Matt on Music: 20 Album Reviews for March 2015

tanya tagaq
Tanya Tagaq

This year, I want to simultaneously take my time with music and review more of it. There are so many good albums released every year, as well as several notably bad ones, that it feels like a shame to not say something about them. So, I’ve decided to restart my old music column, which I wrote for a year and a half at my campus’ paper.

I’m thinking I’ll review 20 albums every one or two months. I’ve only stuck to albums from January and February for this first column, so hopefully I can jump right into some March albums in the next one.

Belle and Sebastian: Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (Matador): In which the band who got their start making the finest music for hermit crabs since The Smiths explore their inner Kinks, uncover a dancey edge, and pen some of their hookiest tunes in at least a decade. They set a high standard by opening with “Nobody’s Empire,” a wordy epic that’s one of the best songs so far this year, and then live up to that standard by following it with the less wordy but catchier “Allie,” which is the absolute best song so far this year. After that, things get a little uneven, but never enough that you won’t want to return later. Far from their career peak, but definitely a highlight. A-

Björk: Vulnicura (One Little Indian) There are plenty of great albums based around themes of heartbreak and relationships ending, whether they’re autobiographical (as with Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks) or fictitious (as with Toni Braxton and Babyface’s Love, Marriage & Divorce). Generally, top-tier breakup albums utilize mournful lyricism and pained vocal performances to express longing and sadness. At their worst, they bring in the strings and let atmosphere tell the story for them. Björk goes with the latter, creating an album where mood too often stands in place of memorable songwriting, in spite of the songs being (on average) longer than ever. But on an ambient level, this is plenty beautiful, and based on that, it at least offers more than any Björk release since Medúlla. B


Death Grips: Fashion Week (Third Woods) Less than a year after their disbanding, here’s a collection of instrumentals that highlights how little they sounded like other hip-hop artists—if I had to guess without knowing, I might say this was Skrillex. These short recordings are strong, even exceptional at times, but without MC Ride on the mic, they also lose some of the intensity central to the band’s sound. What you’re left with is reading music, albeit perfectly adequate reading music. But Exmilitary, The Money Store, and No Love Deep Web are all great, and I rarely find the time to listen to them, so what chance does this have? B+


Bob Dylan: Shadows in the Night (Columbia) The most accurate sentence written about this came from Alfred Soto: “Shadows in the Night is competent.” That’s the main thing it has going for it. Well-performed, respectful to the performer it’s honoring, and certain to please people at the point in their life where the idea of Dylan covering Sinatra excites them. But I am not at that point in my life, and Dylan has been around long enough to not need a pat on the back for mere competence. In the end, none of these recordings feel necessary, and there’s not a single one I wouldn’t trade for Sinatra’s. B-


Fall Out Boy: American Beauty/American Psycho (Island) If you liked Save Rock and Roll for showing the band at their least Pete Wentzy, this will surely disappoint you, with lines like, “Keep you like an oath” and “You ought to keep me concealed just like I was a weapon” showcasing Wentz lyricism at its most cliché and self-parodic. And believe it or not, those lines are from my two favorite songs on the record. “Uma Thurman,” with its prominent Munsters theme sample, is one of the strongest tracks they’ve ever done, and “Irresistible” houses a powerful chorus that is, well, look at the title. These songs are the antithesis of Save Rock and Roll, diving right into Wentz’s particular brand of cheese. But he so often settles for mediocrity that it’s a relief just to hear him go over the top. The remainder is mainly made up of filler that will please longtime fans, except for two particularly bad ones: the abysmal top 20 hit “Centuries,” and “Immortals,” their contribution to the Big Hero 6 soundtrack that has no business actually making the album. About as good a Fall Out Boy full-length as you can expect at this point, but the divide between their best and worst work has never been more apparent. B

Father John Misty: I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop) He left Fleet Foxes to write better songs than Robin Pecknold, and on upbeat material like “True Affection” and “The Ideal Husband,” it’s clear that he’s successful at that fairly easy task. On the slow ones, he’s as mundane as the band he exited, hiding his intelligence and talent behind singer-songwriter schmaltz so dull he might as well call himself Father Jackson Browne Iver. And he criminally wastes the title “Bored in the USA” on a slow one. B

Lupe Fiasco: Tetsuo & Youth (Atlantic) While he’s undeniably masterful at what he does, Fiasco’s cynical politics are usually off-putting. Hence, I find that his music goes down easiest when he chases said cynicism with a lighter and poppier sound, as on my two favorites, 2007’s The Cool and 2011’s underrated Lasers. So while his cynicism isn’t at all toned down—after all, it’s who he is—this is at least more listenable and compelling than 2012’s Food & Liquor II, where he appeared to be doing damage control after the critical panning of Lasers. Here, it’s a mixture of his best qualities (flow, melodies, interesting choices in guest artists) and his worst (self-indulgence, overlong tracks, sometimes poor musical judgment), until what we’re left with is sufficient, but not exactly absorbing. Particularly distracting: the GarageBand orchestral sample that drives half of the almost nine-minute “Prisoner 1 & 2.” B+

Fifth Harmony: Reflection (Epic/Syco) Who expected the “Michelle Obama” girls to have such a consistent and likable album in them? Even “Worth It,” with its Balkan Beat Box-esque saxophone hook clearly inspired by “Talk Dirty”’s actual Balkan Beat Box sample, is charming, although it could use a better song to back up the hook. But their major problems are summed up late in the album: “When you touch my body got me singing like Mariah,” they sing. Judging by the second half, that’s pretty accurate. Still, the three tracks that begin the album—opening banger “Top Down,” killer lead single “Bo$$,” and worthy follow-up “Sledgehammer”—hint at more potential. At the very least, they’re worthy of better rap verses than those delivered by Kid Ink and Tyga. B+

Indiana: No Romeo (Deluxe Edition) (Epic) “Solo Dancing,” which appears early on, was one of 2014’s greatest singles, a dark and mellow dance floor jam that slowly builds to a near-perfect chorus. Unfortunately, the majority of her record retains the single’s sleepy mood, rarely supplying tunes impressive enough to justify it. If you have the deluxe edition, though, you’ll be treated to a collection of bonus tracks that would actually make an impressive EP. Beginning with a cover of Frank Ocean’s “Swim Good” and closing with “Animal,” both of which predate “Solo Dancing,” these songs are catchy and vibrant, which just makes her reluctance to go uptempo on the main album tracks even more disappointing. A missed opportunity. B

Joey Bada$$: B4.Da.$$ (Cinematic/Relentless) Since I liked his 2012 mix 1999 a lot and still think the 11-minute “Suspect” is an exquisite song, I find this debut studio LP to be a huge step backwards. Where did his personality go? It seems to have disappeared whilst the Illmatic influence (the hip-hop equivalent of being influenced by Pet Sounds) has increased. It’s too safe, wanting to impress rather than entertain and trading in choruses for flows. He’s so opposed to entertaining, in fact, that he reserves a song featuring both Elle Varner and Action Bronson to a bonus track (another featuring Kiesza suffers a similar fate). In the end, all this ends up being is a nostalgia trip for hip-hop fans who think the genre peaked in ‘94. Let’s hope he eventually learns how to write a hook and releases better albums. Nas did. B-

Lil Wayne: Sorry 4 The Wait 2 (free download) After multiple listens, the phrase “Sorry for the wait” nearly causes an allergic reaction in me, much like how Rick Ross has turned “Maybach Music” into one of the most irritating phrases in hip-hop. Honestly, though, this isn’t awful. Like every Lil Wayne release, there’s some solid stuff here, plenty of funny lines, and the songs he’s remixed are well-chosen. But he rarely does the originals justice, and for every clever line, there’s a few duds like, “I treat that pussy like a sleeping bag” and “Bust your motherf*ckin’ egg till I see egg nog.” In short, while this isn’t a complete waste of time, the bad stuff is worse than ever. Worst of the worst: “Drunk in Love,” in which he and Christina Milian f*ck in Beyoncé and Jay Z’s marital bed. C+

Ne-Yo: Non-Fiction (Motown) Between Complex’s, “A fire sale of songs no one else bought,” Rolling Stone’s, “With younger, fresher soulmen like Miguel, Frank Ocean and the Weeknd on the scene, Ne-Yo has been left grasping for relevance,” and Slant’s “Ne-Yo may be a man of many talents, but his new album, Non-Fiction, makes it clear that the scope of those talents is limited,” I’m left wondering if I’m listening to the same album as everyone else. These songs are mostly wonderful. “Integrity” is an album track that deserves to be a single, “Coming with You” a single that deserves to be a hit, and “She Knows” a hit that deserves to be a bigger hit. And while plenty of criticism has been directed at the album’s concept, it’s hardly as distracting as everyone is making it out to be. More distracting are two awful songs, the Pitbull collaboration “Time of Our Lives” (bad even by Pitbull standards) and the appalling “Story Time,” which starts dumb and ends with homophobia and domestic violence threats. These two knock Non-Fiction down a notch, but it’s otherwise very good. B+

RaeLynn: Me (Valory Music Group) After immediately getting the frustrating “God Made Girls” out of the way, the Meghan Trainor of country reveals herself to be worse than her concepts. “Kissin’ Frogs” is typical but harmless, while “Boyfriend,” about wanting yours, is solid. Even “Careless,” in which she gives an uncertain man an ultimatum, is refreshing in how it presents her as powerful and in control. But even if she sang a Brandy Clark song, it would still be her singing it. It’s reassuring to know that the problems with “God Made Girls” weren’t limited to its seeming desire to reverse the progress made by recent country feminists. Raelynn’s personality is simply too clean to be engaging, and the production is too banal to elevate her beyond it. After three decent songs undercut by her performance, she closes with “Better Do It,” the “Title” to “God Made Girls”’ “All About That Bass.” C

Rae Sremmurd: SremmLife (EarDrummers/Interscope) An album worthy of his singles: Mike WiLL has finally made it. Indeed, he’s just as responsible for SremmLife’s success as the young Tupelo duo who get top billing. More hookmasters than MCs, they’re at their best when it comes to the choruses, but they even manage to get smaller moments stuck in your head—listen to the way Swae Lee turns verse lyric “Poppa bear shit, I’m so grown/Brand new car, I’m so on” into the most memorable moment on the opener. Sure, they underutilize Nicki and overutilize Big Sean. But they deliver, even on songs with “This could be us but you’re playing” and “Somebody come get her, she’s dancin’ like a stripper” as hooks. B+

Dawn Richard: Blackheart (Our Dawn) Watching Dawn Richard’s career progress has been engrossing, as she jumped from Danity Kane to Diddy – Dirty Money to her solo career—all enjoyable, and yet all completely different from one another. Her solo work has been particularly challenging, offering a prog-R&B sound unlike anything we’re hearing right now, and yet that can often make it a chore to come back to it. That was the case with 2013’s Goldenheart, a terrific album that sounds better through speakers than in your memory. Blackheart is just as rewarding, but that doesn’t exactly mean it’ll be tempting to play it often. I have faith, however, because unlike Goldenheart, this actually has notable standouts—“Blow,” “Adderall/Sold (Outerlude),” and “Phoenix” are all phenomenal parts of the whole, an important lesson she may very well have taken away from the recent Danity Kane reunion. A-

Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love (Sub Pop) If this is, as the band has stated, less a reunion and more them picking up where they left off, then that explains why it’s less eventful than expected. It’s a phenomenal album, of course, but it leans closer to The Hot Rock than The Woods, moving from song to song with ease and rarely managing to astonish on a sonic level. Have they become the dull, professional critical darlings they wrote “Entertain” about? No, whoever that band was could never record songs this powerful, let alone an album this consistent, and if this is disappointing in any way, that’s a credit to their discography, not a discredit to the album itself. In fact, when I saw them, they performed all but one of these songs and skipped over my two personal favorites, “One More Hour” and “You’re No Rock and Roll Fun.” I was hardly displeased and, in future tours, it would be nice hearing many of these songs again—“Price Tag” is a notably strong show-opener that I hope they continue using. That’s the drawback of being the best band of the past 20 years: mere greatness is sure to disappoint. A

Jazmine Sullivan: Reality Show (RCA) Her third album is very much the final part of a trilogy, a series that shows her growing from the highly intelligent 21-year-old novice on her 2008 debut Fearless (the second best 2008 release called Fearless, but closer than you’d think) to the 27-year-old master seen here. Every one of her albums improves upon the last, and here, it’s hard to imagine her getting much better. Almost all of these songs are top-notch, conceptually as much as musically, with “Mascara” tackling beauty standards (“Don’t I deserve to be privileged?”), “Brand New” following an ex changed by fame (“We both know that I deserve the throne”), and “Stupid Girl” offering a cautionary tale to women blinded by love (“When you love ‘em like I do you’ll be a fool”). Most of Reality Show surpasses the average R&B album in terms of lyricism, but the far above average music—featuring a nice blend of vintage soul and modern R&B sounds—is what elevates it to being the most purely listenable record of the new year. A


Tanya Tagaq: Animism (Six Shooter) Not a new album—released in May of last year and won the Polaris Music Prize, which Tagaq utilized to say, “F*ck PETA” during her acceptance speech. But it just came to the U.S. in 2015, and I can’t say I’m not prone to a certain Yank naiveté when it comes to releases outside of the States. Still, 2015 or not, this is the most original, engaging, and exciting record I’ve heard this year. Beginning with a cover of Pixies’ “Caribou,” which introduces the titular theme, every song occupies us with Tagaq’s distinctive style of singing before the music—including but not limited to synths, horns, and one of the richest drum sounds in recent years—takes it all home. Despite having the intimidating title of Inuk throat singer, her sound is not too far from other artsy weirdoes like tUnE-yArDs, Fiona Apple, and even early Björk, and like all of them, she can occasionally be hard to listen to. But she always meets you halfway, like on “Fight,” where a synth bass comes in during the last 30 seconds to steal the show—a perfect moment that is almost inaudible without headphones. But if you listen to this without headphones, you’re doing it wrong. A

Meghan Trainor: Title (Epic) It’s tempting to dislike Meghan Trainor and, judging by the reviews this has received, many are giving in to that temptation. But, much like Ed Sheeran, I can only truly dislike her when I’m not listening. This is bouncy, fun pop music that you can tell Trainor is enjoying the hell out of singing—and these days, pop vocalists sounding excited is a commodity that can’t be undervalued. Really, the only song that actually sounds bad is her god-awful attempt at rapping, “Bang Dem Sticks.” Beyond that, the main flaws are in the lyrics. The sexual politics of “Walkashame” are the one time she’s as regressive as her critics claim, while the title track is just embarrassing. The exception: “Dear Future Husband,” which is more feminist than the title would have you believe, if not exactly progressive. B-

Viet Cong: Viet Cong (Jagjaguwar) First of all, the band name. Most of the older bands people are comparing the controversy to do not fit the discussion at all. Compared to Viet Cong, the name Joy Division shows a considerable—if somewhat uncomfortable—historic knowledge of Nazism on Ian Curtis’ part and, while I rarely feel inclined to defend Dead Kennedys, at least they kept their attempt at poor taste in their own country. By naming their band Viet Cong, they’ve undermined themselves, combining a frustrating ignorance with cultural insensitivity, which would make them just another awful punk band with an awful name if it weren’t for the fact that they’re not half bad. This noise has been done before, but it’s good noise and they pull it off well. Even when the songs go on too long, which they often do, they still work as background music. But then there’s the lyrics, which absolutely read like they were written by a bunch of white guys who would name their band Viet Cong because it sounded cool. B


Exit mobile version