Monthly Archives: October 2015

Sound ‘Round: Slutever / Alessia Cara

Brief forays in keeping it real

Slutever – Almost Famous (self-released)

slutever - almost famousPhilly natives who transferred to the City of Angels and its bottomless punk scene, Rachel Gagliardi and Nicole Snyder have released a series of EPs heavy on hooks and snark since 2010. This one is a cassette and download-only release. Both women share time on the mic and swap duties on guitar and drums as they see fit. Gagliardi emotes in a howling East Coast accent on songs that possess the tempo and power of a steamroller while Snyder attacks her material with staccato riffs and a deadpan contralto. Each believe in punk’s golden rule of less being more — the average running time of these six songs is 2:30. The bulk of the material resorts to character studies. “Teen Mom” delves into young heartache and concludes “Nobody loves anybody / We are all alone,” while “I Miss America” portrays a beauty queen addicted to booze. They empathize so well with the plight of others because they how how hard it can be to eke out an existence. As they say on the finale, “It starts to look bad when you can’t pay your rent.” A spot-on observation from a band that gets by one power chord at a time. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “I Miss America” / “Maggot” / “Smother”

Alessia Cara – Four Pink Walls EP (Def Jam)

aleesia cara - four pink wallsThe modest hit “Here” — as in she’s only here because she has to be — resonated with enough like-minded loners for Def Jam to push this five-song teaser in advance of November’s proper debut album. Cara describes herself as “an anti-social pessimist” as she goes heavy on the teenage angst routine.  Look, I get it. Kids who think they understand anger are a healthy market share for a struggling music biz. But it’s a pity label execs peg her as a patron saint for brooders the world over. She’s more than cynical — she’s smart. Dig the opener, “17,” where she reflects wisely on the words of her elders: “My daddy says that life comes at you fast / We are like blades of grass.” And so this native of Canada wishes to remain young not from fear of death, but from fear of not pausing to learn lessons along the way. The remaining tracks run the gamut of merely hooky to forgettable — a usual side effect for introductory releases such as this. Still, give her props for being sharper than your average budding starlet. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “17” / “Outlaws”

This article appeared in the Oct. 30 edition of The Monitor

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Sound ‘Round: Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment / Vince Staples

It’s the little things that count. 

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment – Surf (self-released)

Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment - SurfThe opening track says everything: “It takes a miracle to be O.K.” And so it is Chance the Rapper, Donnie Trumpet A.K.A Nico Segal and a busload of friends pause to dwell on life’s smaller but no less enjoyable moments. While Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco lead the renaissance of socially conscious hip-hop, this mixtape finds profundity and solace in mama’s voice and weekend visits to Grandma’s house. Don’t mistake the escapist tone for lack of lessons learned. Busta Rhymes waxes poetic on equality: “This whole planet belongs to me / We all feel the same so it belongs to we.” Big Sean recalls his misspent youth attempting to be cool: “Looking for the inspiration that’s already in me / All the confidence I was trying to buy myself.” And the upstart Saba reconciles faith and fortune upon finding the body of his dead uncle: “I know the Lord give and the Lord take / But he got me choosin’ between church and the music.” Heavy handed, yes, but the old-soul-as-new-soul beats lifts their spirits and helps make this the most sanguine record of the year. The best part is it comes free of charge. Hurry and download it before they change their mind. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Sunday Candy” / “Wanna Be Cool” / “Miracle”

Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 (Def Jam)

vince staples - summertime '06While the bozos of N.W.A. are lionized by Hollywood goons, leave it to this Long Beach rookie to roundhouse kick the old school into the nursing home. Staples grew up 10 miles south of Compton, so you already know his story — broken homes, dead homies and crime as a career path. But where Dr. Dre portrayed his hood with homophobic language and casual hatred of woman, Staples’ man-of-the-street approach is more thoughtful. Instead of tough-guy machismo, he ponders how a soul desensitized to violence and despair can do right by himself and others. This loose concept album centered on the auteur’s teenage years plays out over two discs, providing twenty songs in which to rationalize his woes. A commitment issue with his on-again-off-again girlfriend isn’t selfishness, but naiveté.  To quote the title track: “They never taught me how to be a man / Only a shooter.” He can’t help others when he can’t help himself. A few bars later, he’s as lost as ever on the most prophetic rhyme of 2015. “My teachers told me we was slaves / My mama told me we was kings / I don’t know who to listen to / I guess we somewhere in between.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Summertime” / “Might Be Wrong” / “Lift Me Up”

This article appeared in The Monitor on Oct. 16, 2015

Sound ‘Round: Leonard Cohen / Johnny Cash

Musical marble men dwell on eternal themes

Leonard Cohen – Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour (Columbia)

leonard cohenCohen’s second live album of the year is a hodgepodge of takes gathered from a globe-trotting tour undertaken to replenish his bank account of the funds stolen by a crooked publisher. He approached 80 at the time of these 12 recordings, but his signature baritone — rock-hard and unwavering yet delicate and somber — is wondrously intact. While reciting lyrics from his Labyrinthian discography, he relishes the kind of adulation rarely afforded a cult icon — at least while they’re still breathing. Though his recent studio output dwells on an impending expedition into the afterlife, being center stage softens his penchant for morbidity. The bulk of these songs are concerned with love of varying degrees. The French verses of “La Manic” doubles as an ode to instant attraction as well as his Quebec home, while “Light as a Breeze” equates the presence of a woman to a religious experience. Even the ones about mortality radiate with a poetic sense of ease. The paean to Joan of Arc turns history into a hymnal, and he gets self-deprecating on the one where he misses an important appointment. The chorus goes, “I can’t’ forget, but I don’t remember what.” Talk about aging gracefully. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Night Comes On” / Choices” / “Joan of Arc”

Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain’t No Grave (American, 2010)

johnny cashLeave it to The Man in Black to demonstrate the art of dying with dignity. Recorded five months before his passing and released seven years later on what would have been his 78th birthday, this is late-period Cash at his finest. The final installment in the long-running American series is the gloomiest and most dour of the bunch, but also the most tender and hopeful. His God-like voice is withered by age and diabetes, but he still injects his trademark grit into lyrics preoccupied with life’s end. The centerpiece recites I Corinthians 15:55. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” When not quoting scripture, Cash gets sentimental on a collection of covers that prognosticate or philosophize. The title track celebrates the miracle of the Rapture while his rendition of Tom Paxton questions whether Heaven is real at all. Better than pondering the hereafter comes the songs wherein he says his gentle goodbyes. “For the Good Times” swaps the rainy-day sex of a crumbling relationship for a quiet deathbed snuggle — that fond embrace will have to do until, as he says in the closing bars of  “Aloha Oe,” we meet again. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “For the Good Times” / “Aloha Oe” / “I Don’t Hurt Anymore”

Sound ‘Round: Ezra Furman / Shamir

What’s normal anyway? 

Ezra Furman – Perpetual Motion People (Bella Union)

ezra furman - perpetual motion peopleRare is the record where the suffering artist routine is inverted so sublimely. Furman is gender fluid and has discussed his identity on prior releases. But where those efforts found him wrestling with the desire to don lipstick, here his inhibitions have been disregarded for a record as bold as its crossdressing cover photo. The instant anthem is the one that celebrates genetics over perceived societal norms. “Your body is yours at the end of the day / And don’t let the hateful try and take it away,” he sings to persecuted LGBTQ people the world over. Just as rewarding as the out-and-proud lyrics is the music. Once obsessed with pairing the sparse minimalism of folk with the baroque appeal of chamber pop, these songs are straight out the garage. Guitars fuss and wobble on top of doo-wop backing vocals and yakety-yak horn flourishes. His rasp of a voice is thrown about, too, diving from falsetto into yelping declarations of self-worth. So invigorated is Furman, even the morbid ballad about attempting suicide sees the light in the end. “Just because you’re sick of ordinary life don’t mean you should bottle up and die.” Amen. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “Body Was Made” / “Lousy Connection” / Tip of the Match”

Shamir – Ratchet (XL)

Shamir - RachetShamir Bailey’s androgynous tenor is a metaphor for his queer self-identity. As he told Out Magazine, “I don’t identify as gay because I don’t identify as male or female.” So don’t look for profundity about his private life — this 20 year old has more utilitarian goals in mind. To quote the same interview: “I … want to dance and have (listeners) dance. That’s such a beautiful thing. That’s how the world should work.” Thus, his debut is informed not by gender politics but rather the club scene of his Las Vegas home. No surprise that the beats are the strongest element here. His preferred rhythmic styling leans fuzzy and simplistic. House synth is stacked neatly over four-on-the-floor cadences which gurgle along and propel his youthful hedonism. Almost every track relishes the temptations of love and excess in the City of Sin, and his playful “goon-tune” rhyme scheme adds to his innocent fatalism. He rides his instinct for a good groove nearly all the way to the finale before he stops to fulfill his ballad quota on “Darker,” a rudderless overreach that shows he’s more suited for decadence than the sappy lamentations of Broadway. Here’s hoping he keeps putting in time at the discotheque. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Call it Off” / “Make a Scene” / “Hot Mess

This article appeared in The Monitor on Oct. 2, 2015