Five Albums From February 2017 you may Have Missed
February – that bastard of a short month. It yields little time to get things done, and you spend the middle of it looking for paltry tokens of love and devotion. The music was good though; real good. We got a delightfully obtuse breakup album, rebellious desert music from North Africa, a return to form from a beloved UK band, and some eccentric bass music you can drop acid to (at your own peril). It’s all below in our monthly wrap-up.
Back when they were touring for Bitte Orca, seeing Dirty Projectors live was like watching a bunch of adept Juilliard dropouts play weird shit with a drummer channeling the ghost of John Bonham. It was great! For better or worse they symbolized the kind of Brooklyn hipsterism that was coming to the forefront of the culture, but they were still challenging and seemed more comfortable at the fringes, eschewing any crossover potential that may have awaited them.
Over the years, the line-up of that band has dwindled down to the core of its sole creator, Dave Longstreth, so this time around the project is a much more solo affair. But it still retains a refreshing warped perspective both in its approach to music and content.
Dirty Projectors is a break-up record – one that chronicles the aftermath of the long-time relationship between Longstreth and former Dirty Projectors member Amber Coffman. Word out on the interwebs is that the two have remained friends, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some oddball catharsis to work through.
I have no idea how Longstreth writes these songs. It sounds like a savant tackling magnetic poetry: vocals both pitched down then Auto-Tuned, mutated guitars, electronic glitches hinting at instability, horn sections that come out of the ether, samples, strings, a dozen other things all produced by one man under one roof. It’s all calculated madness designed to retain interest at the risk of alienation and often surfs both ends of that spectrum. At this point listeners are either on board with the project, or they heard ‘Stillness is the Move” back in the day and moved on. If you’re in the former camp then welcome back. Many strange treasures await.
The first thing that comes to mind when listening to Elbow’s latest album is that they’ve picked up the pace a little. Their last two albums were great, but they both got a little too deep into the dirge at times. Ever since the release of The Seldom Seen Kid, an album still regarded by many as their high watermark, Elbow slowed things down to a more subdued pace on their next two offerings. It’s not that those albums weren’t great, it just seemed that a fire was lacking.
Little Fictions is Elbow’s seventh album, and when a band reaches that kind of longevity it’s easy to hear how well things are clicking for them at this point. Listening to Guy Garvey’s unmistakable whiskey and ale-soaked voice is like hearing from an old friend.
Instead of using all the instruments in their artillery to make a grand noise, they’re using fewer to make more pointed – and in some cases more memorable – songs. Track “Gentle Storm” is a steady beat with simple piano chords, and it manages to soar even more than songs the band has sung about rockets. Track “K2” is one of the most melodically interesting songs on the album, and possibly one of the most in Elbow’s catalog. This is all achieved with a modest approach and clear precision. All in all, it’s refreshing to hear how this band is still looking for new ways to adjust their process and sound this far into their career. We need stalwarts, especially when they take their music as seriously as these guys do.
Sampha’s work with SBTRKT was so indispensable that it almost seemed strange to hear a SBTRKT song without that voice accompanying it. It was a key identifier and something that made that first SBTRKT album so unique. It didn’t take long for the interest of other artists to follow. Sampha went on to feature on songs by Drake, Solange, Beyoncé, and Kanye West – all great contributions that helped round out those artist’s songs even more. Appetites were satisfied a bit when he released his EP
Sampha went on to feature on songs by Drake, Solange, Beyoncé, and Kanye West – all great contributions that helped round out those artist’s songs even more. Appetites were satisfied a bit when he released his EP Dual back in 2013, but it was still a bit of a wait for a full-length album. I guess when you’re being flown around the world to work with the biggest names in music you might need to put some things off to the side for a time.
So now we finally have Process, an album where Sampha can finally show what he does when he’s at the helm. The album brings you in with opener “Plastic 100˚C,” the mood is firmly set, you can almost see the gray London skyline of Sampha’s home when you listen to it even though the song uses melting points as its metaphor. Then there’s “Blood on Me,” where Sampha’s breath floods into his own vocals giving the song an added dose of intensity. The listener is there with him, running away from threat. If he didn’t have such an amazing voice most people probably wouldn’t willingly come along.
Things mellow out as well. “No One Knows Me Like the Piano” is a gorgeous ode to family, early influences, and the things that end up making us who we are. Process makes it very clear that Sampha never needed a cameo spot to shine in the first place. It’s great to finally see him front and center in the spotlight because he deserves the hell out of it.
Singer/bassist Thundercat lets his freak flag fly more than most artists. This album is hot off the press so I’m not going to pretend like I know it inside and out. What I can tell you from a single sitting through its twenty-three tracks is it’s one hell of a mind-bending listen. The only constant is the six-string bass that Thundercat plays, more so like a guitar than the traditional method for which it was intended. That means you get songs like ‘Lava Lamp’ where he makes some of the most original chords and melodies this side of planet Earth.
Drunk runs the full gauntlet from wacky (“A Fan’s Mail (Torn Song Suite II)”) to spacey (“Tokyo”) to wonderful (“Jethro”). On track “Show You the Way” Kenny Loggins AND Micheal McDonald, two pillars of California yacht rock, appear together to send the song into the stratosphere of smoothness. On paper that reads as ironic but once you hear it you know that nothing but goodwill and love for that lost genre of music is intended by Thundercat. There’s a lot to absorb on this, but it’s fun and different from most albums you’ll hear this year. Did we ever think we’d live in a time where experimental bass music would be some of the most exciting music around? What dimension is this?
There’s a lot to absorb on this, but it’s fun and different from most albums you’ll hear this year. Did we ever think we’d live in a time where experimental bass music would be some of the most exciting music around? What dimension is this?
Tinariwen’s story is more interesting than other bands. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact. They used to record their music for free to anyone who had a blank cassette to give them; members have served as Tuareg freedom fighters; they’ve been targeted by and have escaped Islamic extremists in their native country of Mali. When they’re not raising awareness for the plight of their people, they’re winning Grammys and selling out venues across the world.
And then there’s the music. Elwan is the band’s seventh official album, and like their previous work it can transport you to places unheard of and unseen by most people in the Western world. This time around, some familiar names like Kurt Vile, Matt Sweeney, and Mark Lanegan have even dropped in to collaborate with them. It’s the sound of communion, rebellion, and heartache, and this is what I can glean from the feeling of the music alone since, like most listeners, I don’t understand a word of Tamashek. It rocks in its own very distinct way.
Guitar riffs – sometimes electric, other times acoustic – snake and curl around like smoke trails. There’s no fancy equipment (aside from what’s provided by recording in better studios), but the band makes a sound born out of the desert landscape they come from and they’ve been making music this way for over thirty years. There’s a purpose to it – true rebellion in the face of really bad shit. If Tinariwen’s music means people just might want to know more about who they are and where they come from then that’s a good thing. If their music frightens people who want to take the world back to the Dark Ages then that’s a powerful thing.