezus is another near-masterpiece.

Kanye West – Hold My Liquor (ft. Chief Keef and Justin Vernon)

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Album Review: Active Child – You Are All I See [Vagrant]

Last summer, Active Child released the “Curtis Lane” EP. It was a collection of 6 songs that made for a fascinating introduction to Pat Grossi’s pet project, unique in the way that harp, synths and vocals were all blended, chopped and screwed into an electronic filter with dizzying results. The crossroads that EP presented were directional, with Grossi taking a shot at the slow moving and shimmery synth melodies on one side and more beat-driven 80s dance numbers on the other. Everything worked together relatively well, but the dichotomy suggested that he’d need to make a clearer and bolder choice of direction for whatever he chose to record next. It’s been over a year, one mostly filled with extensive touring around the world, but Active Child finally got around to making a debut full length, titled “You Are All I See”. With his harp and a powerful falsetto voice that even angels are jealous of, Grossi has taken a sharper turn towards ethereal beauty and away from the dance floor, and it’s doubtful anybody will disagree with that decision.

Just because Grossi has made the right decision when it comes to Active Child’s overall sound doesn’t mean that “You Are All I See” is automatically a great record. The title track that starts the record begins with waterfalls of harp eventually leading to touches of synth and that heavenly vocal rising above it all, often overdubbed to create soaring harmonies. Those first four minutes are so gorgeous that you get the sense nothing else on the album will be able to top it from a beauty perspective. That’s pretty much true, but beauty isn’t everything, and a number of other tracks come close to that same level of musical splendor anyways. Electronic textures and synths take over on first single “Hanging On”, and the results sound a bit like something that Justin Vernon’s side project Volcano Choir might put out, but with a little more mainstream R&B influence. The R&B aspect goes into full gear courtesy of “Playing House”, Grossi’s team-up with How to Dress Well aka Tom Krell. If you’re looking for an indie version of a sexy jam to “get it on” to, here’s your track. The slow clap looped beat matched against high-pitched synths and Krell’s expressive vocal (with Auto-Tune harmonies) not to mention seductive lyrics create the perfect environment for taking off your clothes and making some sweet love. Go ahead and give it a try. Let me know how it went afterwards.

As “You Are All I See” fully develops, in spite of a few stylistic shifts the majority of it maintains a delicate 80s electro-synth-pop vibe, its closest cousin actually being the last M83 album “Saturdays=Youth”. The main issue is that it’s not nearly as energetic or engrossing as M83, often adopting a more meditative tone that becomes formless and drags after awhile. Even Grossi’s consistent and dynamite voice can’t quite save much of the middle of the record. “See Thru Eyes” and “High Priestess” in particular fail to inspire in the wake of the first third of the album. When “Way Too Fast” shows up, the minimalist electro atmospherics blended with Grossi’s vocals pitch-shifted through multiple filters makes it sound like an outtake from the James Blake record. It actually makes for one of the most fascinating moments on the entire album even if it doesn’t quite equal the high watermark Blake established earlier this year. Almost like a cast off from the “Curtis Lane” EP, “Shield and Sword” brings the tempo to dance club level but stops short of becoming fully fleshed out and engaging. It also feels just a slight bit out of place.

If there’s hope for “You Are All I See”, it comes in the form of closing track “Johnny Belinda”. There are many ways to describe the track, whether it be operatic, cinematic or even symphonic, but primarily it’s just plain epic. The army of violins and cellos create a massive and ominous rumble while harp gets sprinkled in as a bit of extra spice and beauty. Grossi’s voice, backed by some operatic moans, tells the sad tale of lost love. It is the sonic equivalent of a man adrift at sea in a small lifeboat as a storm rages and waves crash on top of him. And it works. To think that one man (with obvious help) could put together an immense track like that proves that this is a project worth keeping an eye on. If every track on “You Are All I See” was this well written and composed, Active Child would have a game-changing album on his hands. Unfortunately a couple clunkers pushes it off the mark and leaves us to wonder what might have been. The record’s primary issue though is virtually the same problem that has plagued Active Child from the beginning – an inability to commit to one particular style or another. Grossi has broadened his horizons rather than reduced them, going from R&B one moment to synth-pop the next, with shades of soul, classical, gospel and a number of other styles in between. Simply having your record sound beautiful doesn’t mean you’re stylistically dialed in. Hopefully from touring around this record Grossi will learn what works best and streamline that approach for the next record.

Active Child – Playing House (Ft. How To Dress Well)

Active Child – Hanging On (White Sea Remix)

Buy “You Are All I See” from Amazon

Album Review: Bon Iver – Bon Iver [Jagjaguwar]

By every indication, Justin Vernon is not the same man he was 3 years ago. It has been that long since his debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago” was recorded all alone under the moniker of Bon Iver out in a wintry Wisconsin cabin. The story about the creation of the album was about as perfect as the album itself, bringing with it the thought that maybe if we all just retreated from civilization perhaps we too might emerge with a similar bit of brilliance. Many have surely tried since then, but I haven’t heard any incredible “cabin in the woods” stories recently, and I’m guessing you haven’t either. But Vernon has done nothing but grow since breaking free of that self-imposed cocoon, moving forwards with a number of extra projects that includes the slow R&B collective Gayngs and the uber-experimental Volcano Choir. That’s not even making mention of his guest work on the latest Kanye West album along with the slight sonic leap forwards that was Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” EP. While supporting that first Bon Iver record on tour, Vernon recruited an actual band to play with, and they’ve been by his side ever since, working to carefully enhance the sparse and singular acoustic guitar arrangements. He very well could have raced back to that Wisconsin cabin to record the second Bon Iver full length, but given all that’s happened to him, one gets the impression that he’s moved so far beyond that classic tale both mentally and sonically that there would be no point looking back. So instead Vernon built a recording studio out of an old veterinary clinic in Wisconsin, where he and the rest of the band crafted the new album in bits and pieces during their free time over these last 3 years. This record is self-titled, and that’s most likely because it marks a second rebirth for Vernon, signalling that Bon Iver is no longer just a singular man with a guitar but instead a full-fledged band with a vast array of tools at their disposal.

A big part of what made “For Emma, Forever Ago” so charming was the simplicity of it. The thought that a voice and an acoustic guitar were just about all the tools you needed to craft amazing songs meant that production values, studio magic and a full band were unnecessary extravagances when push came to shove. In certain cases though, such as with tUnE-yArDs, stepping up from crappy bedroom laptop recording to legitimate studio and backing band has proven not only necessary, but essential towards unleashing the full potential of an artist. Those concerned that Vernon’s upward movement towards bigger and better has spoiled his ability to write and compose smart music needn’t have worried after all, for “Bon Iver” seems to fully recognize all of the best things about that last album and worked simply to expound upon them in new and interesting ways. The anchor, as it has always been, is Vernon’s voice. That stark falsetto is truly unique in today’s musical landscape, and he once again makes the most out of it. Doubled and tripled over harmonies, Auto-Tune and a host of other effects make the singing a weapon of its own, often rising above the main course of melody to create added depth and beauty. He never quite goes to the length of the a capella acrobatics that was “Woods” off the “Blood Bank” EP, but he doesn’t need to here, particularly because there’s so much else for your ears to pick up on. The subtle uses of horns, orchestral sections and saxophones mix with digital and electro effects to make a mix that’s purposely muddy and understated. There are no sweepingly epic or overtly dramatic moments on the album, even if there are songs that build to noisy and satisfying crescendos. Intimacy is maintained primarily though Vernon’s words and his delivery of them, but for the most part there’s a natural calm that flows through the entire record from an instrumental perspective, to the point where it’s not too difficult to catch a nap during a few songs should the conditions be right. That’s not to say this album is boring, just that like any good lullaby, when you mix quiet and beautiful sometimes you’ll just close your eyes for a minute and wake up hours later.

Starting with a few seconds of pure silence, “Bon Iver”‘s opening track “Perth” works the term “slow burn” in the best way possible. The carefully picked and slightly fuzzy electric guitar initially maps out the melody, and shortly thereafter a very martial drum line kicks in to help propel that even more. After running through a couple of verses with not much of a legitimate chorus, nearly the entire final half of the song is pure instrumental build to an explosion. Chords are hit, the drums get louder, a horn section comes into play, and the best “hook” we can ask for is based purely on the guitar notes and nothing else. This is an introduction to the evolution of Bon Iver, and it’s heartening to see the band loosed from the chains of a more conventional song structure. Soft rock and a more nature-infused alt-country intersect on “Minnesota, WI”. The first half of the song moves from spacey guitar and deep drums into an almost slowed down reggae groove where flutes and saxophones all gently work with one another next to Vernon breaking out his lowest register R&B vocal that comes across as more Tunde Adebimpe than it does Bon Iver. But there’s a smooth development that enters with a subtle but fast moving acoustic guitar that’s about the auditory equivalent of a babbling forest brook. Suddenly all the other instruments begin to fade away, and in their place comes a banjo and a slide guitar. There’s also a heavy synth that pulsates through the main melody as it grinds towards a conclusion in which all the sounds collide in a melting pot that only works because of its modesty and restraint. Not everything is pure innovation or extensive with what it contains. “Holocene” is much more a vocal showcase than anything else, though the acoustic guitar and xylophone are nearly as warm and welcoming. Still, the light touch of a bicycle bell on “Michicant” or the bird chirping on “Hinnom, TX” make those songs just a touch more charming past what they’re already doing.

If there’s a point of contention on this self-titled album though, it’s going to be with closing track “Beth/Rest”. Whereas everything leading up to that point had only hinted towards something more 80s soft rock/adult contemporary, Bon Iver goes for the jugular in the end with something that would register as pure homage were it also not infused with a couple of small modern-day flourishes. Still, trying not to think about Bruce Hornsby and his kinfolk whilst listening to the song is tough, unless you’re young enough to have never been exposed to such cheese. This fucking with the idea of what’s “cool” by creating a song that is patently uncool seems to have carried over with a number of artists this year. Destroyer’s “Kaputt” worked on a lot of the same principles and managed to succeed in spite of itself. A worse example would be Heidecker & Wood’s debut album, which left you wondering if there was a joke or extreme sincerity behind it. For Bon Iver, the thinking appears to be one of acceptance. What’s cool is relative, and while we all make mistakes from time to time, we shouldn’t have to defend things or music that we truly love no matter how bad it might be to others. Even then, were we to search hard enough, perhaps we can find something great about an otherwise terrible thing or song. For me, “Beth/Rest” is worthwhile and a solid album closer less because it’s a decent song and more because of what it represents and tries to do. Certainly it will have its critics, but where some will see fault others will see perfection. 80s adult conteporary may be a crap genre, but at least Bon Iver has taken the risk and wound up making that crap sound almost listenable.

To say that expectations were high for the second Bon Iver album would be an understatement. “For Emma, Forever Ago” touched so many people who identified with its sparse and somber message. It is a record about heartbreak and attempting to move past it. As a contrast, “Bon Iver” isn’t about a woman but instead more about a place or places. You look at the song titles, from “Minnesota, WI” to “Wash.” to “Calgary” and “Lisbon, OH”, and whether they’re real or not, they all dictate a location. There’s controversy about whether or not this new album is titled “Bon Iver” or if it’s “Bon Iver, Bon Iver”, as if dictating that the band were a city and state unto themselves. Whatever the reality might be, this is an album that is searching for a home. We all get a little lost sometimes and become unsure of where to go or who to turn to. Consider this your travelling companion as you seek that refuge from whatever it is that is causing you distress. It is your port in a storm, your warm blanket when you are cold, or your moment of clarity amidst a sea of confusion. These are incredible songs composed with the utmost care and skill so as to hold consistent and thematically strong. If JUstin Vernon had just turned in another record filled with acoustic guitar ballads it would likely be very nice, but ultimately a little disappointing. Consistent development of your own sound is important, and Bon Iver have grown in big ways here. The influence of Vernon’s other projects is stamped on this album, but never to the point of open distraction or in such a way where we’d consider it anything else than something Bon Iver would do. The quietly graceful tone and how most of the songs blend into one another also helps to see this as a singular piece rather than a collection of individual songs. Standout first single “Calgary” may give you a good idea of how this record sounds, but to fully understand it requires at least one time through without any breaks or pauses or skipping. Allow yourself to be enveloped in the natural serenity it offers. Try to forget what you know, or think you know about this band and the sort of music they make, just to see if it resonates with you. If it does, maybe you can build a little home for it inside your heart.

Bon Iver – Calgary

Buy “Bon Iver” from Amazon

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