Review: Weathering With You by RADWIMPS

One of the reasons that I listen to music is for an escape, an experience that the Japanese create masterfully.

Makota Shinkai is currently one of Japan’s premier film directors.  He rose to international fame with 2016’s Your Name, which was the highest grossing anime film at the time of its release.  Although I am no film critic, I can say that Your Name lives up to the hype.  The characters are loveable, the story is gripping, the visuals are stunning, with the over-all effect of causing an emotional reaction in the viewer.  Shinkai followed up Your Name last year with Weathering With You, which debuted in U.S. theaters last month.  I went to go see it by myself on a whim one weekend after watching a trailer.  Although I have only seen it once, it instantly became one of my favorite films, anime or not, in recent memory due to its visual beauty and touching story. 

Although I am stuck waiting for the film’s home-release, one of my favorite aspects of it is widely available for consumption: the soundtrack.  Both Your Name and Weathering With You were scored by the same artist, Japanese pop-rock band, RADWIMPS.  The band’s first release was through a Japanese indie label back in 2003; since then, they have signed to a major label and have enjoyed great success domestically.  The soundtrack of Your Name helped them reach more international listeners due to the film’s popularity.  Although most consider Your Name to be the stronger film, Weathering With You definitely features the stronger soundtrack. 

The way the album Weathering With You plays, one would think that RADWIMPS has been scoring movies for their whole career.  Many soundtracks do not merit listening outside of the film context besides a few isolated tracks, unless the listener is a big fan of the movie the music goes with.  Weathering flows like an album.  At about one hour in length, it swells and hushes, changing tone and instrumentation just enough to stay interested while also remaining sonically consistent.  The music is mainly piano-driven, with lush instrumentation supporting it.  There are acoustic guitars, woodwinds, and soaring string arrangements flying in at all the right times.  It is possible to be emotionally moved by the soundtrack alone; it hits all the right sentimental chords to bring out goosebumps.

The initial draw of the soundtrack is the lyrical songs.  Although the film is not a musical, it wouldn’t be an anime if someone didn’t at least belt out an opening nnumber.  The five non-score songs are all either beautiful, catchy, or both.  “Voice of Wind,” is an addicting piece of guitar pop that I have found myself, somewhat embarrassingly, playing on repeat in the car.  Two cuts, “Celebration” and “Grand Escape,” feature vocalist Toko Miura, who’s pitch-perfect voice adds a dramatic flair to the anthemic choruses.  Due to these songs’ popularity, RADWIMPS have released an EP featuring them in their un edited versions, plus an English version of the closer, “Is There Still Anything That Love Can Do?”  This will be linked below the full album. 

Although I started out listening to the EP so that I could hear the full songs, I gradually found myself transitioning to listening to the full album.  The greatest benefit of listening to the whole soundtrack together is getting to hear how these songs fit into the score.  Tracks such as, “Sky Clearing Up,” “First Part-Time Job As Sunshine Girl,” and “Running With Hina,” feature the same melody as the full-band closer, “Is There Still Anything That Love Can Do?”  Each time the melody appears it does so with a slightly different arrangement or emotional tone, keeping it from becoming repetitive.  This, to me, is one of the hallmarks of a great soundtrack because it gives the listener something to grasp on to.  The soft, nostalgic notes feel like a reward that is hard to put into words. 

As East-Asian influence continues to seep its way into Western pop-culture, I hope that more American/European audiences discover music like this.  One of the reasons that I listen to music is for an escape, an experience that the Japanese create masterfully.  Putting on a record, especially a good soundtrack, allows me to be transported to another world.  Because these songs are mostly instrumental, and I don’t speak Japanese . . . yet, not having the distraction of lyrics allows me to sink into the world of the music and let it seep into my own world.  It makes me reflect on the film, but also see my surroundings in the magical way that RADWIMPS brings to me through their work. 

Our Rating: 7.7 (Standout)

Weathering With You is out now via voque ting co., ltd.

Review: Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2

Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 allows listeners access to someone else’s unfiltered consciousness while also allowing them to make of it what they want.

Much has been said about Mark Kozelek, good and bad.  From his slow-core days as front man of the Red House Painters in the 90s, to his rebranding as a folk-rock singer song-writer with Sun Kil Moon in the early 00s, to his resurgence of popularity with the release of his 2014 masterpiece Benji, there has been much artistic evolution and a fair amount of personal controversy.  Kozelek is one of the few artists whose evolution has been almost totally transparent through his art, while still being almost entirely reclusive from the media and interconnected cyber-world.  The lyrical content of his work has always been intensely personal, whether in the sparse poetry of his early work or his new, diary entry, sing-songy-spoken-word that he has adopted over the past five years.  During this time his musical output has nearly doubled, often releasing two or more projects every year, whether as Sun Kil Moon or solo collaborations with other artists. 

His latest release is Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2.  As the title implies, Kozelek has collaborated with these musicians before; this is the sequel to their first collaborative album from 2017.  On the surface, this record is no different from any of his releases since 2015.  The songs are long; all of the seven tracks are over eight minutes, with the full track list running to an hour and eighteen.  There are no choruses or hooks, and little in the way of conventional song structure at all. 

Instead, Kozelek and co. present an immersive, hypnotic world of lush piano parts, uneasy drum patterns, and harmonic guitars, all featuring Kozelek’s voice floating masterfully overtop.  It is feels appropriate to describe this album as a short-story collection in musical form.  Although he delves into spoken-word passages occasionally, the vocals are always subtly melodic, flowing easily along with the music.  The amount of detail and care that was put into the arrangements makes it clear that these are not simply backing-tracks made to be played in the underneath someone talking; these are songs that double as stories.  Kozelek has gone so far as to publish the complete lyrics to every song he has released from 1992-2019 in two volumes via his label Caldo Verde, demonstrating the importance of the lyrics to his art as being significant enough to form a body of work on their own.  It is clear that the music and lyrics are of equal importance here and in his whole discography, intermingling to form a mesmerizing world of sound and unfiltered thought. 

 What makes this album stand out from others in Kozelek’s discography is the musical world it presents.  Unlike the muddy This Is My Dinner or relatively sparse I Also Want To Die In New Orleans, the level of detail makes it possible to pay attention and be intrigued the whole way through.  Each song features multiple movements that are tied together by musical and lyrical motifs that appear throughout, keeping them from feeling like directionless experiments and free-association exercises.  Koz often breaks the fourth wall by talking about his own song-writing process, with lines like, “I find poetry in everything,” which typed out here out of context sounds incredibly pretentious, but comes across as sincere and true within the album. 

There are moments of hilarious instrumental and lyrical quirks as well.  On the middle track, “Chard Enchilada,” Kozelek spends each verse talking about underdogs who have to work harder to get ahead in life than others.  One such person is the bassoonist, who’s supremely un-cool instrument makes it difficult to find success in the music industry (spoiler: there is a bassoon solo right after the verse).  During the last track, he abruptly stops his musings to ask someone in the studio if he thinks the album is over eighty minutes yet, to which he replies, “um, I’ll have to check . . .”  It’s a comical moment of self-awareness. 

Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 allows listeners access to someone else’s unfiltered consciousness while also allowing them to make of it what they want.  For me, there is usually one take-away that I get from these records, one phrase or verse that sticks with me when it’s all over.  This record’s moment comes at the end of the closing track as Kozelek narrates the experience of answering the studio door to find some evangelists from The Church Of Latter-day Saints.  He tells them, “Hey, this ain’t my cup of tea, but you showed up at my door to talk to me.  I know all about the angel Morona and Joseph Smith and the Golden Plates.  But you came here to talk with me, and I respect that.  You’re brave.  You showed up.” 

Our Rating: 7.9 (Stand-Out)

Mark Kozelek with Ben Boye and Jim White 2 is out now via Caldo Verde Records.

Review: Petals For Armor I, by Hayley Williams

The results on her debut EP Petals For Armor I are fine, but lackluster.

A Hayley Williams solo release has been in talks since before the world knew Paramore existed.  Her initial recording contract offer was to her as a solo artist, which she famously rejected in favor of being in an alternative rock band.  Despite her intentions, Paramore’s career has been plagued by business drama for the last decade, with very ugly splits involving various founding band members who left on the claim that she was not giving them a fair cut of the proceeds and taking too much credit.  With all of the conflict, perhaps the biggest surprise of Paramore’s career is that it took until 2020 for Hayley Williams to go solo. 

The results on her debut EP Petals For Armor I are fine, but lackluster.  The five songs are produced by Taylor York, long-time member of Paramore, which lends some sonic consistency between Armor and Paramore’s most recent album After Laughter.  The EP begins with the lead single “Simmer,” which manages to do just that and not much else.  Williams shows more vocal restraint than in her previous full-band discography, refraining from her trademark belted choruses.  This is not a bad thing; her delivery is unique as always.  The production is crisp and glistening, with tight beats and muted synths.  It is exciting upon first listen, but does not stick a few moments after.

The real highlight of the EP is “Cinnamon,” which is the most musically abstract song on the track list, featuring the most down-to-earth lyrics.  It opens with a jagged, stuttering beat and earie harmonies from Williams that eventually evolve into an irresistible groove around the halfway mark, before devolving into a sparse bridge.  Lyrically, the song emphasizes the joys of simple home life with the empowering hook, “I’m not lonely, I am free.”  It’s creative, catchy, and oddly comforting. 

Petals For Armor I thrives when it manages to hit on the indie-pop grooves and lush textures, which happens quite often.  Where it suffers is in lack of personality.  Many of these songs sound like they could have been released by a plethora of indie singer-songwriters.  Williams’ lyrics and emo-tinged vocals that have been primarily what has kept Paramore fans dedicated to the band long after the mid-00’s emo scene faded, and gained them lasting respect from many of those in the underground, are strangely lacking.  Perhaps the inevitable Petals For Armor II will shed more light on Williams vision for the project, which at the moment does not feel fully realized.  As a long-time Paramore fan, this is something that is enjoyable and interesting, but lacking the heart that defined Williams’ earlier output.  

Score: 6.3 (Solid)

Release Date: Feb. 6th, 2020

Label: Atlantic Records

For more on our rating scale, see https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

Review: “IGOR” by Tyler, The Creator

IGOR represents a new creative high for Tyler, The Creator.

FFO: Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt

Tyler, The Creator made a name for himself in the 2000’s with his shock-rap verses, bars so intense that he became a household name while also getting himself banned in England.  Odd Future (shortened from Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All) was truly the Sex Pistols of rap music, an outsider crew of young, irreverent guys with a big, harsh sound, and even bigger goals.  Their crew has yielded now legendary solo-careers with Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt becoming some of the most critically acclaimed musical artists of the modern era, but Tyler, The Creator has always held a different pace.  While his first three official solo albums yielded a similarly harsh, punky attitude to his work in Odd Future, his 2017 release Flower Boy showed a new, sensitive side to Tyler.  No longer hiding behind his bad-boy image, he showcased the sensitive should he always has been, rather than hiding behind his persona.  Flower Boy proved to be his most successful album to date, until the arrival of IGOR a few weeks ago. 

In many ways, IGOR feels like a natural progression from Flower Boy.  Many of the production elements remain the same: the melodic synths, the lush, gospel-inspired chords and emotionally raw lyrics.  The difference here is that he no longer constrains himself to a rap-image.  He proclaimed via social media that this would not be a “rap album.”  It is, but only loosely.  The first single, and early highlight of the album “EARFQUAKE” features pitched-up vocals, similar to Frank Ocean’s “Nikes,” in which Tyler sings for the entirety of the track.  Later tracks also feature this vocal style; Tyler sings nearly as much as he raps on this record.  The result is his most melodic-release to date. 

That is not to say that he does not have good bars on IGOR.  “RUNNING OUT OF TIME” has an incredibly catchy verse amidst the pitched-up vocals, with his classic punchy flow.  The following track “NEW MAGIC WAND” will please many Odd Future fans with the distorted synth-bass and lo-fi beat, although even here, his rapping is more melodically driven than it was on previous releases.  Over all, fans of his work on Goblin or Bastard might be underwhelmed, but that is not for lack of artistic prowess; it’s just a different style. 

Although IGOR is most clearly linked with Flower Boy, it is important to note that it is a distinct album.  Whereas the later adhered mainly to traditional song-structures, IGOR songs rarely follow a verse/chorus progression.  The songs are often short, but at the same time sprawling.  They are not traditional, and show-case Tyler’s visionary capabilities as an artist who can think out of the pop of the pop sphere, while still having mainstream appeal.  The record will (and does; it’s his first number-one album) have pop-appeal, but the impressive thing is that he thinks outside of the box to do so. 

Lyrically, IGOR is focused around the formation and destruction of a significant romantic relationship.  It is a break-up album to the max, but rather than be soft and whiny, it is at times angry, harsh, and mournful, but above all, catchy.  Tyler is not afraid to where his influences on his sleeve.  “I THINK” sounds like it could’ve been on 808s & Heartbreak, and Kanye is even featured on “PUPPET.”  The features on the album mostly take a supporting role, but are all positioned in a way that feels purposeful. 

IGOR represents a new creative high for Tyler, The Creator.  He continues to experiment to great success.  It’s amazing to think how one group yielded some of the greatest popular artists of recent decades.  IGOR firmly places Tyler in this tier, as he continues to grow and develop. 

Score: 8.2 (Best New Music)

Release Date: May 17th, 2019

Label: Columbia Records

For info on our rating scale, see : https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

Review: Suffer On by Wicca Phase Springs Eternal

Adam Mcllwee is a surprisingly influential artist.  He is the founding member of Scranton, PA’s emo-revival flagship, Tigers Jaw, a band known for their uniquely harmonic and heartfelt rock songs that always evoked a strangely otherworldly feeling, both in terms of lyricism and tone.  When Mcllwee left Tigers Jaw in 2013, his intent was to release music as a solo project, experimenting with electronic sounds that were not part of the Tigers Jaw musical pallet.  He ended up getting connected with alternative hip-hop collective THRAXXHOUSE, and then founded the Goth Boi Clique collective, which was brought into the mainstream eye by the pop-punk influenced hip-hop of the late Lil Peep.  Now, aided by Run For Cover Records, he has released his second full length album under the moniker Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, a name bestowed upon him by a tumblr artist (in case you didn’t think this could get more 2009).

Suffer On is a startling return-to-form for Mcllwee.  Although his melodic style never changed drastically from Tigers Jaw to Wicca Phase, the parallels are even more apartment on the new record.  This is largely due to the acoustic nature of many of the tracks.  Previous Wicca Phase releases have featured production from a variety of artists in the emo hip-hop sphere, including Doves, Fishnarc, Nedarb, and the like.  On this record, Mcllwee takes production largely into his own hands, and the result is a more minimalistic sonic world than many fans will be used to.  There are no obvious samples, and very few fully electronic sounds.  Instead, the music is mainly driven by acoustic guitar chords that call to mind the emo music of the Tigers Jaw days.  The song “Crushed” doesn’t even have a beat, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 2013’s Charmer.  It offers a strong connection to Mcllwee’s emo-rock past.  Fans of Wicca Phase’s acoustic EP, Raw and Declawed, will most definitely be pleased here. 

Lyrically, the album also feels even more personal than past releases.  It deals starkly with the isolation that many with clinical anxiety and depression feel on a daily basis.  Stand out track “Just One Thing” captures this poignantly, “In the darkest of ways I go to sleep / wrapped in a death bag / alone in a death bed / with no one to talk to / still trapped in my own head.”  There is no hiding behind mythology as on 2018’s Corinthiax EP.  Nowhere is this more blatant on “Does Your Head Stop” where he sings, “It’s depression and it takes over totally / I think I’m a fake in mind and body.”  There is not any hope offered here, but a strong focus on the darkness brought on by mental illness. 

Suffer On is one of the stronger albums in Mcllwee’s career.  The consistency of sound and theme are its most powerful traits, as he latches on to one topic and really delves headfirst into it.  Fans of his debut Secret Boy might be a tad disappointed if they were hoping for a more sample-based, electronic sound, but the record serves as a fitting new chapter to a groundbreaking artist who will surely grow in popularity as time goes on. 

Rating: 7.5 (Stand Out)

For info on how we rate albums see our rating scale.

Label: Run For Cover Records

Release Date: Feb. 15, 2019

Review: thank u, next by Ariana Grande

thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.

Ariana Grande’s rise from teeny-bopper Nickelodeon star to pop icon has felt fast and slow at the same time.  Initially, her music career was aimed to market towards the tween audience that watched her on TV, but she rejected this after releasing only one single.  Instead, we got her excellent 2013 debut, the Babyface-produced Yours Truly, which effortlessly blends the styles of the R&B/pop legends of the 80’s and 90’s with production updates and tweaks that kept it fresh but not trendy.  The beats and R&B aesthetic meshed well with rappers, allowing her singles to cross over from pop to urban charts.  The records that followed saw greater success, as producers used her natural talent and charisma (not to mention that voice) to mold the Ariana brand into a variety of different styles, ranging from EDM to pop-ballads to reggae.  

Although this brought on great success in the charts, there was no clear picture of who Ariana actually was through her music.  In interviews she would clap the label “honest” on all of her songs, but there was always a personal aspect that seemed to be lacking in her music.  Although she had writing credits on many tracks, it was unclear whether or not she was an artist or a puppet, another pretty face and big voice that was in the right moment or the right time. 

This all changed with 2018’s Sweetener, released last August.  The album was a huge step forward from her previous work, lyrically and sonically.  Many of the songs on the first half of the album were structurally progressive, as Pharrell helped her tap deeper into her hip-hop influences and broke her out of the usual pop tropes.  Lyrically, the album delves into more personal territory; many of the songs openly discuss her engagement to comedian/actor Pete Davidson, and also healing from the bombing that famously took place at her concert in Manchester.  It seemed that she had finally found her voice as an artist; her music sounded more her’s than her producer’s. 

Then just when things were going well, her ex-boyfriend, Pittsburgh’s own Mac Miller, died suddenly from a drug overdose.  Her relationship with Davidson fell apart in the wake of this tragedy, and her relationships and life were so analyzed by the media that people started to get sick of her, when in the previous months she had been untouchable.  It is with this context that she released thank u, next a mere six months after her last record. 

The quick turn-around does not disappoint.  The songs sound raw and blunt.  Whereas listening to Sweetener felt like sitting on a cloud, thank u, next feels firmly grounded in reality.  Opening track “imagine” is a classic Ariana ballad that paints a picture of a simple vision of love, the subtext of course being that she knows this vision is impossible.  The sadness in her voice is palpable. Although lyrically it is similar to past releases, she sings it differently than she would have if the song had been released six years ago.  

The second track, “needy,” whips her back into reality.  Over a melancholy chord progression she sings, “And I’ma scream and shout for what I love / passionate but I don’t give no fucks / I admit that I’m a lil’ messed up / But I can hide it when I’m all dressed up / I’m obsessive and I love too hard / Good at overthinking with my heart / how you think it even got this far, this far?”  It’s easily the most vulnerable and authentic she’s ever been on a track.  These lyrics feel real and the simplicity of the instrumentation emphasizes the raw place that these songs came from. 

Ariana does not stay on the sad-girl train the whole album though.  Immediately following “needy” is the bouncy “NASA,” which might be her catchiest song ever.  It’s an ode to being alone, to wanting space rather than being forced into it.  The hook is so addictive that I’ve actively listened to it ten-plus times in a row; it’s the perfect example of what a pop song should be. 

If the entire album was as good as the first three tracks, we would probably have a modern classic on our hands, but unfortunately that’s not the case.  She dips into the faux-Latin trend on “bloodline” which lacks the authenticity of the previous songs, and seems clearly geared for air play and streams.  “bad idea” takes a darker turn, with heavy bass blasts and an ominous guitar hook.  This track features one of the more experimental productions choices, with a brief instrumental orchestra break just when you think the track is ending.  It sounds cinematic and dark, and as it swells, an altered beat kicks on with Ariana’s vocals pitched several octaves down, making it sound almost like a Future track for a few seconds. 

The record has quite a bit of variety stylistically, but sonically all the songs fit in the same world.  It rarely slows down except on the airy ballad “ghostin” which speaks vulnerably about her own faults in her high-profile relationships.  “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again,” she sings over whooshing synths and sparse strings.  It reinforces that this is a truly personal record, even more so than Sweetener.  Whereas Sweetener felt like a calculated reaction and intentionally big statement, thank u, next has a flash-in-a-pan quality that brings the messages home much more strongly; it showcases Ariana as a songwriter and as a somewhat hardened celebrity.  She sings (and at points, actually raps) with more conviction, more force, more confidence. 

thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey.  Her record is not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. It is not this record alone that accomplishes this, but the thrill of her artistic progression over the last six or so years.  For the first time, she has truly shown us her flaws, and the result is her biggest statement as an artist yet. 

Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

For info on how we rate albums see our rating scale.

Label: Republic Records

Release Date: Feb. 8, 2019

Vampire Weekend and “Album-As-Installments”

In a faster and faster paced world, people have less tolerance for listening longer.

Indie pop icons Vampire Weekend made headlines last month by releasing two new tracks, their first since 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City.  For fans, this was exciting news, throwing them into a frenzy of anticipation.  As a casual listener, I was interested in hearing the songs, and marked the band’s return as something I would want to review later in the year when the full album dropped.  But, the release of the new tracks also came with the news that they would not be releasing their album by traditional means, opting instead to release two new songs every month until the album drops, which will result in six tracks being pre-released total. 

Singles are nothing new.  Since music first became distributable, artists have been releasing single tracks as promotion for their LPs.  With the advent of digital music, this became an even more popular promotional method, as musicians began putting out singles on iTunes and now Spotify and other streaming platforms.  And, with the digital world geared so much towards playlists, singles make more sense than ever, whether they appear on “curated” playlists by streaming moguls and algorithms, or in your own personal library. 

Although the move towards an album-as-installments-based plan on Vampire Weekend’s part is relatively unsurprising, it does make one think about how the art of the album is evolving in the digital age.  Because of the mass availability of an endless supply of music, artists are having to find new ways to make themselves stand out, especially when it comes to releases.  Beyoncé set the trend of the “surprise album” with her self-titled record in 2013 by simply posting the full track-list online with no prior warning or promotion.  This has become a popular method among BIG artists since, and hence has somewhat lost its shock value, but the surprise effect is one that many still opt for. 

When a band as big as Vampire Weekend chooses to release a record in installments, it causes me to wonder whether this will become the new norm sooner or later.  In a faster and faster paced world, people have less tolerance for listening longer.  Perhaps Vampire Weekend understands this, and are capitalizing on this awareness.  It causes me to pause and wonder how many other artists will follow suit. 

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned and over reacting, but as an editor of a blog dedicated to showcasing the album as an art form, I was a bit disappointed by their decision.  The power of the album is to create a world that is experiential, a feat that is not possible in two songs.  I did listen to the two tracks, and did enjoy them.  But, I think I’ve made the decision to save the others until the full release.  To me, the power of the album has always lied more in the full experience, not in the song-by-song consumable rush of things.  As the music industry continues to shift and change, I hope that the album format remains a medium that artists continue to give their listeners, allowing them to partake in a brief escape from their daily lives that is longer than a few moments. 

However . . . if you just want to listen to the singles . . . here they are, free of charge.