Recommended Track: “If I Believe You” by The 1975

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I don’t know if I believe in God.

It’s a little weird to type that sentence—I’ve certainly never done it before, and having spent all of my pre-college education in Catholic schools, I’m frightened to even consider that out loud. Sometimes I feel like a fraud, like I’m actively ignoring that religions are just stories that we tell ourselves to metaphorically illustrate a moral code. Other times, I am so enraptured by the world’s mysteries and beauty that I can’t help but be swept along by the thought of some grand design.

To put it simply, “If I Believe You” is a gospel song about not having any faith. Perhaps more accurately, it’s about living without faith through times of pain. The song’s main lyric feels appropriately like a plea from the Book of Job: “If I believe you, will that make it stop?” Vocalist Matty Healy approaches his own lack of faith with something resembling a tremble, turning over in his bed alone with a God-shaped hole in his heart. It’s one of many themes on The 1975’s second album, an audacious and intimate record that’s my favorite of the year by a wide margin.

Lyrics this overtly earnest could easily come off as cloying, but the song’s carefully crafted musical arrangement underscores the theme with assurance. You can hear this care in the perfectly placed flugelhorn solo, which creates some badly needed space and extends the song length from a traditional ballad into something much more ruminative. You can hear it in the plucked harp strings, which turn the song’s coda into something so tactile that you can practically touch them. Every flourish is thought out, visualizing an empty room that has something else there.

My favorite technique on display is in the innovative way the band records the song’s gospel choir. At first, the extra voices are there to traditionally reinforce the chorus, and it sounds great in an ’80s balladeer kind of way. But then the band samples that recording and chops it up, manipulating these swelling voices to create something truly otherworldly. Listen at 2:20, when it feels as if the heavens are literally opening up while Matty approaches the song’s climax: “And I had a revelation: I’ll be your child if you insist. I mean, if it was you who made my body, you probably shouldn’t’ve made me atheist.” It’s like someone turned on a light.

I don’t go to church often these days. When I do go, my favorite moments of every mass are the minutes after receiving communion. I always do the same thing: return to my pew, kneel, and put my face in my hands. In the quiet, I meditate on the dreams I want realized for others, on the people I miss, on the way the world is and how it could be. And in those moments, I don’t feel like a fraud; I hope that someone is listening, and solace takes me like a wave.

That same yearning is what I’ve found here. This is what prayer sounds like.

Spotify   Apple Music   Lyrics

Play this song: In the dark, when you’re not sure what you need but know you need something.

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Review: Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

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Kanye West – The Life of Pablo
Record Label: GOOD Music / Def Jam
Release Date: February 14, 2016

I have to give Kanye West the benefit of the doubt.

It’s taken me a long time to type that sentence. The first 6 weeks of 2016 have been an incredibly exciting and frustrating time to be a Yeezy fan, with an album rollout that took “pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist” to a whole new level. After he rejoined Twitter, the world was treated to a real-time look at Mr. West’s creative process—the joy of discovery as he patched collaborators, beats, samples, and choirs together into an everchanging mess of (mostly unheard) sound. Most rap listeners followed along with every stitch, watching a signed notepad somehow become more valuable than most people’s cars. It’s the closest we’ve ever gotten to a transcript of a great artist’s mind in action.

Of course, this direct feed into The Life of Kanye West also led to a staggering number of tweets that could best be characterized as misogynistic and homophobic. He defended the widely accused rapist Bill Cosby. He called out an ex-girlfriend’s child after misreading an abbreviation. News stories about his sexual preferences (and his denials of said preferences) far outpaced stories about the music. It was hard to watch, and impossible to defend.

It was also completely predictable. As most people know by now, the most compelling thing about Kanye West the artist is that is nearly inextricable from Kanye West the man. In his efforts to show us everything, Kanye has never shied away from the parts of him that are the ugliest. In his pursuit of a greater Truth, he has never been interested in political correctness. And in his deep need to get the message across, Kanye has never so much as acknowledged brevity—for better or worse, the man is his own editor.

So yeah, this whole situation is fucked up. It’s led to some incredible writing and conversation about where the boundaries of artistic and critical expression lie, about how much sociopolitical leeway we give popular artists, and (most of all) about how incredibly disappointing it is that one of the most progressive musicians of the 21st century could espouse such regressive views.

But perhaps the most important conversation point of all: in the midst of all this digital turmoil, he actually, you know, released the album. Continue reading

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Short Prose: “New Song”

Archiving some writing.

Fig Tree in Camperdown Cemetery

New Song

It had never come this easy before. He’d done reggae, rap-rock, jazz fusion, moody blues, dark punk, death metal, doo-wop, blue-eyed soul, classical, afrobeat, crust punk, digital hardcore, and alternative everything. He’d pumped out techno beats, layered six-harmony a cappella tones, and once rapped for four and a half minutes straight using only obscenities, but it had never come this easy before.

The room is well-lit and the floor and walls are constructed from pine wood, the perfect timber for his acoustic six-string’s dulcet tones. The fresh aroma reminds him of a carpenter’s shop. Standing twelve by twelve, instruments clutter space, encroaching on the miniature stilted stool positioned centrally in front of his lone microphone. They hang off of the walls, higher and higher in the air, threatening a cacophonous avalanche should some earthly rumble quake the room. Keyboards, abstract drum set pieces, guitars and basses at ground level, the basis for most music. A higher gaze recognizes seldom-used tools, alto and tenor saxophones from his jazz days, trumpets and trombones, their bells still gleaming, a polished sheen. Still higher, at the quarter’s summit, hung the rarities, waiting to be brought down for an interlude: kazoos, Indonesian metallophones, pan flutes, Aztec slit drums, and a rusty accordion.

But they have no place in this particular morning’s song. Right now, it is just him and his guitar. He plucks the open G and B strings gingerly, relishing the perfect third they create before settling into a melody. He plays nothing complex; in fact, it’s a traditional tune, modeled off of basic progressions that any amateur could pick up immediately. Still, it rings true, an augmented seventh hanging in the air like an invitation to the theatre.

He increases his speed, running his forefingers repeatedly around the fret board as a well-seasoned miler might jog before a race, pacing himself to get in the mood. The scant sounds are coming together now, and he hears the first words of the song, sweet and light: I see a star on the sycamore tree. It never bothered him where the words came from or how they fit together (more often than not, they didn’t). He never wrote his lyrics down, and in fact never bothered to refine their meaning; the words had always arrived posthumously, wisps of White Sea foam curled on the crests of soundwaves. That was how he meant it, unedited life caught forever on a tape.

Suddenly, he has it. He strums evenly, matching his shoe’s tapping click track to keep tempo. In and out, in and out, in and out and in. Mistakes are common for this part but he rarely makes them, each purposeful flick of his wrist brimming with confidence and little trepidation. After finishing, he rises to grasp a tambourine off the wall, and settles back into the rhythm, complementing his background. Clink, Clink, Clink Clink Clink rattles the hollowed drum, matching his guitar perfectly.

Bass follows, a dropped D tuning brings a crisp rumble to the low end of the register. Bum bada Bum Bum Bum. No piano, after consideration. The complexities of the ivory might have suggested a backdrop for the tune, but in the end they’d intrude on the melody, and, after all, this was all about the melody. Besides, bass provides more than enough foundation for him to coat his six-string over.

With the skeleton of the song in place, he begins to add its true bones, sparsely sinewing his original guitar line throughout his framework. It flutters airily, cascading over the simple structure and filling it with pure, invigorating life.

He tinges the strings repeatedly, building a fine, joyful film over the dollop of music. It caresses him, eyes closed, mouth open wide, completing the opening couplet: I see a star on the sycamore tree, five limitless lines drawn away on a breeze. And those few words mean more to him than a thousand leaky windowsills or a million dying sea lions or a billion burning stars, because they are his and they are him.

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Archived Review: Cassino – Kingprince

This is an old review I wrote in 2010 for Cassino’s album “Kingprince” for AbsolutePunk.net. With AP shutting down, I’m saving a couple of reviews.

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In early 2005, Nick Torres and Tyler Odom emerged from the ashes of Northstar as the creatively reenergized indie folk band, Cassino. Their 2007 debut, Sounds of Salvation, developed the lighter, acoustic singer-songwriting of Pollyanna’s “Two Zero Two” and added earthy accompaniments like mandolins, saxophones and lap guitars to eleven tight, concise tracks filled with insightful, abstract lyrics.

The avenue is at it again, with a mouth that swallows men, and it fills my words with smoke and broke amen’s.

Two years later, Nick Torres has returned alone with Kingprince, broadening the sound of Salvation to birth a new morning for Cassino. Continue reading

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Year In Review: 2015 Overlooked Albums

2015 EOTY List

2015 has been an incredible year of music, with a number of high profile records that I’ve spent a lot of time connecting with. They are not on this list.

Though I’ve been thinking about To Pimp A Butterfly since the night it fell from the sky, no one should need a recommendation from me to check it out. So instead of another End of the Year list with paragraphs about why Sufjan Stevens released a quietly perfect heartbreaker, I wanted to jump in with some of my favorite 2015 albums that might have flown under your radar. The first two write-ups are lengthy, but everything else is more to the point. I also include a few tracks under each section, in case you’re interested in hearing something immediately.

Continue reading

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Year in Review: 2015 Musical Superlatives

2015 EOTY List

Excited to spend the next couple weeks writing about my favorite underrated albums and songs. Here’s a few thoughts to kick it off before I go more in-depth with future posts.

Favorite Album
Julien Baker – Sprained Ankle

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If you haven’t listened to it yet, please do. My thoughts on the album are documented here.

Favorite Song
Jamie xx feat. Popcaan & Young Thug – “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)”

Top 10 reasons I love this song: Continue reading

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Recommend Tracks: Jeremih

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Why are we even pretending that we should listen to things besides the new Jeremih album? Late Nights: The Album dropped out of nowhere after more than three years of teasing fans, and it’s filled with so many incredible tracks that you should stop reading this and just throw it on.

Still here? Alright, here’s five of my favorites:

“Pass Dat”

I knew this album was going to be special as soon as I heard the doubled falsetto hook that kicks this off, which is designed to catch ears when you randomly throw it on at a Christmas party (like I’m about to do in an hour). The song’s blooping production feels like a low grade fever. After listening to it a few times, I’m struck by how minimal everything is kept. He finds this groove and just grinds it out. Jeremih’s singing delivery throughout the album feels like the natural complement to all of these rappers that are singing, carving out a singing lane that places so much emphasis on hitting those rhythmic swings.

“Oui”

Simplest hook ever, but clever enough that no one’s done it yet: “There’s no Oui without U and I.” This is possibly my favorite love jam of the year, and so many of its best moments are wordless (which feels appropriate). Those “Aww-yeah, aww-yeah, aww-YEAHs” that build out the background make for perfect singsongs, and the vocal breakdown in the song’s bridge is another gem of songwriting talent.

“Giv No Fuks [Feat. Migos]”

Are Migos secretly the most versatile rappers in the game? I’m still not convinced they have a distinct sound, but recent collaborations with Chance the Rapper, R Kelly, and now Jeremih have all created songs that feel like they’re pushing those artists’ boundaries while still seeming authentic. “Giv No Fuks” is an absolute banger, one of those songs you can put on from pregame to sun-up and somehow get more energy out of it each time.

“Woosah [Feat. Juicy J & Twista]”

One thing I’ve yet to mention about this album: like its mixtape predecessor, it is dirty as fuck. Jeremih loves to have sex, and reminds listeners of this fact on every song. Sometimes it comes off charming, sometimes it’s a bit cartoonish, and sometimes it’s just annoyingly insistent, a throbbing reminder of what Jeremih & co. think you should be doing. (J Cole and Big Sean both overstep with verses that get a little too graphic from rappers who aren’t good at that sort of thing, like those dudes at the party who are trying to kick game when they’ve had a few too many drinks.)

The culmination of this on Late Nights is “Woosah”, which is everything a sex jam should be: graphic, longing, assured, and seductive. From the first screwed-up vocal, it sounds like he’s already set the mood. (It’s completely intentional; there’s samples of a crackling fireplace in the background.) For five and a half minutes, Jeremih proceeds to sweet talk exactly what he wants and how, with double-take lyrics that have me simultaneously rewinding and blushing. And just when it feels like the—errr, session—is over, Twista comes through with a tacked-on verse that speeds everything right back up. It’s like a sex rhythm literalized in song.

Paradise

After a late night of debauchery, Jeremih sends the album off with the perfect hangover song. No drums or intricate production, just simple guitar arpeggios and Jeremih stacking some beautiful vocals to create an ode to that morning haze. “That was one hell of a party” he sings, and I’m right there with him.

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