Monthly Archives: August 2016

Sound ‘Round: Thao & The Get Down Stay Down / Mitski

Troubled and tortured love at home and abroad

Thao & the Get Down Stay Down – A Man Alive (Ribbon)

Thao and the Gey Down Stay Down - A Man AliveIn which Thao Nguyen eschews the safety and convenience of her indie folk upbringing, she delivers an album that’s bold for its lyrical candidness and musical fortitude. Once content to strum-and-hum into the ether of eternity while pining about the woes of young love, here she’s compelled by a lifetime of bad blood harbored against a dead-beat dad. While Nguyen’s verses have always leaned a little vague, there’s no denying the venom, pain and apathy aimed at her paternal target. “You know I’m so easy to find / You won’t come get your girl.” “Oh Daddy, I broke into a million pieces / That makes you a millionaire.” “Who could bother with a father?” Whether she’s debating the merits of forgiveness or simmering over the scars, producer Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs) lends a hand in the beat department, doubling down on polyrhythms and percussion that bolster the auteur’s aggression while inverting her guitar-first formula. What shines more than Thao’s sharpened songwriting is a dexterous voice that’s able to endure an increased burden. Such subject matter can make for an arduous listen, but she’s taken immeasurable grief and turned it into unrelenting display of catharsis. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Guts” / “Millionaire” / “Slash/Burn”

Mitski – Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans)

Mitski - Puberty 2Romantics who fawn over the newest indie martyr find a muse in Mitski Miyawaki, a Japanese-born world traveler who fancies emo grandiosity with her cookies and tea. Meshing the man-eating ways of PJ Harvey with the knotty art-house gloom of Fiona Apple, she continues the legacy of young women searching for meaning in a world that doesn’t give a damn about them. But where PJ and Fiona were bold or outright fearless in staking their claims, Mitski relies on overbearing genre tropes — I can already envision the crown of thorns bestowed upon her during year-end critics polls with a chorus as self-aggrandizing as, “Kill me in Jerusalem.” Though such refrains reassure me that intellectualism is sometimes overrated, she hits the mark when moping for the right reasons. “Your Best American Girl” eulogizes a failed attempt to meet foreign beauty standards — a plight shared by depressed lovers everywhere. The lyrical anguish grows tiresome (even at a tight 35-minute run time), but she inhabits her varied musical landscape well. Be it post-grunge revivalism, electro-pop raves or synth-heavy ballads, her pliable alto never betrays. Credit our beleaguered songbird this: She portrays the existential plight of young adults with the sense of difficulty it deserves. Are you listening, Bon Iver? GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Your Best American Girl” / “Happy” / “A Loving Feeling”



Sound ‘Round: The Julie Ruin / The Paranoid Style

Women who roll with the punches

The Julie Ruin – Hit Reset (Hardly Art)

The Julie Ruin - Hit ResetRiot Grrrl lifer Kathleen Hanna came out swinging with typical panache on 2013’s Run Fast, in which she morphed a one-off demo project into a flesh and blood band that plays with the urgency and gusto to match its fearless feminist leader. Hanna had good reason to sound anxious and frenetic last time around as she recovered from a case of Lyme disease that nearly brought her to the brink. With good health restored and an undiminished spirit, their sophomore effort eases on the street punk bombast of its predecessor and juices up on elements of electro-pop. Synths both fuzzy and squishy help play up her sarcasm for 12 consecutive tracks before an austere piano ballad arrives at the end. Despite a slightly tailored musical palette, the lyrics are usually humorous, always uncompromising and vintage Hanna. Nothing here hits as hard as the opening title track concerning her abusive father: “Drunk from a mug shaped like a breast / Punishing the people he loved best.” But don’t pity her just because she’s a woman, lest you end up like Mr. So & So, who is roasted a few songs later for feigning feminist sympathies for his own gain. She’s been at this for almost three decades continues fighting the good fight. Bless her heart. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Mr. So & So” / “Hit Reset” / “I Decide”

The Paranoid Style – Rolling Disclosure (Bar/None)

Paranoid Style - ROlling DisclosureElizabeth Nelson and sweetheart Tim Bracy are products of their environment and are subsequently too smart for their own good. After spending their formative years on the fringe of NYC’s lit circles before turning sardonic at a lobbying firm in the beltway of D.C., the two now try their hand in the same pop-rock scene they once wrote of critically for any publication that would throw a few pennies their way. She handles songwriting and vocal duties, excelling at the former with wittiness and wordplay while merely treading water on the latter. With a voice neither remarkable nor emotive, Nelson lays the snark on thick in hopes you’ll remember the jokes instead. Dig a few of these one-liners. “Well I used to count on labor / Now I have to work.” “All that you prized in life is just Mexican trinkets.” “You know that I’ll fuck anything that doesn’t fuck me first.” Deadpan to a fault, her limited grasp for melody manages to lighten her cynical streak. Where she falls short in the hooks department, Bracy steps in with a bag of garage riffs that lack in imagination but remain punchy due to a steadfast delivery. Funny enough jokes over spirited music that does what it can for 28 minutes. Sometimes enough is enough. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “The Thrill is Back” / “Cathedral Lows” / “Common Emergencies”

Sound ‘Round: Vic Mensa / Kevin Gates

Hip-hop’s new power brokers speak freely

Vic Mensa – There’s a lot Going On (Roc Nation)

vic mensa - there's a lot going onLet Vic Mensa relay the details of his south Chicago home. It’s a place left reeling from failed drug policies, where career prospects are zilch, where hedonism is the law of the land. But this native son continues to rep his dilapidated block, and has long before Spike Lee re-christened the Windy City as Chi-Raq. No surprise the best rhymes on this seven track teaser concern Vic’s hometown blues. He’s never more potent than the politically charged “16 Shots,” a Black Lives Matter anthem that details the murder of Laquan McDonald at the hands of a racist police department that tried to conceal its crimes. That such a tragic song already wanes in timeliness is a testament to the failed promises of post-racial America. He later looks beyond the city limits on “Shades of Blue,” where the poisoned children of Flint represent marginalized people of color everywhere. Best rhetorical question of 2016: “Can a nigga get his basic human rights? Is that too much to ask?” Angry but not apathetic, he borrows the title for his breakout turn from Sly Stone’s paranoid funk masterpiece. Like Sly, Mensa searches for solace in bad romance, empty sex, liquor, big grooves and an unshakable charisma. As I’m sure Sly would say, “You said it, brutha.” GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “16 Shots” / “Shades of Blue” / “Dynasty”

Kevin Gates – Islah (Atlantic)

Kevin Gates - IslahBaton Rouge’s latest braggadocio would have arrived on the scene sooner were it not for that pesky three-year prison sentence beginning in 2008 (damn you, illegal firearms and narcotics!). After being granted an early release, he’s churned out a small arsenal of mixtapes to hustle his way into the good graces of Atlantic, who reward our intrepid anti-hero with this major league debut. Been-there-done-that when it comes to hard time, know Gates means business when he proclaims ill-intent towards his enemies — those teardrop tattoos are displays of aposematism rather than mere decoration. But he’s more than a bruising ex-con concerned with cash, cars and bling. He’s a romantic who wants the best for his wife and young daughter, a psychology major who weighs material success against emotional happiness, a man who derives as much power from sex as he does slangin’ dope. Here is a rapper with a flow as smooth as Southern Comfort and hooks crisp and powerful enough to topple hip-hop’s reigning power structure. In short, Gates is smart, exacting, thoughtful, violent, humorous, a walking contradiction and completely human. He’s nearly everything a world-conquering rap mogul can be. Here’s hoping he remains on the straight and narrow, or at least doesn’t get caught when he strays. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “2 Phones” / “Ain’t Too Hard” / “Really Really”