REVIEW: JULY ’21 LISTENING TRAIL

RECORD OF THE MONTH

CLAIRO – Sling
[Folk Pop, Singer/Songwriter – USA – Republic / Fader]

We live in a world that sounds louder than it’s ever been. Technology is always sharpening and the loudness war means that every subsequent album remaster gets a bit louder than what came before. Today there is a real artform to making a quiet and reserved piece of music and that is the beauty of Clairo’s third album Sling. No matter how much you crank the volume up on this record, it’s always going to sound quiet, soft and intimate, and that is a testament to how organic and well timbred Sling is. Clairo makes a very deliberate and organised change of pace from the dance pop and alternative R&B influences that were more present in their previous works. Sling does a remarkable job of capturing a ’70s warmth and nostalgia right down to the artwork and packaging which looks like a vintage Reprise Records release. The vibe is reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris and even Crosby, Stills & Nash, favouring piano, string arrangements and folksy guitars.

‘Partridge’ is magnificently sung with Clairo’s restrained and dreamy voice sounding reminiscent of Phoebe Bridgers, backed by a light groove, warm bass and gently tapped drums, whilst ‘Harbor’ is built on elegant lounge piano and enrapturing vocal harmonies, rarely needing anything else to build up it’s affecting power. The strings on ‘Just For Today’ gently give the song such a subtle lift, sounding like they were captured from the opposite side of a long hall. Upbeat tracks like ‘Zinnias’ don’t exactly leap out of the water, even when the energetic and heavy drums come crashing in it still feels like we are in an empty living room of a large country manor gazing out the window at half-melted snow and weeping barren trees.

Whilst Clairo really pushes themselves forward as an artist and performer on Sling, working with producer and engineer Jack Antonoff feels like the perfect pairing to achieve this sonic intimacy. Antonoff – who has recently produced albums by Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift and their own project Bleachers – is on a hot streak right now and has a knack for allowing big name artists to strip their sound bare and present their rawest, most honest and unrestrained performances. Some listeners may be put off by how soft and quiet Sling is, but that is where it’s true beauty reveals itself. It’s not a record you can just have on in the background or out and about, but should be heard privately with a clear mind in order to speak all of its wonderful truths.

BLEACHERS – Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night
[Pop Rock, Singer/Songwriter – USA – RCA]

Bleachers is the solo project of US multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter and producer of the moment Jack Antonoff, known more for their production and engineering work recording with the likes of Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Lorde and Clairo. So naturally, this new Bleachers album sounds fantastic, with Antonoff performing and producing heart and centre anthemic heartland pop rock songs with plenty of synth and string embellishments. There’s definitely a Springsteen influence running through the veins of this record, and The Boss even duets with Antonoff on the downbeat ballad ‘Chinatown’. But it’s ‘How Dare You Want More’ that really captures those E-Street Band vibes with it’s high energy stomp and blaring horn sections. ‘Secret Life’ is a lovely slacker acoustic ditty with an Eels vibe featuring a barely audible Lana Del Rey harmonising in the background and ‘Strange Behaviour’ shares some of the raw bedroom folk vibes that Antonoff has explored recently with Taylor Swift and Clairo.

Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night is a very quaint record where Antonoff varies up a lot of different styles and sounds both vocally and instrumentally, and wears their influences very strongly on their sleeves. It’s a really admirable effort, but even when commanding the show, it’s still the sound design, the layers of instruments, the mix and engineering that stands head and shoulders over the actual writing and performances here. I’m sure Bleachers exists as a means for Antonoff to prove themselves as more than just a recording legend, but ironically only goes further to clarify that their skills as a producer and engineer are by far their strongest asset. Regardless, it’s a really lovely record worth checking out.

SARAH BRAND – Red Dress
[Microtonal Pop – USA – Self-Released]

How to explain the wonder that is Sarah Brand…!? This viral YouTube hit single has been viewed more than a million times in less than a month and has received a very extreme spectrum of responses. Some liken it to being the next incarnation of Rebecca Black’s legendary novelty pop hit ‘Friday‘, some think it is so awful that they can’t make it to the end of the song, some think it is a self-aware social experiment and some generally think it is a banger. Sarah Brand is an American pop artist who has written, recorded, produced and performed Red Dress (and an equally intriguing single before this called ‘Fantasy’) as well as directing and starring in the striking music video, also self-funded and self-released. So why so controversial!?

To put it politely, Red Dress is a pop rock song that aspires towards the catchy, upbeat style you’d expect from the likes of Taylor Swift or Katy Perry, but somehow every decision and sound in this three minute song feels… Wrong… And yet, I’ve played this song and video over and over and find myself strangely fascinated by it! The music video featuring a lot of raunchy dancing in a church is low budget, absurd and surreal, and the song itself seems to have this ghostly, haunting quality to it. Brand’s vocals are eerily out of key and off pitch, yet consistently enough to feel intentional. Brand has this strange quiver in their voice that could sound like the result of nerves, yet in juxtaposition feels confident and purposeful. Even the instrumental sounds really off, with the opening sound of church bells sounding like they have been pitch-shifted and these cheesy electric guitar licks that seem to just crash into the song sounding cheap and tacky, like Muzak from a TV commercial. To top it off, the lyrics in Red Dress are really bizarre and weirdly dark considering Brand sings with a big happy smile. The chorus goes, “They see me in a red dress, hopping on the devil fest, / Thinking of lust as they judge in disgust, / What am I doing here? / Letting someone else steer”. These themes come across as lyrics you might hear from an edgy metal band, a tortured folk artist or at a stretch could even be leftovers from the latest Lingua Ignota record. Hearing this chorus sung so brightly and happily in a typically structured pop song whilst Brand flaunts around a church in a revealing red dress… It’s just too strange to make sense of!

Whilst some skeptics look at this as the vanity project of someone with too much money and not enough talent, there are people like myself who find this fascinating and a puzzling, yet genuinely interesting song and video. Whether tongue in cheek or not, some people have praised Sarah Brand’s ability to bring microtonal music into the sphere of pop. Music fans who love extreme metal, industrial, noise and avant-garde will gladly embrace dissonance and atonal sounds, but put it in a sunshine pop song and people lose their minds! Whether intentional or not, Sarah Brand has tapped into something that challenges the listener and asks some big questions about what sounds and ideas should or should not belong in pop music. The biggest mystery behind this song is that Brand’s intentions are left unclear. There are so many questions one could ask about every creative decision behind the song and video. Where has Sarah Brand come from? How have they funded this project? Are they self-aware? Is it for real or is it a joke? Is it a work of Dadaist avant-garde genius? Of course, knowing the answers would take away the fun and the intrigue. All I know is that Red Dress is a highly memorable song and video that could be appreciated more by fans of experimental music than pop. I can honestly see Red Dress being shared and talked about for years to come, and I can’t wait to see what Sarah Brand will deliver next!

BILLIE EILISH – Happier Than Ever
[Pop, R&B – USA – Polydor]

I’m a fan of Billie Eilish and it’s been fascinating to watch the teenage star’s rise since discovering those early singles a few years back. Eilish and brother, producer, multi-instrumentalist and arranger Finneas proved themselves to be a dynamic duo on their major breakthrough debut full length When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? – an album full of wall to wall bangers, massive pop hooks, loud beats, rumbling sub-bass, very creative influences of ASMR that added so much detail to the production and mix; and of course Billie Eilish being an utterly compelling voice and force expressing themes, lyrics and a voice beyond their years.

The cover art alone lets us know that we are in for a very different beast of a record and it certainly is. Ultimately, Happier Than Ever is a sadder, quieter, slower and moodier body of work which largely sees Eilish in an even more reflective and introspective place. Happier Than Ever starts promisingly, with opener ‘Growing Older’ being a mantra for what is to come and songs such as ‘My Future’, ‘Male Fantasy’ and single ‘Your Power’ being the most stripped down and brittle songs that Eilish and Finneas have written so far, with ‘Male Fantasy’ being a sombre acoustic folk song. It feels like recent albums from Lana Del Rey, Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift could have rubbed off on Eilish during the writing of this sophomore effort.

Happier Than Ever certainly has admiral qualities, especially in Eilish’s lyrics and delivery – observed their own dissolutionment with being thrust into the limelight and living the high life – but it’s hard to ignore some glaring issues across the album. Plenty of these songs feel underdeveloped, and in contrast the ridiculous absurdity of the title track sticks out like a sore thumb, for some reason climaxing in roaring electric guitar riffs, powerhouse vocals and tacky guitar solos like some obnoxious stadium rock song that just feels like the pair have lobbed a grenade into the album. The level of detail and ASMR influences in Finneas’ productions are majorly toned down to the point where some of the tracks feel unfinished and too bare. And the biggest crime of all – this album gets pretty damn boring in the second half and can be a real slog to endure in its entirety; something that can’t be said at all of Eilish’s debut. None of the tracks bang and it feels like Finneas and Billie Eilish just aren’t having any fun. Sure, that goes hand in hand with the mood they were going for on this record, but ultimately it feels like the duo have tried to mature too fast and aren’t playing to the wonderful strengths they founded together previously. Happier Than Ever in concept feels like the kind of record Eilish should have attempted further down the line in their discography, and it’s a shame that the duo haven’t found more of the wicked and magic energy that the whole world came to admire them for.

FOODMAN – Yasuragi Land
[Footwork, Electronica – Japan – Hyperdub]

The first time I put on Foodman’s Yasuragi Land I wanted something to listen to in the background whilst typing and sending emails, but just a few tracks in I started to feel like I was going loopy and losing my mind, and had to stop what I was doing and just completely succumb to this music. I say this in the most positive way of course. Though it’s my fault, as I should have known this to be the case when it comes to the footwork subgenre, essentially taking free-form tribal percussion rhythms and substituting bongos and steel drums for electronic beats and drum machines, with synths and cut up vocal samples sprinkled on top. Yasuragi Land captures a wonderful juxtaposition such as on the title track, where the synths are icy cool, chilled out and soothing, yet the beats are manic, jittery, unpredictable and bursting with energy. Going deeper into Yasurgi Land, the screws in my brain started to bend and explode as ‘Shiboritate’‘s jagged, choppy spliced up guitar sounds pushed and pulled me like a ship in a storm. Though released on the superb UK based electronic label Hyperdub, I can just as easily see fans of Battles, jazz fusion and math rock eating up Foodman because the playful rhythms, jarring tempo changes, high energy and wild cut up production are such a force. Yasuragi Land has to be approached in the right mindset and listening environment, but boasts both outstanding sonic detail and an aura that will just make you want to free-form dance around the living room. Warning: NSFW!

KORELESS – Agor
[Electronica, Glitch, Ambient – UK – Young]

British producer Lewis Roberts has been producing electronic music for over ten years but has only just put out this debut full length album after a few intermittent singles and EPs across the previous decade. However Koreless has made a bigger name for themselves working alongside the likes of David Byrne, SBTRKT and FKA Twigs as well as releasing remixes for many high profile artists, so they haven’t exactly been quiet. Perhaps oddly timed, but Agor is here and one has to wonder how long this project has been in the works for as it collects a whole range of electronic sounds and styles. The presentation of Agor feels like a vapourous, anomorphous blob of sounds and styles that is frequently shifting, bending and undulating. There are some good highlights where things come together more cohesively, such as ‘White Picket Fence’ and ‘Shellshock’ which are built on rising and falling synths and ethereal choral vocal leads. However ‘Act(s)’‘ use of harpsichord, buzzing noise textures and spliced vocal samples sounds way too much like Oneohtrix Point Never, taking some of their trademarks verbatim. It’s obvious that Koreless has the skills, great equipment and certainly constructs a lot of interesting soundplay across Agor, but sadly there is a lack of vision in their compositions. Agor feels like the culmination of sounds and ideas that other artists (especially OPN) have already conquered, excelled in and moved on from. Perhaps Koreless has just arrived a little too late to the party?

LOW ROAR – Maybe Tomorrow…
[Dream Pop, Post-Rock – USA – Tonequake]

Low Roar is the recording alias of Ryan Karazija, who has wonderfully been combining the emotional storytelling of folky ballads with the gleaming textures found in dream pop and post-rock. Maybe Tomorrow is their fifth studio album which I suspect is a concept piece as David, the titular character of the opening track gets namechecked throughout this record. Low Roar’s music is incredibly delicate, softly sung and highly emotive. Much like the album cover, Low Roar’s music has a floaty, weightless feel to it that helps to emphasis the melancholy in Karazija’s wonderful singing and restrained performances. Karazija boasts a voice that sounds somewhere between Thom Yorke and Sufjan Stevens, whilst the electronic and ambient textures they weave in recalls Sigur Ros and Mogwai. There could be listeners out there who think Low Roar might sound a little too emo or soft, but I find that to be a real strength as I feel that their music is coming from a very real and personal place. Thankfully the album has some rousing moments too such as on the sublime epic and excellent nine minute beast ‘Fucked Up’, which builds and builds with layers of vocals, subdued horns, ghostly piano, agonisingly luring the listener into an explosion of noisy brass, droning synth and whooshing electronics. There is so much attention to detail in the sonic depths of Maybe Tomorrow that repeat listens will still catch you off guard and reveal more wonders, resulting in a powerful yet understated record of soul searching and catharsis.

ALEXIS MARSHALL – House Of Lull. House Of When
[Industrial, Noise – USA – Sargent House]

Daughters’ 2018 opus You Won’t Get What You Want saw the band ditching their mathcore influences to craft an intense and menacing industrial rock nightmare that captured the anguished hearts of many. Their enigmatic vocalist Alexis Marshall now brings us a solo recording that feels like it exists within the same universe as Daughters’ previous triumph. House Of Lull. House Of When expands even more on the industrial and noise influences of that record and largely leaves out the guitars. Marshall sounds just as manic and fired up, their vocals and lyrics staggering and stumbling around the rigid percussion and stabs of frightening synths and electronics. Marshall really is a compelling vocalist who brings a foreboding command and all the blood and sweat of their live performances into the studio.

‘Hounds In The Abyss’ builds a similar mounting tension and anxiety that Marshall conjured in Daughters, resulting in a paranoid desperation as Marshall yells “are you the one breathing on the other side of my bedroom door!?” In comparison, the brutally titled ‘It Just Doesn’t Feel Good Any More’ is straight up destructive as Marshall screams, rants and raves over the sounds of squawking sax, clanging cymbals and pounding percussion. There’s a mania to Marshall’s performance like someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown losing their shit in public and having a Falling Down moment. ‘Youth As Religion’ on the other hand calms things down with brittle acoustic guitar, mournful organs and a spoken word monologue, yet still sounds nervous and unsettling. It’s thematic companion piece ‘Religion As Leader’ instantly strikes up the drama and chaos again, bringing along Kristin Hayter (Lingua Ignota) as a screaming partner.

House Of Lull is an exciting, deranged, scary and completely unhinged outpouring of one’s frustrations, fears, disappointments and inner chaos. Marshall delivers such a physical performance and a compelling array of destructive vocal styles and the instrumental madness around them feels like a rock band crumbling into pieces. Marshall takes many cues from power electronics and industrial noise music, but presents something really urgent and lively that is captured through the combination of live instrumentation, contact mics and electronics. Those left wanting more from Daughters’ should feel immensely satisfied by House Of Lull as Marshall takes the spotlight and expands on their own internal destruction.

VINCE STAPLES – Vince Staples
[Hip-Hop, Trap – USA – Motown]

Compton born hip-hop artist Vince Staples emerged as one of the brightest stars of the ’10s, with hard as fuck hit bangers ‘Blue Suede’ and ‘Norf Norf’, as well as their ambitious debut double album Summertime ’06 and their experimental pop rap follow up Big Fish Theory, released through Def Jam. Not only did Staples bring a compelling voice, flow and energy but they worked with some of the finest producers of the moment including Clams Casino, NO ID, SOPHIE and Flume. Staples certainly deserved all the hype, yet surprisingly followed their glitzy, A-list, hugely acclaimed sophomore album with the low key twenty minute Kenny Beats produced project FM, which almost slipped under the radar completely. Staples’ eponymous fourth album continues in a very similar vein, collaborating with Kenny Beats on every beat once again and is without a doubt Staples most low key set of recordings to date. Gone are the hard edged slapping beats and pounding trap bass that defined Staples’ earlier works. It also makes for a very calculated move away from the grandeur of Big Fish Theory, which had collaborations from the likes of Damon Albarn, Kendrick Lamar, Future and Justin Vernon. In comparison, this short, near EP length project feels like a very personal and stripped back record that was surprise released with almost no promotional roll out leading up to it.

I can certainly see plenty of fans feeling short changed by this record, but Vince Staples rises to the challenge of making a more introspective, quieter and melancholic record. None of these beats really bang but provide a suitably constricted, spacey and sometimes eerie sound for Staples to vibe off. Opener ‘Are You With That?’ verges into mumble rap, whilst ‘Law Of Averages’ has this really cool vaporous, inverted sound, like the beat has been obscured and muffled. ‘Take Me Home’ is probably the most accessible track here, with a fairly bassy beat and a soulful chorus hook from Foushee. Whilst this twenty minute album isn’t exactly going to set the world on fire, it’s really cool to hear Vince Staples pairing things back to make a minimalist sadboi record akin to Earl Sweatshirt’s Some Rap Songs. It’s a much smaller release and reminds me of when an iconic film director decides to just go out and make a slimmer scale short film. Big fish in a small pond.

EMMA-JEAN THACKRAY – Yellow
[Jazz Fusion, Neo-Soul – UK – Movementt]

The UK is proving to be an absolute hotspot for bold new sounds in contemporary jazz with the likes of Comet Is Coming, Sons Of Kemet, Nubya Garcia, Soweto Kinch and countless others changing the landscape of the genre today. Step up Leeds born bandleader, producer, DJ and multi-instrumentalist Emma-Jean Thackray with their self-released smash debut full length Yellow. Thackray brings so much spirituality and soulful vibes to the fore here with a multi-faceted record that leans as much into jazz as it does funk and neo-soul, singing, playing guitar, bass, synths and trumpet. Yellow bursts into life with ‘Mercury’ that has a real ’70s mystic jazz vibe, recalling the likes of Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra and Herbie Hancock, but there are plenty of contemporary sounds in play too. ‘Say Something’ is a groove machine with beaming synths and gospel inspired vocals, whilst ‘Spectre’ is suitably more spooky, yet hangs on an excellent lead vocal performance from Thackray, and ‘Golden Green’ is surely the best jazz song about biscuits! Atop this, the interplay between all the musicians here is second to none outstanding, with such a vibrant production and mix to bring everyone out. Though Thackray runs the show and works it, there is still a very collaborative spirit that is always so essential in jazz. In particular the amount of low end, bounce, funk and groove throughout really gives Yellow a pulse and lift, kind of capturing that Brainfeeder Records vibe. Emma-Jean Thackray is really onto something here and it feels like we are hearing a really accomplished superstar in the making.

TYLER, THE CREATOR – Call Me If You Get Lost
[Hip-Hop, Neo-Soul – USA – Sony Columbia]

Tyler, The Creator will always be a controversial and divisive figure in the world of hip-hop and beyond, but many will agree that Tyler has reached a maturing point with their previous two full length projects, Scum Fuck Flower Boy and Igor. In particular, Igor – in my eyes – is already a modern classic where Tyler stepped out of their comfort zone to deliver a soulful, melancholic sadboi neo-soul work of art. It was anyone’s guess where Tyler could possibly go from there and the result is Call Me If You Get Lost, an album which sees Tyler looking back on everything they’ve accomplished beforehand. Aside from two tracks that near the ten minute mark, Call Me If You Get Lost has something of a mixtape or even a Madvillainy style flow to it where lots of short tracks can whizz by, culminating into an expertly sequenced tripped out fever dream of a record.

This is the kind of album that you really have to sink your teeth into as Tyler is throwing everything at you with so many stylistic switch ups, tempo changes and lots of familiar and wild sounds to feast your ears on. There are so many good highlights and great things to say about this record. ‘Lumberjack’, though just over two minutes long and full of abrupt stops and starts, is a total rager and a great pick for the lead single… It’s hype as fuck! ‘Lemonhead’ is equally wild with a hyperactive stop/start manic energy and absurdly loud trap beats and midi horn stings. And yet the album has some slower and more contemplative moments, such as on ‘Sweet’ which sounds just like a leftover from the Igor sessions, complete with the pitched up falsetto singing, whilst ‘Wilshire’ is a long spoken word dirge that hangs on a floaty and chilled out beat. In many respects, Call Me If You Get Lost restores some of the energy and aggression of Tyler’s older works, and stylistically feels like a combination of Flower Boy and Igor. There are so many great individual highlights, but as a whole the album feels too manic and charged up for me to truly wrap my head around. I enjoy it a lot when it’s on, but it does indeed make me feel lost, leaving me with little to think about afterwards and doesn’t resonate with me on the level that Igor did. That said, it’s just great to see Tyler, The Creator on a creative hot streak lately. I actually enjoyed more the Live From Brooklyn companion concert on YouTube that was released alongside the album, showcasing Tyler playing many of these songs to a receptive crowd in their return to live performances after the pandemic lockdowns.

YEAR OF NO LIGHT – Consolamentum
[Post-Metal, Sludge Metal – France – Pelagic]

French instrumental metal band Year Of No Light have been plodding and pummeling away for twenty years now and have always remained something of a cult outfit shrouded in mystique, endlessly compared to [INSERT A-TIER POST-METAL ICONS HERE]. In reality it’s a little baffling that Year Of No Light haven’t been given as much praise as their peers as they have woven a robust discography of powerful, cinematic masterworks. Consolamentum is perhaps their grandest statement of all. Year Of No Light’s ability to craft alluring dynamics, driving rhythm sections and loud layered riffs has in itself reached peak crescendo on this latest album. Whether Year Of No Light are delivering crushing sludge riffs on ‘Objurgation’ and ‘Interdit Aux Vivants’, the constant escalating magnitude of ‘Aletheia’ or even a trip into doomy synthwave on closer ‘Came’, everything the French band deliver here is so well crafted, elegant, enormous sounding and patiently teased to a tee. The mammoth ebbs and flows, rises and falls that grace every song on Consolamentum are so epic and masterfully executed that even the likes of Cult Of Luna, Neurosis and Pelican should be tipping their hats in sheer awe.

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