Photographs by Bryan Sheffield

Photographs by Bryan Sheffield

MC Ride, Flatlander and Zach Hill wished us a very Merry Christmas in their usual, gritty-as-sandpaper-against-your-eardrums Death Grips manner. Of course, this means that hip hop’s most instantly recognizable sound returned as a total surprise, screaming and clanging its way into the world, begging to be heard within minutes of the release of Government Plates on November 13, 2013. Death Grips seemingly exist in a hellish void, absent from any easily recognizable influences or contemporaries. Government Plates reaches extremes and pulls it off with aplomb. Assaultive rhythms and wrathful vocals inflict maximum damage, whilst its “softer” tracks run frantic circles around the eardrums at light speed.

Government Plates opens with, “You may think he loves you for your money but I know what he really loves you for it’s your brand new leopard skin pillbox hat.” Dylan references aside, Death Grips plunges straight into familiar territory, “My entrance, hijacked no questions asked, stretch you on like latex mask.” The stream of consciousness darkness of MC Ride is business as usual here, remaining as powerful as ever. Flatlander threatens to swallow everything around him with alternately buzzing and biting synthesizers. This is the Death Grips formula working exactly as it should. Later, “This Is Violence Now” chops up every distinguishable sound into a soup of noise before slimming it down to bare bones in the middle of the track. Between Flatlander and Zach Hill’s performances here, the song evokes the image of Aphex Twin playing in a ’90s London nightclub.

“Birds”, the track the band released in August 2013, returns he re, unchanged. Tinny, chainsaw synths and simple percussion underscore MC Ride’s strangely circular, childlike lyrics. It is perhaps the most vulnerable we will see Death Grips. Truthfully, how much more direct can one be than, “I’ve got a bluebird, it might die, it got wetted, I stayed dry”? The track alternates between ear-splitting insect synths with MC Ride’s roar, and twinkling tones with a pleading, unstable toddler. This experiment in extreme duality within a track is a success here, where the softer sections are not tedious, as tension builds waiting for the signature MC Ride explosion.

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Tags: Death Grips

— , December 31, 2013    1 Comment
Photograph by Reuben Cox

Photograph by Reuben Cox

There are two distinct and equally great sides to Belle & Sebastian’s career: 1996 to 2003 and 2003 to now. Their fifth album, 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress found Belle & Sebastian jumping to Rough Trade Records with a new clean and slickly produced sound. Gone were the standard album openings of whispering vocals backed by a quietly strummed acoustic guitar; Belle & Sebastian came out to delightfully shock everyone with modern pop songs. The Third Eye Centre collects the b-sides to Belle & Sebastian’s three albums from this period: 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress, 2006’s The Life Pursuit and 2010’s Write About Love. 

Much like their DVD, this release is very much “For Fans Only”. Though there are a good handful of tracks that very much hold their own, I can’t imagine a casual fan gravitating to this as a standalone record. Seeing that I am not a casual fan, I will praise this collection as an interesting look in to their later years and the creation of their last 3 records. What gets left behind is sometimes more interesting for wondering why it was left behind.

Starting with a batch of Dear Catastrophe Waitress b-sides, we can understand why some were left off, not for of any weakness of the song, but for just not fitting in. Guitarist Stevie Jackson’s “(I Believe in) Travellin’ Light” is a quiet gem that would have fit in great with say, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, but doesn’t quite fit in with the other hi-fi pop songs. “Love on the March” is a strange jazzy number that works on its own, but would have stuck out like a sore thumb if included on Dear Catastrophe Waitress. “Desperation Made a Fool of Me” and “Your Secrets” are definitely the closest you’ll get to songs that were worthy for Dear Catastrophe Waitress, their shimmering guitars and groovy baselines would have fit right in, but I guess album length always plays a part in decision making,

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Tags: Belle & Sebastian

— , October 28, 2013    No Comments
Photograph by Shervin Lainez

Photograph by Shervin Lainez

The first Dismemberment Plan song I heard was an incredibly unique version of The Cure’s “Close to Me” that still ranks among my favourite covers. From there, I delved into their back catalogue, most notably their latter albums Emergency & I and Change. This was a sound I’ve never heard before; the Dismemberment Plan managed to condense a vast field of influences into something both familiar and remarkably ahead of its time. Beyond the idiosyncrasies and complexities of the music itself, the tone and lyrics were equally refreshing. Blending a sense of melancholy and frustration tempered by a wry sense of humour, songs like “Spider in the Snow” spoke to me like no other band has.

As the band had broken up in 2003, seeing them live wasn’t a possibility, and I had to remain satisfied with recordings of the “Death and Dismemberment Tour” they did with a pre-fame Death Cab for Cutie. When they announced a brief reunion tour in early 2011, I made my way out to New York to witness one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, and of course, rumblings of new material being recorded began. A few years later, The Plan’s fifth album, Uncanney Valley has emerged.

Reunion albums aren’t new; however, going against the norm, recent years have spoiled us with excellent albums by Dinosaur Jr. and Superchunk. There’s also been a particularly bad EP released by the Pixies. Sadly, on that scale Uncanney Valley is closer to the Pixies. It’s not an unmitigated disaster, but it’s by far the weakest album The Dismemberment Plan has put out. The idiosyncrasies and freneticism that characterized their earlier work is in short supply, traded for a poppier turn drenched in omnipresent keyboards. It’s much closer to frontman Travis Morrison’s solo albums than anything else, which were by no means worthy of Pitchfork’s infamous 0.0, but were also not his best work. “Waiting” was the first track released from the album, first heard on a call-in hotline. It’s quirky and goofy, but ultimately lacking in substance. “Invisible” and “Mexico City Christmas” best connect the band back to their past, but for the most part, the album just sounds flat. It’s missing that unique energy, and suffers for it.

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Tags: The Dismemberment Plan

— , October 14, 2013    No Comments

The Weeknd

No matter how good he may be in years to come, Abel Tesfaye’s music will always be doomed to comparisons with his breakout trilogy of mixtapes. It’s an inevitable fate. Those mixtapes ripped apart the skin of a genre that had grown a little too safe, and injected it with a generous dose of innovation. We heard it in the grimy nightclub party vibes of House of Balloons, in the noise-meets-acoustic mashup on Thursday, and in the sprawling yet epic Echoes of Silence. But let me stop myself before I too fall victim of these comparisons.

On Kiss Land, The Weeknd’s major label debut, the production is cleaner and the sounds are more ambitious. Album highlight “Belong to the World” opens with a crack of thunder and the chirping of birds, only to fade into a jarring, sped-up beat sample of Portishead’s “Machine Gun”. The vocal overdubs on the chorus are angelic yet dark, and Abel comes through with the lyrics, painting a somber love story full of heartbreak and regret. Another high point is the title track. It starts off mysterious and nocturnal, accompanied by haunting screams and shimmering wind chimes, but at the halfway point the beat picks up and the song descends into a hypnotic nightmare of blurred moans and swirling synths. I can’t help but think of Abel running through the dank, smoke-filled alleyways of Neo Tokyo, his figure illuminated by the neon signs that line every storefront.

Unfortunately, the songwriting and imagery run thin on Kiss Land. “Professional” could not be a more unfocused opener as Abel struggles to fuse two separate ideas. Its abrupt end doesn’t help either, and leaves much to be desired. “Live For” boasts an overly-repetitive chorus, and Drake’s verse, while not a bad one, doesn’t seem to fit the off-kilter beat. And when we’re on the topic of not fitting in, “Wanderlust”, with its straightforward beat and funky melody, sticks out on the album like a sore thumb. The song is catchy, and I find myself singing along with the chorus, but it should’ve been released as a separate track.

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Tags: The Weeknd

— , October 8, 2013    No Comments
Photograph by Dierdre O'Callaghan

Photograph by Dierdre O’Callaghan

Listeners—and some critics—have accused The National of being too dreary, too drunk, too awash in self-pity. They’re not totally wrong, and on their sixth record, Trouble Will Find Me, the band has sunk further into their swamp of sadness than ever before. But The National are getting older, and if they sound defeated it only makes sense. Once upon a time, frontman Matt Berninger sang about the twenty-something transition into “the un-magnificent lives of adults.” Trouble Will Find Me is what it sounds like when you’re finally there.

There’s something about the 13 tracks on Trouble Will Find Me that feels very adult, even for The National. These are complex, layered melodies, and band MVP Bryan Devendorf still carries tracks like the first single “Sea of Love” and “Graceless” with his driving drums. But the band’s frantic energy, which burned so brightly on Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers and Alligator, has dimmed over the years. The man who used to scream “My mind’s not right!” on “Abel” is still here, but now he’s come to terms with his situation.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Berninger’s lyrics are still wonderfully weird, and on songs like “Pink Rabbits,” his grandiose, tragicomic imagery fits perfectly with the music’s heaviness: pianos and choirs are moaning right along with him. These songs aren’t meant to build you up, the way that rock music often does; they’re designed to weigh you down instead. Trouble Will Find Me is the soundtrack to the life the band is living rather than the life you want them to be living, and in that, it’s shamelessly honest. Sooner or later, we all have a moment where we need our girl.

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Tags: The National

— , June 3, 2013    1 Comment