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: 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

Review: “Future Ruins” by Swervedriver

The sixth studio album by U.K. shoegaze outfit Swervedriver is a dynamic musical exploration of modernist dystopia.

FFO: Dinosaur Jr., Cloakroom, My Bloody Valentine

The sixth studio album by U.K. shoegaze outfit Swervedriver is a dynamic musical exploration of modernist dystopia. It is the second new record from the band since reuniting in 2013, building on their 2015 comeback I Wasn’t Born to Lose You with a more experimental spirit while still delivering all of the touchstones fans from their 90s heyday have come to expect. Though the end product isn’t overwhelmingly groundbreaking for the band, it is a thoroughly impressive album on its own merits, swinging easily between massive arena fuzz rock, expansive shoegaze, and 70s-inspired progressive rock tendencies.

At its core Future Ruins is an album envisioning the present day through the lens of 60s modernism. It juxtaposes the optimism of that time surrounding the future with the chaotic future that the Western world actually inherited. Much of this is done using iconic imagery from the golden era, referencing the Berlin Wall, advances in war technology, and a world made more accessible by feats of mechanical engineering yet a world growing increasingly divided. One of the most prominent and most repeated images is spacial exploration. This is incredibly fitting not only because the space race was perhaps the greatest beacon of hope for a generation hedging their future on technological progress, but also because it dually serves as a monument to human isolation in what is ironically the most connected era of our existence.

The opener, Mary Winter, sees an astronaut drifting out in space longing for a home he cannot yet return to, isolated in the great black void. On the very next track, The Lonely Crowd Fades in the Air, we flash back to earth where the same loneliness pervades mankind as they uneasily march towards the end days. We are simultaneously in the future, as seen by the 60s, but entirely uncertain if we have a future to look forward to in the present. As vocalist Adam Franklin croons into the title track with the quite direct line “we are ruled by fools”, it becomes clear that the future ruins in question are both the present, built on the failed future promise of the 60s, and the immanent future we walk into uncomfortably every day.

Musically Future Ruins leans on a palette as large scale as its message. Though the album switches between several tempos and feels, every single one of them is united by a focus on being as enormous as physically possible. At times it is reminiscent of American shoegaze-cousin Dinosaur Jr., at other times Built to Spill hopped up on human growth hormones, and at still others the spacey, otherworldly sounds of My Bloody Valentine, each presented in monolithic packaging. It’s wonderful, fully immersive noise. Swervedriver are at their best when they embrace this noise, like in the guitar freak-out at the end of Theeascending or the slow build of closer Radio Silent, which gradually adds layers until it roars into a beautiful cacophony. None of this is inherently new to shoegaze as a genre, but Swervedriver execute each maneuver with the precision expected from a band in their prestigious position, resulting in a truly masterful album.

The downside, as many critics before me have pointed out, is that despite its successful experiments, Future Ruins is still a very safe album for a band that continually hints at the ability to truly transcend their genre. It needs stated, however, that a safe album from Swervedriver would be an artistic odyssey for many other bands, so I don’t count it nearly the strike that many would. What could stand improvement on the other hand are the lyrics, which at points feel distant and disconnected. Despite a few clever lines, some clear standout images, and some very heady subject matter, the general lyrical collection is fairly ho-hum, fitting easily into the atmosphere and tone of the songs, but only seldomly jumping off the page.

All in all Future Ruins is a marvelous album, a great new edition to the band’s already cult-revered canon. Even if you aren’t familiar with the band’s back-catalogue it easily stands out on its own: this was the first Swervedriver album I’ve ever heard and I can honestly say I was immediately impressed by it’s artistic scope and musicianship. It’s certainly one of the best releases of a relatively quiet January 2019 and a dark-horse end of the year list contestant.

8.0/10 (Best New Music)

For more information on how we score our albums see Our Rating Scale.

Label: Dangerbird Records
Release Date: January 25, 2019

Review: Better Oblivion Community Center (Self-Titled)

“Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year. Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is.”

FFO: Phoebe Bridgers, Bright Eyes, Folk-Rock

Apparently, Phoebe Bridgers really likes working with other people.  After releasing last year’s excellent boygenius EP in October with fellow indie stars Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, she has returned with another collaborative album, with virtually no prior warning.  This past Thursday, our ears were blessed by the self-titled debut from Better Oblivion Community Center, a collaboration between Bridgers and emo-folk veteran Conor Oberst (most famous for his work with Bright Eyes). 

Although the album was a surprise to everyone, it is not the first time that the two have collaborated.  Bridgers’ excellent debut Stranger In The Alps (2017) features a duet with Oberst on the back half of the record called “Would You Rather.”  The collaboration made sense on the album; Bridgers’ blend of haunting lyrics and folk-rock melodies bears obvious influence from Oberst’s work, which she likely would’ve listened to while growing up.  It was a point of connection on the record to a previous generation of songwriters, showing the progression of the genre over time. 

While “Would You Rather” is a duet and sounds like one, none of the songs on Better Oblivion Community Center play off as duets.  It definitively sounds like a band effort.  Although some songs have a more hushed, acoustic environment, most have some sort of full-band arrangement.  And, while Bridgers and Oberst do take turns on lead-vocal duties, they are more often singing at the same time.  Although side-by-side their voices can sound like an odd pairing (to me, Oberst’s nasally, cracked voice always sounded kind of funny next to Bridgers on “Would You Rather”), when they sing together the contrast works quite well.  Sometimes Bridgers is mixed louder and sometimes Oberst is, but it is done in a way that spreads the tonal emphasis perfectly, helping their two distinct voices to blend and compliment one another. 

The album also showcases both singers’ abilities as lyricists.  The haunting opener “Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” is a Phoebe lead track where she, in her detailed style, takes the listener down the road of an existential crisis in the form of cosmic helplessness, “I didn’t know what I was in for / when I signed up for that run / there’s no way I’m curing cancer, but I’ll sweat it out / I feel so proud for all the good I’ve done.”  Conor joins her on the chorus, and although you can surmise that this is a Phoebe song, he sounds perfectly natural singing along with her. 

Although Oberst does not disappoint at all as a lyricist, his writing voice is so unique that Bridgers occasionally has a hard time keeping up in the same way that he does on her songs.  The Oberst songs are the ones that, while strong, sound less like a band, and more like a Conor Oberst project.  Again, this is not necessarily bad, but it makes the record slightly uneven at points.  This is perhaps the strength and weakness of the album.  Having more than one fantastic songwriter on the project is a dream, but as a result, it lacks the cohesion and emotional tension of both artists’ previous work at some points. 

Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year.  Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is.  This record sounds like it was a joy to make and collaborate on; it comes through in every performance.  While it may not be as emotionally gripping as their solo work, it doesn’t have to be in order to be a great record.  Also, I’ve got to say, I really, really hope they tour together. 

Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)

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

Label: Dead Oceans

Release Date: Jan 24, 2019

Review: “Tomb” by Angelo De Augustine

Tomb leaves the listener feeling refreshed in the way one feels after a good, healthy cry.

          When someone experiences a significant breakup or loss of a romantic partner, there is usually a rush of conflicting feelings.  Sometimes they manifest in betrayal and anger.  Sometimes there is only shock and an inability to process the event.  But more often than not, the most overwhelming feeling is one of deep mourning over the fact that something that was once good and beautiful is now gone.  The mind spins trying to make sense of everything; relishing memories, attempting to sort out how we got from there to here.  On the title track and album opener of Angelo De Augustine’s excellent Tomb, he captures this initial feeling perfectly, at once evoking remembrances of a beautiful relationship, wondering how it is now gone, “I walked into your life at the wrong time / never quite been perceptive of real life / it was not your fault or a fault of mine / but it’s hard to let you go this time.”  It is more than mourning; it is a search for justification, a deep and resounding “why?” 

            Part of what makes these lyrics so powerful is the instrumentation.  In a soft falsetto comparable to Sufjan Stevens (his label-mate and owner), Augustine’s double-tracked vocals hover over soft guitar plucking, with subtle piano underlying the second half of the track.  The result is melancholy, melodic, and incredibly captivating.  However, this is not your run-of-the-mill indie-folk record.  The following track “All to the Wind” calls to mind a McCartney-penned Beatles track, with snappy piano-pop chords and subtle guitar parts providing more layers.  “I Could Be Wrong,” sounds like something from the Postal Service or Sufjan’s Age of Adz, with a simplistic electronic beat and minimalistic synth textures.  This album is no sleeper; at no point does the instrumentation feel mundane. 

            What makes this album stand out is the way it intersects beauty and pain.  The record was written in 2017 in five days – December 20th-25th.  The feeling that it evokes is similar to what many feel around the holidays.  For a lot of folks it is a time of reflection and reckoning with one’s place in life within the context of somber beauty.  The chorus of a stand-out track, “You Needed Love, I Needed You,” captures this reflective mood, “Life’s been hard and you’ve lived a few / did I give too much love to you? / I’m sorry but it’s what I had to do / you needed love and I needed you.”  It’s heartbreaking in that it recognizes the situation, but does not desecrate the beauty that once existed in the relationship. 

            This song also exemplifies effective songwriting in its use of images that are specific enough to give the listener a clear picture, but also general enough that most people can relate to them without being generic.  “Back in my hometown looking for a silver Honda / but there’s too many all around / and I fear I’ll never find you / so I walk around.”  Everyone in the civilized world knows what a silver Honda looks like, yet it’s a specific enough image that it feels real, allowing the listener to attach their own associations to it and cry right along with Angelo. 

            While much of this album deals with heartbreak, it also goes beyond it.  That is to say, the breakup is not isolated; it is contextualized in the songwriter’s world.  Hushed acoustic track “Kaitlin” invokes memories of family, “Mother left you in the night / my father faded into the same light / now we’re both hoping to find someone.”  The record has wide vision and it immerses the listener deeply into its world. 

            Tomb leaves you feeling refreshed in the way one feels after a good, healthy cry.  It’s not panicky or hopeless, but an honest attempt to reckon with loss that is just as normal and human as it is to weep for things worth weeping over.  It is appropriately named, as it is a monument to something that was at one time good and beautiful that deserves to be remembered in the minds of the artist and listener alike. 

Score: 8.8 (Best New Music)

For info on how we score album see https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/