Music Roundup 2/5/18

We’re here to tell you what’s hot and what’s not in this week’s music roundup

music roundup Awolnation

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Genre: Pop Rock, Alternative Rock

Favorite Tracks: “Handyman,” “Table for One”

It’s got to be weird for Aaron Bruno that his solo project exploded with the help of this video, but it’s also the best thing ever associated with him because it recognizes just how goofy “Sail” and AWOLNATION actually are. Every time I start to get into a sweet guitar groove or pretty keyboard melody, the music becomes impossible to take serious due to unnecessarily aggressive vocal production, histrionic lyrics, and bass-heavy mixes all trying for dramatic bombast that is never earned. Even though Bruno said HERE COMES THE RUNTS would feature a greater emphasis on live instrumentation, those preceding problems are present right out of the gate. The pleasant falsetto of “Passion” is ruined by overly-distorted blasts of bass and choir vocals that make that Auto-Tuned monk on Bastille’s “Pompeii” seem serious, while the awesome, kinetic industrial breakdown on “Sound Witness System” is buttressed between the mousey, poorly recorded opening and a repetitive coda disconnected from every preceding lyric. AWOLNATION wisely narrowed their musical focus, leaning more on twee indie rock and anthemic electropop rather than industrial dance, but there is still little consistency when it comes to lyrical or musical mood, and there isn’t enough energy to make you forget that fact. On the positive side, “Table for One” is the most heartfelt the band has ever sounded, and “Handyman” handles the loud-soft dynamic between chorus and verse with more grace and power than I expected. There are plenty of catchy little riffs and musical ideas on HERE COMES THE RUNTS, but every good moment is followed by a shockingly stupid one. The end result is a deeply frustrating record in desperate need of editing and restraint. [Blake Michelle]

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

music roundup Bat Fangs

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Bat Fangs – S/T

Genre: Hard Rock

Favorite Tracks: “Rock the Reaper,” “Bad Astrology,” “Wolfbite,” “Fangs Out”

Bat Fangs debut, self-titled album left me wanting more. That’s not to say that Betsy Wright (Ex Hex) and Laura King (Flesh Wounds/Cold Cream) are a lackluster duo—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. King’s drumming is pure magic and pairs perfectly with Wright’s heavenly shredding. The problem is the anthems on BAT FANGS are Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith-worthy without featuring the vocals to match. Wright’s voice lacks the oomph, depth, and grit that the lyrics and music deserve. I would love for these kick-ass rockers to find their missing third wheel as, despite the singing, the lyrics don’t disappoint. Just sitting at my desk I can picture myself losing my voice at one of their upcoming concerts: “Wolfbite” has me chanting along, “You turn my day into night / Now I’ve got to hideaway / Out of the light,” and “Static” has a hypnotic, witchy vibe with, “When I tune into you / I just get static . . . You know that it’s tragic / Can’t even see / When there’s a little bit of magic.” King’s drum skills are flawless throughout BAT FANGS, so I’ll only point out that Queen’s We Will Rock You drum beat finds a lovely new melody in “Rock the Reaper.” Meanwhile, “Bad Astrology” and “Boy Of Summer” have great guitar solos, though I wish they were longer—odd, considering the album started as Wright’s project. In its completed form, BAT FANGS is almost a tribute to the great ‘80s rockers (Poison, Warrant, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi) who inspired both women, but with a raw, grunge twist. If nothing else, “Fangs Out” is a killer closer, perfect for an encore, and I most definitely want more! [Liliane Neubecker]

Verdict: Recommend

music roundup Camila Cabello

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Camila Cabello – CAMILA

Genre: Pop

Favorite Tracks: “Never Be the Same,” “In the Dark,” “Into It”

At only 35 minutes long, you owe it to yourself to check out Camila Cabello’s debut album CAMILA—you’re going to have to reckon with her as pop’s “next-big-thing” for the next four or five years, so you might as well get in on the ground floor, right? Refreshingly, her monster hit “Havana” serves as only a distant thesis for her debut, an album that seamlessly moves between satisfying and sparse club bangers and island-lounging vacation pop, and “Havana” is easily the least interesting track CAMILA has to offer. When Cabello lays into mid-2000s-sounding coffee shop guitars and snap-along beats (“All These Years,” “Real Friends”) she comes across as bored with her own material, and even the tropical beat making on “Inside Out,” while a tasteful radio-ready hit next to “Havana,” feels sleepy in the context of the album. But she hits high marks with opener “Never Be the Same” and closer “Into It,” the latter hitting the indietronica UK garage tones that acts like AlunaGeorge and (less successfully) BANKS have found success in, with the former offering an effervescent radio ballad a la Beyoncé’s “Halo.” Her token piano crooner, “Consequences,” delivers in cutting the production and revealing Cabello’s true vocal talents, and filler tracks like “In the Dark” are “She Loves Control” bump with enough zest and zeal that CAMILA falls solidly in the “surprisingly fun” category. While Cabello’s career will undoubtedly lead to bigger productions, sillier collaborations, and dumber ideas, her debut delights more than it offends and lays the track for potential pop superstardom. [CJ Simonson]

Verdict: Recommend

music roundup Calexico

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Genre: Indie Rock, Americana

Favorite Tracks: “Voices in the Field,” “The Town and Miss Lorraine,” “Eyes Wide Awake,” “Music Box,” “Lost Inside”

For those uninitiated into Tucson, AZ indie veterans Calexico’s sound, they mix a country-skewing indie rock sound, a la Wilco, with elements of various Tejano music genres and Marty Robbins-esque cowboy tales. That Tejano element that Calexico has become well known for is still just as present as ever. And really, it’s hard to say anything outright negative about THE THREAD THAT KEEPS US. The songs are fine, and many, like the vaguely baroque “The Town and Miss Lorraine,” a song that sounds like John Denver being backed by a Beirut-type chamber pop group, even stand out on their own. As they always do, Calexico does a good job of mixing their influences together in interesting ways. I bet they could soundtrack theHhell out of a movie, and you’d be hard-pressed to name any group that sounds even remotely like them. But that might also be what works against them at this point — this is album number 10 for Calexico, and they still sound largely the same as they did when they started in 1996. It’s a unique sound, for sure, but one that skews more often towards a musical novelty than innovation.

The biggest actual problem with this record is its frustrating pacing. THE THREAD THAT KEEPS US is just too long and lacks the amount of cohesiveness needed to justify said length. Truth be told, it’s not even really that long, clocking in at 67 minutes, but it moves at a frustratingly languid pace, with frequent and meandering instrumental interludes that don’t really go anywhere. I did not expect to say, in the year of our lord 2018, that the new Calexico record and Migos’ CULTURE II share a fundamental misstep that puts a real downer on the whole affair, but like the recent and abysmal trend of rap “playlists” being put on streaming platforms in an attempt to pull in some cash, THE THREAD THAT KEEPS US just keeps wandering around, refusing to head in any particular direction long enough to stay consistently compelling. Maybe it’s an artistic choice, an attempt to sonically recreate the dusty Texas trails that their music so often invokes, but even so, it’s not one that sticks. [Adam Cash]

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

music roundup Nils Frahm

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Nils Frahm – ALL MELODY

Genre: Minimalism, Electronic

Favorite Tracks: “My Friend the Forest,” “All Melody,” “A Place”

For a record with the title ALL MELODY, the latest from hotshot nouveau-classical pianist Nils Frahm, sure does rely a lot on rhythm. ALL MELODY combines synthesizers and traditional piano work to create intense, rhythmic music that also kicks around its fair share of gorgeous melodies. Frahm frequently takes the listener into an ambient soundscape, anchored on repetitive, synthetic, and rhythmic sounds, and his ability to make slight shifts just as the listener begins to become comfortable with the groove is uncanny. Frahm, when he’s at his most electronic, owes a bit of debt to IDM pioneers like Aphex Twin, particularly in the way that it feels like the rug could come out from under you at any time on a tune like “Sunson.” It’s more engaging and obviously deliberate than most trance music, and in many places, ALL MELODY sounds like what one might imagine a sentient computer to be. Frahm’s work seems to be played solely on synthesized instruments this time around, and anyone who’s ever owned a crappy Casio keyboard will recognize the clack of the keys on “My Friend the Forest” and “Forever Changeless.” It’s a small thing, but the way these two pieces were recorded is particularly striking—the atonal clacking alongside the sublime melodies of these pieces set the listener up to weigh the artifice of the electric keyboard against the soulfulness of Frahm’s playing and composition. That’s a big part of what makes Frahm such a boundary pusher, constantly toying with the line between what is “fake” and the feelings that come with seeing a person play a piano live. ALL MELODY is a work that doesn’t feel overly challenging, but is incredibly fulfilling to listen to and easily one of the best releases of the year so far. [Adam Cash]

Verdict: Recommend

music roundup JPEGMAFIA

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Genre: Experimental Hip Hop

Favorite Tracks: “1539 N. Calvert,” “DD Form 214 (featuring Bobbi Rush),” “Macaulay Culkin,” “I Cannot Fucking Wait Until Morrissey Dies,” “1488”

JPEGMAFIA makes challenging hip hop, blending surrealist, intense, and thoughtful art rap with noise that can be as alienating as it is fascinating. His newest, VETERAN, is his most succinct work yet, an icy and twisted album that delivers some of his most accessible songs to date next to his most out-there ideas. Lethargically paced and atmospheric shooters like “Maculay Culkin,” “Panic Emoji,” and prelude opener “1539 N. Calvert” are some of the rappe’rs best songs to date, and they’re surrounded by glitchy, industrial beats that crawl uncomfortably (“Rock N Roll Is Dead”) and angrily (“DJ Snitch Bitch Interlude”). Unlike his previous projects BLACK BEN CARSON and THE 2ND AMENDMENT, VETERAN is propelled by smaller ideas and shorter songs, frequently delivering microdosed, 90-second experiments that give the album a fair amount of flavor. The brevity of these songs makes VETERAN move much faster than its 47-minute runtime would indicate, and its JPEGMAFIA’s opportunity to quickly pull us out of the darkness or push us back in. VETERAN’s more spontaneous production is anchored by the Baltimore rapper’s cool and monotoned delivery, leading to a colorful yet intense album with some of his highest highs yet; this is what a rapper leveling up looks like, and the freefall is a true rush. Check out Crossfader’s 2016 interview with JPEGMAFIA here[CJ Simonson]

Verdict: Recommend

music roundup Rae Morris

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Genre: Electropop, Synthpop

Favorite Tracks: “Reborn,” “Lower the Tone,” “Dancing With Character”

Rae Morris’s piano takes a back seat in SOMEONE OUT THERE, leaving room for her colorful use of synth. Though it’s an exciting transition, I have a love-hate relationship with this album because I can’t peg it: the deliberate and meticulous side of Morris blends too much with her playful discovery of a new genre. Every “Aha! That’s fun and new” moment is matched with the awareness that it’s also methodical and calculated. With her debut album, UNGUARDED, Morris explained that producer Ariel Rechtshaid helped keep her simple, but unfortunately his replacement (and her now boyfriend), Fryars, did not manage to prevent Morris from overthinking aspects of her sophomore album. On my first listen, I discarded the album, despite having liked the singles that were released. The overall package was less than impressive—there aren’t any real jams, with “Atletico (The Only One)” being as close as it gets. When I gave it a second, more intricate listen, I realized just how experimental it actually is for both Morris’s vocals and her personal take on synthpop, which alone makes it worth a listen. To a much lesser extent, Morris is skirting with the avant-garde, taking cues from Björk: innovative, unique pop composition mixed with strong vocal skills. But the final result does not make SOMEONE OUT THERE an exciting album you put on to let loose, no matter how empowered Morris sounds. [Liliane Neubecker]

Verdict: Do Not Recommend

music roundup Rich Brian

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Rich Brian – AMEN

Genre: Pop Rap

Favorite Tracks: “Amen,” “Occupied,” “Attention,” “See Me,” “Flight”

I admit I was skeptical of Rich Brian at first. Especially with his prior moniker, Rich Chigga, it all seemed like a waggish put-on, just something to disrupt the meme matrix. But then you heard the kid rap, and this was no joke—even Ghostface Killah was hopping on joints with the then-16-year-old. But what really legitimized the Indonesian teen, other than the 88rising stable backing him, was his name change. It was a purely conscientious move, nicely coinciding with the release of his debut album AMEN, suggesting a respect for the artistry rather than marketability.

AMEN is a proper introduction to the rapper, shedding some light on areas of his life outside of what can be gathered from his first few foot-in-door singles. Rich Brian continues excelling with his typical subdued-banger production. The title track has him pondering his overnight fame with cavernous synths and bass; “Occupied” has a twinkling intro, but there’s something more menacing looming, sweeping into a tunnel of spacey plinks and echoes as Brian pronounces, “I don’t wear a lot of hats.” He does successfully stray from his trap runs too, though, getting lighter in tone. “Glow Like Dat” features some fun sing-rapping over a gauzy, fluttering, guitar-centric beat, and his home country allegiance on wispy “Flight” is particularly winsome. It seems there is no track that Rich Brian can’t slide over, his flow being perhaps the most impressive to come out of the SoundCloud sphere. But his lyrics could use some diversifying. Many of the songs here contain standard debut fodder: acclimating to fame, warnings to enemies, his devotion to his team and work. “Kitty” dips into a raunchy sex-romp (a rap rite of passage), but just when the story gets interesting as his one night stand turns into a one night gone wrong, Brian cuts it short with a silly anti-climax. He’s a great narrator and hopefully the future will see improved dalliances with stories and concepts. Regardless of the few risks taken, AMEN is a decent debut, and if you like hip hop, Rich Brian is someone to keep your eye on. [Nick Funess]

Verdict: Recommend

The good people of Crossfader Magazine.

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