Review: “The Mystic and the Master” by Laura Stevenson

Laura Stevenson has been quietly making a name for herself for the better part of the last decade. After a stint playing keyboards for the now legendary punk band Bomb the Music Industry!featuring none other than the eternal Jeff Rosenstock, Stevenson embarked on her own as a singer/songwriter, releasing her first solo offering A Recordin 2010. Since then she’s released three more full lengths and garnered a modest, but devoted following on the back of her artfully introspective lyrics and emotive singing voice. Despite her real-world success though, Stevenson has largely flown under the critical radar. This is confusing not only because of her clear talent as a lyricist, but also considering she runs in the same circle as recognizable artists like Jeff Rosenstock and Chris Farren. Her predicament calls to mind that of Kevin Devine, another artist who is almost as talented as he is criminally underrated and whose situation seems to defy all prevailing logic. 

The Mystic and the Masteris the first new release from the New York songwriter since her 2015 full-length Cocksure.It is a two-song double single released on her mother’s birthday as a nod of appreciation for “enduring” the raising of her and her sister. In contrast to some of her prior work, both tracks are performed with only acoustic, strings, and voice. This stripped back arrangement feels even more intimate than usual for Stevenson, who makes use of the opportunity to deliver some of the sharpest and most nostalgic lines she’s penned yet. 

On the title track she paints a stunning portrait of her mother: “Cause she loves you ’til she shrinks and she thins / Like a violet in a violin / And she’ll paint you a shiny porcelain tooth / Like the one that hangs in hunch / From her second man’s sucker punch.” With each subsequent line Stevenson blows the dust from the family photo album, providing vivid if melancholic snapshots of family tradition, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. It’s storytelling through embodiment, unpacking the person of her mother into an engaging narrative. When she moves on to the second track, Maker of Things, she pivots into a more traditional storytelling method, but achieves the same effect. Here she juxtaposes a fight between her sister and her mother at a gas station during her childhood with witnessing the closing of the same gas station as an adult. Staring into the parking lot, surrounded by “for sale” signs, Stevenson trades her air of nostalgia for resolve: “I don’t feel small / I don’t wince, I’m not ashamed / I feel big, I push back, only time I did that.” 

Though brief, The Mystic and the Master double single is one of the most gripping releases from this December, a clinic on emotive storytelling and a reminder of the underappreciated songwriter’s superior skill with words. For those unfamiliar with Laura Stevenson’s back catalog it also provides an easy launch pad into her work; some of her most potent songs put into a succinct and accessible package. Hopefully this movement on her part foreshadows a full form return to new music, because with her writing the sharper than ever, 2019 could finally be the Stevenson breakout we’ve been waiting for.  

7.4/10 (Stand Out)

For more information on how our scoring system works see: https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

“Amity” by Nedarb reviewed by Ian Miller

Indie hip-hop icon Nedarb Nagrom is arguably one of the most influential people in the underground scene. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve probably heard his music if you’ve ever opened the soundcloud app. Not only has he served as the producer of big-name artists such as Lil Peep, but he is also a member of emo hip-hop supergroup Misery Club, not to mention the cult-famous Goth Boi Clique. Ned has become somewhat of a tastemaker, breaking artists and connecting with people that have genuine star-power. Part of this comes from his love of hip-hop and emo culture, which shines through on his solo debut Amity.

Amity is a banger. The production doesn’t stray far from Ned’s usual sound, featuring pulsating 808s, plenty of lo-fi high hats, and dark synth textures that are the staple of most trap music. The first section of the album showcases Ned’s emo-rap style that he’s helped create. The songs feature many of his usual collaborators from the Goth Boi Clique crew and associates: Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, Lil Tracy, Horsehead, Mackned, and fellow Misery Club members Lil Zubin and Fantasy Camp among many others.

Album highlight “Feeling” (feat. Horse Head, Lil Lotus, and Jon Simmons) encapsulates the emo aspect of Ned’s sound very well. The track begins with a lo-fi guitar sample, calling to mind the pop-punk ballads of the mid-2000s. In comes Horse Head with a bubblegum pop-punk melody for the hook, almost fooling you into thinking you’re listening to a pop-punk record, but when Lil Lotus takes over the verse and the hi hats and drums kick in, you remember that it’s 2019 and not 2009. It sounds very punk (in a 2020s way), and hilariously emo.

Nedarb switches gears around the middle of the album, opting for a real rap sound. The juxtaposition is a tad bit jarring, but still works because of the similarity in the production choices. The guitar samples are absent, but the lo-fi beats and booming bass remain. I had never heard anything produced by Nedarb that fell outside of the emo-rap domain, and it was refreshing to hear him do something different, as on the track “2003” (feat. Big Baby Scumbag & Little Pain), dispelling all myths that Nedarb only makes music for sad white kids.

The greatest strength of Amity is the successful combination of emo and rap culture, which many have cringed at.  It is a sound that’s not for everyone. Prior to the 2010’s, the two scenes were often thought to be mutually exclusive. In the mainstream-eye, rap was for the tough and emo was for the sensitive. As someone who has taken a lot of inspiration from both subcultures, it is refreshing to see an artist who successfully resolves the two, showing that they can co-exist in a natural way, like two friends from different neighborhoods just hanging out.

What keeps the album from launching to the next category is its lack of musical diversity. Although it features both emo and rap songs, by the end of its 16 tracks, it can begin to feel a bit monotonous. If there had been a bit more variety, it might make the record more listenable to casual fans. However, this does not keep it from its biggest success: being a celebration of one end of the soundcloud universe from one of the people at the center of it. If anything, this release is further evidence that this brand of hip-hop is here to stay for the next few years.

Score: 7/10 (Stand Out)

For info on how we score albums see Our Rating Scale

Review: Central States EP by Mr. Golden Sun

There’s a certain kind of calm that can only be experienced on the open highways of the American Mid-West. Long before the journey takes its toll and the stir-crazy sets in there is a fleeting period of serenity that envelops travelers in this region. For only a moment the passenger chatter dies down, the traffic all but vanishes, and the landscape dissolves into green and brown pastels. The only sound is the rumble of the road. The world ahead looks open and endless. In the same car once filled with hectic energy there is, if only for this moment, peace.

Mr. Golden Sunhails from Kansas City, Missouri, well within the range that this pleasant phenomenon regularly occurs. Perhaps that is why the newest offering from the Matt-Hamer-led folk-rock project, Central States EP, seems to capture and personify that specific mood so perfectly. It’s an EP content to breath easy, immersing you in soft acoustic guitars, soothing melodies, and dreamy, atmospheric production. Make no mistake though; this is not a chilled out, stripped-down mood piece. Rather it stays in steady motion from opener Place & Timeall the way through closer The Comedian, never really gaining or loosing too much momentum, just maintaining a comfortable, sleepy pace; gliding like a car down an empty highway. 

It’s fitting then that Central States EP begins with the narrator breaking down on the interstate. Here on the standout track Place and Time, Hamer displays a knack for turning everyday inconvenience into something distinctly romantic. “I was sure when the chorus dropped/ That Kansas City was the will of God” he croons in a song that begins stranded on the shoulder of the highway and ends in a fulfilling marriage. Hamer’s storytelling is one of his strongest points, writing characters that feel real and personal. While rarely overt, there is also a certain spiritual undertone that helps connect each song on the EP, using religious images like “living water” and “pillar of cloud/…pillar of flame” while playing with themes such as rebirth. This helps Hamer frame his songs about everyday life in a loose, but powerful grand narrative. Nowhere is this more evident than in the penultimate track Goldfinches, another clear standout, where Hamer forsakes the slow drive of much of the album for a 6/8 waltz that sees him searching for the spiritual connection between the migration of birds and the language written in his own chest. It’s a track brimming with real yearning, easily relatable whether applied to the concept of God, some vague transcendence, or even just the search for meaning and connectedness.

Central States is not without its weaknesses, however. The consistency of the mood is both one the EP’s greatest strengths and also what keeps it from breaking much in the way of new ground in its genre. In six tracks, only Flyover Country really breaks the sleepy spell cast over the work as a whole, and though the song in isolation is a great track, its vaguely chip-tune synths make it feel just a hair out of place on an album that doesn’t give much context for that particular experiment. That leaves the song in an unfortunate catch twenty-two where it does provide a needed pace-change, but in doing so it also ruptures the immersive atmosphere set up by the tracks both preceding and following it.

All that aside, Central States does what it’s trying to do well. The mood is relaxing and pleasant, the writing is both engaging and thought-provoking, and the instrumentals shine when given their proper spotlight. While it may not be radically ground-breaking, it is still quite good within its folk-rock context and certainly merits a listen the next time you hit that moment of sacred peace on a cross-country road trip. One of the benefits of its mood and genre is that it is widely listenable and enjoyable across demographics, so most anyone can readily find a situation for it. For Mr. Golden Sun it serves as a nice foundation on which to build for the future; a solid first offering from a clearly talented songwriter.  

6.6/10 (Solid)

For information on what our album scores mean see:
https://notasound.org/2018/11/01/our-rating-scale/

Review: “You’re Gonna Miss Everything Cool and Die Angry” by Catholic Werewolves

FFO: Jeff Rosenstock, Joyce Manor, American Pleasure Club

It’s early January and those of us in the West are steeped in a holiday hangover. Just one week ago I was half a state away from home, surrounded by family and taking full advantage of any home-cooked meal I could get my hands on. Today I am back in Philadelphia, back to the 40-hour work week grind, and back to eating Wendy’s for lunch every day. With “normal” life once again in full swing it’s easy to romanticize the festivities of last week and blot out any of the frustrations that the holidays can also bring with them.

What are you doing with your life?” For many of us in our twenties that is the dreaded question, rivaled only by its usual follow up: “what are your plans for the future?” There is a prevailing unease that seems to pervade a large subset of our generation; a sense that we should probably be farther along than we are, a sense that we should be in different circumstances that seem unattainable, or for many of us who are “on the right path”, a sense that we should be happier with where we are. On their debut full-length You’re Gonna Miss Everything Cool and Die Angry, Davenport, Iowa punks Catholic Werewolves tap into this generational malaise effortlessly and effectively.

The album starts off with a patchwork of TV samples that capture the psychological environment of the prototypical “millennial burnout.” “What about YOUR goals?” “A bride suit…” “Another fatal police shooting…” “JACKASS!” “It’s yet another long series of diversions in order to avoid responsibility.” “And, uh… It doesn’t really matter. I uh… I don’t like my job and, uh… I don’t think I’m gonna go anywhere…” Before you can even piece together what’s happening the band roars in with the rousing sing along line “Hiding in your old pullover/ Not your friend, just a coworker.” It’s subtle alienation from line one; relational distance, the substitution of a cheap acquaintance where a friend should be. However, by the time the opening track reaches it’s mostly-sincere but sarcasm-tinged hook, “You’re far more than your circumstances/ Part-time job, or bad romances/ And certainly more than how your parents spin your/ Lifestyle in their Christmas letters” it’s clear that there’s more to be unpacked here than just another suburban punk record with vaguely Marxist undertones.

Where many similar albums slip either into full on “eat the rich” revolution mode or into despondent loserdom, YGMECADA lands where most people realistically are: wrestling with societal expectations that either seem unfulfillable or undesirable, trying to figure out what success means and what it’s worth, what makes life worth living and how you can pay the rent if your dead-end job is getting in the way of being a real human. Catholic Werewolves leave no stone unturned while exploring these themes, even calling into question their own anger and anti-establishment attitudes. This line of questioning culminates in one of the best lines on the album halfway through Tom Hanks: “It’s not the aesthetic of anti-capitalists/ Or the use of an anarchist plot-twist/ John Cusack has asked it/ Am I upset or/ Am I programmed by art that seems sympathetic?/ … (I am) Responsible for/ My love for my malaise.”

The immediate and easily relatable lyrics are accompanied by flurried, angry punk arrangements reminiscent of Jeff Rosenstock or early Joyce Manor, complete with frequent groove changes, melodic guitar hooks, and cathartic gang vocals. At least that’s the case on all of the tracks except the acoustic front-porch anthem Tuxedo T-shirt, which provides a brief respite from the energetic pace of the rest of the album. As a whole, the album also has a ton of replay value. For all of the grooves and shout along melodies packed into these eight songs, the full run time of the album barely tops the 15 minute marker, making it an easy listen and also leaving you hungry for more.

All that said YGMECADA does have a handful of detractors, mostly on the recording and production end. While completely listenable, the album as a whole lands just a hair more lo-fi than similar DIY punk records, which are as a rule already pretty lo-fi. The mix EQ skews a little heavy on the treble, not enough to be piercing, but enough to be noticeable. Beyond that, the performance, particularly on the vocals, is also a little shaky at points. Part of this matches and adds to the loose aesthetic of the songs, but there are several sections where the pitchiness of the vocals doesn’t come from a lack of ability, but just from a bad take on notes that the vocalist hits elsewhere on the record. With a little more attention to detail in the recording process this album would have shined even more than it already does, and it’s already a damn good record.

As it stands YGMECADA is a fun-packed and angst-filled banger, a promising debut from a young band that definitely has a lot of potential. In its niche, that little sliver of punk that isn’t fully emo or fully pop-punk but has the stronger elements of both, it stands out as one of the better recent full-lengths, combining the usual energy and catchiness of the genre with lyrics and self-awareness that are significantly more impressive. Hopefully this is only the start of what should be a very solid career, because I look forward to hearing what Catholic Werewolves become as their sound matures.

7.0/10 (Stand Out)

For more information on how we score albums, see: Our Rating Scale

“Lou Reed 2000” by Lee Scott Reviewed by Ian Miller

Hailing from Runcorn, England, rapper/producer Lee Scott’s new record Lou Reed 2000 is a lo-fi stinger. On early album highlight “TITLE TRACK,” Lee samples Lou Reed interview clips in which Lee answers the questions himself. “You seem very withdrawn . . .” says the interviewer, to which Lee disdainfully spits, “Cause I don’t like talking, I’m depressed / one-word answers, Lou Reed talking to the press.” This line might be laughable in the voice of a less mature rapper, but Lee’s deep, ghoulish sneer combined with the easy, hard-hitting beat make it sound like a threat. The track is underlined with jazz chords that call to mind King Krule, an aesthetic that is kept throughout the record’s concise 30 minute runtime. The message is here from the beginning: Lee is sad, but he’s also tough as nails.

Lou Reed 2000 is full of these types of punchlines. “ROCKET FUEL” finds Lee musing on the ins and outs of his day-to-day over a familiar beat while he sardonically raps, “Corner shop survivalist / fingering your pie n’ chips.” This sounds like a guy who wants to be taken seriously, who has his chops, but at the same time does not want to be taken too seriously. He plays the depressed thug character in a way that sounds authentic, but at the same time seems to imply that it is a character. Lee’s having fun on these tracks even when the lyrics would not necessarily suggest it.

The result is an extremely entertaining listen. “Something’s always got to give, and it’s usually me health / I’m in a league of my own, losing to myself,” closes off the final verse of “ROCKET FUEL,” while a dreary keyboard lead brings it to a close. It sounds like something you’d listen to on a rainy Saturday afternoon, considering going outside and doing something, but the sounds of the record make you want to stay in-doors, and that somehow makes you feel cool. It’s a very specific mood.

Speaking of which, mood is easily the biggest strength of the record. Sonically, it is consistent the whole way through without being repetitive, which is pretty remarkable given that most of the songs have a similar tempo and arrangement. Instead, it builds up the world around the listener, enveloping them in Lee’s (usually unpleasant) consciousness. Lines like, “They say everybody has a dream, well I don’t / I just wake up sometime mid-afternoon and think to meself I should get a scran in soon,” capture a sense of apathy (and maybe buried longing) that seems more rooted in blues and jazz traditions than the emo-rap of today. This is also supported by the chord choices and sparse vocal melodies that appear occasionally throughout the record. The blunt lyrics being contextualized in this sonic atmosphere adds to the authenticity of the message.

Lou Reed 2000 is a wonderfully immersive record that does not ask too much from its listeners. It’s possible to just enjoy this for the music alone and the sound of Lee’s voice, without needing to digest the lyrics. It is a versatile album that is perfect for listening on your own, or in the car with your friends on the way to Taco Bell at night. To anyone who is a fan of lo-fi or jazz rap, this is a record for you.

Rating: 6.8/10 (Solid)

EDIT: The original published version of this review included misquoted lyrics; this mistake has been corrected.

For info on how we score albums, see Our Rating Scale

Review: “I Carry My Awareness of Defeat Like a Banner of Victory” by “Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean”

Despite containing a wide variety of sub-genres each with their own flavors, themes, and playing styles, for many people Metal roughly translates to heavy music. While this is certainly a gross generalization, it is true that for a certain subset of metal bands the goal is unequivocally to make the heaviest, most brutally punishing music as they physically can. This is especially true in doom metal and sludge metal, where the often-frantic pace of the metal genre is slowed down to a menacing plod, trading in technicality for lower tunings and bludgeoning guitar riffs. Creating such oppressive sounds is no small feat. The best bands in these subgenres push the limits of heaviness daily, capable of creating an atmosphere so heavy that it is near suffocating. On their new EP I Carry My Awareness of Defeat Like a Banner of Victory, Springfield, Massachusetts band Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean do exactly that, exemplifying all of the best qualities of their native genre.

Titled after a line from Fernando Pessoa’s pseudo-autobiography The Book of DisquietI Carry My Awareness of Defeat Like a Banner of Victory carries, in a roundabout way, an almost positive message considering the extreme nihilism that birthed it. It wears disillusionment like a coat of arms, not knowing exactly for what reason, and knowing full well that time will bury it just the same as all other banners. But in a world that seems incoherent and meaningless, it is a banner nonetheless, a marker designating something in the endless desert of nothingness, the awareness of the void, the one true victory that the emptiness can offer. Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean mirror this bleak landscape through the EP, offering little comfort while exploring the open face of the abyss with their eyes wide and their confidence unflinching.

The instrumentals are equally as bleak and callous as the subject matter. Opening track I’ve Got a Gut Feeling plods along in a crushing down-tempo for nearly the first half of it’s 7 minute run time, before it explodes when you least expect it into a tom groove. It feels like the sonic equivalent of trying to run a marathon with cinder blocks tied to your legs; each riff seems to hit your body with physical force and drive it into the ground. The same can be said for the second track, With Every Wrist Outstretched, which grows slower and slower as it goes on, following the tortured screams of their vocalist as he leads the song into a dark spiral.

When they reach the third and last song, And Every Sword Unsheathed, Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean abandon the sheer, brute force approach and transition seamlessly into groovy sludge metal, providing a rare up-tempo shuffle on a riff reminiscent of sludge-metal kings High on Fire, though with a much colder production style. Here they pull out all the stops and show off a little, transitioning through groove changes, allowing the bass to lead the way in the verses, and even ending with a wah-heavy guitar solo. It’s a standout track from the relatively new band, and one that should garner them recognition as a solid up and comer.

I Carry My Awareness of Defeat Like a Banner of Victory as a whole should draw some attention to the Massachusetts newcomers. As far as doom and sludge metal goes, it is a very solid EP. Members of that niche corner of the metal community will find lots to like about it, though due to it’s incredibly niche nature it doesn’t have much outside appeal. This is the story of pretty much every band that plays the “how heavy can we possibly be” game, however: it makes for music that is situationally satisfying and enjoyable, but not music that many people can listen to the majority of the time. For what it is though, ICMAODLABOV is quite solid and certainly merits a listen from diehard fans of the genre.

6.7/10 (Solid)

For more information on our rating scale, see: Our Rating Scale

*On the Spotify version of the EP, the track titles and orders of the last two songs are flipped, the 5:05 track should be titled “And Every Sword Unsheathed” and should be track 3.

Metro Boomin – “NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES” Reviewed by Ian Miller

 

For those not in the know, Metro Boomin is one of the most in-demand producers in hip-hop music at the current moment.  He is behind many of the biggest trap hits of the past five-ish years, including Future’s “Mask Off,” “Bank Account” by 21 Savage, “Congratulations” by Post Malone, and Kodack Black’s “Tunnel Vision.”  His solo debut, NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES dropped a few months ago, in which he expands his sonic vision over the course of a full length record.

Although the album is wholly produced by Boomin, he does not lend a verse anywhere on the record.  The vocals are provided by the usual suspects; 21 Savage, Travis Scott, Young Thug, and Swae Lee (and others) all appear at various points throughout the album, giving it vocal variety and a collaborative feel that works mostly to its benefit.  Album opener “10AM/Save The World,” (with Gucci Mane) kicks things off slowly, with Boomin’s trademark dark production and cautionary beats.  Moody strings and piano chords set an ominous tone, and the gorgeous orchestra swells in the outro set an ominous and epic tone straight from the beginning.

This moody vibe continues for the next several tracks, as on the Travis Scott auto-tune crooner “Overdue,” and the dynamic “Don’t Come Out The House,” as 21 Savage alternates between a whispered and mono-tone delivery with his signature trap flow.  Elsewhere, Swae Lee provides melody, as everyone offers the usual swag-trap punchlines.

The strength and weakness of the record is how Metro Boomin uses the artists that he helped break into the mainstream to his benefit, bending them and contorting their voice to suit his needs.  At a run-time of 44 minutes, NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES does not overstay its welcome.  The songs often flow seamlessly into each other, giving it a cohesive feel.  Nowhere does it feel disjointed; it is clearly Boomin’s project.  He is the visionary behind the release, and his presence is felt strongly throughout.  The vocalists are simply along for the ride, and it’s fun to listen to what they bring to the table.  They are there to pay homage to Metro, giving him shout outs on several tracks.  It feels like a posse album similar in some ways to Kanye’s Cruel Summer (2012), which was a collaborative release from the artists on his label.  Everyone on here sounds like they’re having fun, and when the artist is having fun, the listener usually is too.

But, this is also what holds this record back from standing out over other mainstream trap releases in recent memory.  The features have a certain vapid quality to them, and while this is prevalent in a lot of trap music, it comes through in the fact that this is not their own record.  This album is a good example of what it’s trying to do, which is make a moody trap banger that exemplifies the sound that Metro Boomin has helped define.  If you’re in the mood for this sound it will hit the spot, but does little to merit listening in a different context.

Rating: 6.2/10 (It’s solid)

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