Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor sequel fixes key issues from Lasers

What type of statement do you make after the most disappointing album of your career? With a blank cover, a blank jewelcase and and no text in the booklet, Lupe Fiasco decides it's best to forget image and let the music do the talking. After being embroiled in a nasty label dispute that sent his third album, Lasers, down in flames, Lupe returns with his long awaited followup just over a year later.

Clashes with his label bosses interminably delayed the release of Lasers, and when it finally hit shelves it bared little resemblance to the albums that put initially put Lupe on the map. The first step to reclaiming  credibility with long time fans starts with the release of Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, which he first announced in 2009.

It is a major improvement over Lasers. The shameless lack of authenticity in the danceclub beats is generally rectified, and the revolving door of Top 40 pop collaborators that marred Lasers is mostly held in check. The first eight tracks present Lupe's opening argument for his continued relevance, and he attempts to get back to what made him an overnight sensation in the first place.

The album's theme is dedicated to focusing on America, and surveying its social, political, and race related issues. "Strange Fruition" sees Lupe criticizing the ADD generation, while going after his usual targets - economic and racial inequality. A heavily vocoderized vocal from saxophonist Casey Benjamin glues it all together. He attacks pedophilia in the clergy on "Lamborghini Angels," while "Ital (Roses)" points out the shallow and false imagery in modern hip hop, while sounding very much like a modern hip hop song itself.

The album's best track is by far "Around My Way (Freedom Ain't Free)." The lyrics are as crisp and poignant as anything Lupe has written; he reels off a laundry list of social and political ills, including the over proliferation of social media, deceptive practices employed by retailers, and the declining American education system. As always, he tackles issues in a clever and witty way but also with a sense of urgency. "It's all one song short of a setlist/ a couple croissants short of a continental breakfast," he declares.

It also has the best beat on the album. Unfortunately, it's not his own. The brassy horn beat was pulled from  Pete Rock & C.K. Smooth's 1992 hit "They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)." Lupe's piece is still effective if you're willing to overlook the fact that beat isn't his own, but it does ding his credibility a bit. At least he has good taste.

Lyrically, however, Lupe seems more effective when he selects a single topic and sticks to it for the course of a song. A prime example is "Bitch Bad," on which Lupe gives a detailed breakdown on miscommunication and misunderstandings between males and females centering around the word bitch.

He discusses how, through parental misguidance and uninhibited access to the Internet, young boys and girls get an eyeful of hip hop culture and come away with different ideas on the role of women, which leads to a disconnect between genders. The lyrics are relevant and well thought out; however the production is a different story. The beat sounds like something pulled from a Nelly record from 10 years ago, and when you factor in his low energy, elongated drawl it adds up to a track that is less musically effective than it should be.

Another well focused track is "Unforgivable Youth," which concentrates on looking back through mankind's past, then uses it to forecast a possible doomsday scenario for America. Jason Evigan's hook provides a worldly and historical flare while also sounding like something that could work in a high class urban environment. It's the most innovative track Lupe's come up with since "All Black Everything."

The laid back freestyle "Form Follows Function" is another album highlight. The beat is very mellow and chill, and the lyrics demonstrate that Lupe can be poetic and free flowing without having to wax about society's ills.

Some tracks hit wide of the mark, however. Poo Bear makes a pair of appearances on the album, neither of them worth crossing the hundred acre woods for. The most regrettable of the two comes on "Heart Donor," a half baked attempt at smooth R&B with a warmed over hook that makes Chris Brown's latest effort seem commendable. The other track he's featured on, "Brave Heart," is a slight improvement with its martial hook and beat, but is still one the album's weakest.

The merry go round of no name collaborators that made Lasers such a joke soon becomes established on Food & Liquor Pt. 2, it just takes until the second half of the album for it to kick in. The overall quality is much better than it was on Lasers, however it's difficult to find a guest that makes a significant positive contribution to the album. The oh so debonair Bilal kicks in suave but ultimately empty hook, while Lupe spits a few verses that have little or nothing to do with the sentiment being expressed in the chorus.

Some of the songs on the album's second half can be enjoyable if you're willing to admit that they are what they are: catchy, gloss covered pop singles created for corporate profit, but that still display a certain level of charisma and ingenuity. Jane $$$, who sings a chorus about the USSR government on "Cold War," sounds like an anonymous hook singer ripped from the second disc of Tupac's All Eyez on Me. But the concept of the cold war, which seems like an odd topic for a rap album, begins to seem clever when Lupe relates it as a personal cold war he wages everyday over the death of someone close to him.

Lupe gets pulled off his game on "Battle Scars," a pop song with a prominent chorus delivered by Aussie singer Guy Sebastian. He drops his intellectual  politically conscious style to deliver what is basically a dramatic breakup song that sounds tailor made for relationships we had when we were 16. The silliness of comparing that to an actual war, along with the reverent tone the song tries to take makes it so trite and melodramatic that you could be excused for assuming Avril Lavigne was one of the lead producers. Everything about it is so fake and sappy, straight down to Lupe emphatically shouting "Never!" on the final chorus.

Sebastian, for his part, is a fine singer but is indistinguishable from the army of corporate pop vocalists. It doesn't help that he bears an uncanny resemblance to Matt Mahaffey, the guest singer from "State Run Radio" off Lasers. Atlantic's formula seems to be so derivative that even Lupe's various guest singers start to sound alike from one album to the next.

Lupe's last hurrah comes on the closer, "Hood Now," which may sound lazy and repetitive to those who aren't paying attention. But the song is actually a brilliant demonstration of the gains made by African American society into a culture that was once dominated by whites. Among his examples are the Ivy League education system, professional basketball, and of course, the White House. "They gave us scraps/ some of it old/ we cooked it up/ and called it soul/ it's good now/ it's good now/ you like that?/ It's hood now," he boasts.

It all adds up to a record that's a real mixed bag. It's easy to want to root for Lupe; he's one of the few rappers today who stakes his reputation on delivering substance in his message. But he also made career decisions that led him to Atlantic Records and a severe commercial over saturation of his sound. His debut, the original Food & Liquor album, was characterized by low key beats that gave Lupe the space he needed to do his thing. Food & Liquor 2: The Great American Rap Album Pt. 1, conversely, just doesn't capture the same authentic feeling, and bears little similarity to its predecessor save for the intro.

Though it has its moments, it still feels like a corporate piece of malfeasance with little goal other than turning profits. Atlantic Records seems to be the culprit behind this more so than Lupe. With such a deep well of talent, his best move would be to pull a Radiohead and form his own label upon the expiration of his Atlantic contract. He likely has the fortune and popularity to pull it off. But either way, fans of his first two albums, along with hip hop fans in general, can only hope his next record for Atlantic will be his last.

Score: 77/100

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Crystal Castles continue their evolution with tormented third release

It's an age old question. There are those among us who feel like music should strive to be cheerful in nature: that it should be something to lift our spirits and should always provide a rosy disposition. Yet there are others who see beauty in the bleakness, who view despair as a delicacy. If you're one of these, Crystal Castles has an album for you.

They haven't taken long to leave their mark. After a promising debut in 2008, the Canadian electronic duo struck gold with their sophomore album II, one of the most distinctive electronic albums of the past several years. The release of III reinforces a striking fact about Crystal Castles that every album they have released are markedly different from one another.

Their debut was a visceral, aural experience rife with clinking and clunking of old video game machines, while their sophomore release drew much more heavily from IDM and refined their production; the electronics on that record were as sharp as a razor's edge. Main composer Ethan Kath has ensured that III shares little in common with those, so it's tough to make a direct comparison. But it doesn't take long to determine that it's much more atmospheric and even more dream like than its predecessor.

Crystal Castles have typically been a tough nut lyrically, with most of the vocals being glitched beyond comprehension. But would you have guessed Alice Glass as defender of the downtrodden? It seems to be what she's going for. In numerous interviews, she's spoken extensively on issues pertaining to women's rights and equality as well as flagging quality of life and limited rights of people around the world. These themes heavily inform III.

Lead single "Plague" shares fears of military and economic oppression on a third world scale, while noting we may be contributing to this descent with our own actions. The music is carefully building up in the background, bubbling and broiling until Alice at last reaches her grand realization: "I am the plague!" Her sense of rage and apprehension is palpable from the instant you hit play.

The theme is revisited several times later, including "Wrath of God," where Alice's muffled voice warns against the loss of independence and heritage. With its thumping, throbbing bassline and its organ driven, cathedral like lead melody, this is techno that feels fit for the Sistine Chapel.

The presence of muffled vocals is a recurring trend the band uses to augment the downbeat and dreary sound of the album. The technique shows up again on "Pale Flesh." The lead in consists of high pitched, glitchy electronic work that pushes the upper frequencies of your sound system. Alice's voice is so muffled, echoy and reverb coated that it sounds more like a flock of birds frantically fluttering in their cages than an actual human voice. This is one of the most suffocating, bleak and oppressive songs on the disc, but it does soften up a bit here and there so as to allow time for some quiet musing.

Some of their greatest opportunities to honestly affect a listener have come on their more melodic work, and they certainly haven't abandoned that. "Affection," for example, has the heaviest IDM influences and as such resembles the material on II most closely. Like "Celestica," it stakes its reputation on Alice's breathy vocals, and when her voice goes low it is truly one of the most stunning moments on the album.

"Kerosene" is also one of the album's more melodic pieces. Its rumbling, phantasmal bass synth glides into your eardrums like a storm front billowing out of your headphones. It rests on a variety of glitch/IDM lead melodies to augment the effect, along with Alice's crystal clear vocals.

One of the big strengths of III is its diversity  "Sad Eyes" is one of the album's heaviest rave pieces. A pulsating bass beat gyrates underneath, creating a hot dance stunner that still manages to evoke a cold emotional spectrum. "Insulin," at just over a minute and a half, follows in the tradition of "Fainting Spells" and "Doe Deer" as one of the most difficult, dissonant, and experimental tracks in their catalog. A liberal static fuzz emotionally distances you from the track, while Glass's voice is garbled far past the point of recognition.

Elsewhere, "Violent Youth" proves Crystal Castles are capable of injecting warmth into a song. With its fun, bouncy beat, it's easily the most upbeat of III's offerings. The low, warbling bass synth from "Kerosene" also shows up in a couple of other tracks, including "Transgender" and "Telepath." "Telepath," the album's only instrumental, goes through a variety of phases. It's very glitchy sounding at first, then becomes more spacey and atmospheric.

Despite its violent title, album closer "Child I Will Hurt You" is quite the opposite of what you might think. Like their previous album closers "I Am Made of Chalk" and "Tell Me What To Swallow" it is much more downbeat and low key, while sounding nothing like either of those songs. "Child I Will Hurt You" presents a mellow, tranquil  and peaceful vibe for the first and only time on the album, while the twinkling electronica provides a familiar dreamlike element.

Because each Crystal Castles album is so vastly different from one another, it all comes down to the listeners' own musical preference as to where III will rate in their catalog. This is an album dominated by rave elements,  atmospherics, and presents generally cold and bleak but beautiful sonic dimensions. Personally, II  is their most consistent album and therefore is a slightly stronger overall. But there are more than a few guy/girl electronic duos around, and none of them are nearly as distinctive as Crystal Castles. They have their own style, and the variety of ways in which they express it on III is truly remarkable. Tragedy doesn't have to be your true love to appreciate that.

Score: 89/100

Friday, November 9, 2012

Purity Ring's Shrines is an impressive, but not flawless debut release

Isn't it a shame when a well written and well preformed album comes out but is marred by production issues? Canadian duo Purity Ring are the latest entrants into an electronic dance pop genre that is very quickly becoming a crowded field.

Their sound is generally focused on displaying the dichotomy between high and low frequencies. The main beat on most songs is typically low pitched, bassy and synth laden. The heavy, distorted production work of Corin Roddick is tailor made for getting down, while also sounding futuristic. He sometimes offsets this with a higher pitched twinkling melody, but the main contrast for the bottom end is singer Megan James.

She has a very cute sounding voice. She crafts a sensual sound, but one that is also sweet, girly, and ethereal. It's not hard to imagine her as a wood nymph or forest sprite leading you away to a land of throbbing electronica and otherworldly dance hymns.

The lyrics are often a tangled vine of esoteric mythology and deeply buried metaphor. They're mostly nonsensical, though occasionally some clear themes shine through. "Fineshrine" seems to be a warped take on sexuality, with James inviting you to "cut my sternum open and pull my little ribs around you" while promising that "we'll make a fine shrine." Meanwhile, she's letting grandma know what a bad little girl she's been on "Belispeak." Speaking of which, she also likes to make silly puns out of song titles. For example "Belispeak" = belly speak and "Obedear" = oh, but dear. But she gets away with it because she's a girl and she's cute.

Standouts include "Belispeak," which merges twinkling leads with low frequency electronic backing, along with some dubby opening voices which sounds like an effect similar to what Orbital used on "Distractions" from their Wonky album earlier this year. "Grandloves" features the smooth and chill voice of Young Magic complementing James, and near the end their voices begin to hypnotically run over one another  It's bolstered by a twinkling lead melody that runs throughout most of the song. "Cartographist" utilizes hazy vocals, and again features layers that run over one another.

The other key gems from this album include "Fineshrine," with its bouncing opening melody and its otherworldly spiritual/sexual journey that James leads you on. The chilled out "Lofticries" is also another of the album's defining pieces, along with lead single "Ungirthed," which started making the rounds early last year.

Composition-wise, Shrines is a solid record bolstered by a slew of catchy singles. Yet there are some disconcerting issues, beginning with the production. The low pitched, bassy bottom end synths tend to sound flat, like there are some type of compression issues that cause it to sound muddy and blurry. The higher pitched leads sound fine, but the layer running underneath certainly doesn't sound very crisp or clear and lacks overall power.

Aside from that, there doesn't seem to be a wealth of variety on the record. Although they've crafted a compelling sound, it's tough to avoid the feeling that the same old formula is simply repeating itself for most of the album. Build your songs around the bottom end synths, throw in the same twinkling leads that sound like they've been playing for half the album, and then let James do her thing. But the foundation is certainly there. Shrines makes a great argument for Purity Ring's future breakout potential, while showing that there certainly is still room for growth on subsequent records.

Score: 82/100

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Animal Collective returns to earth with solid, not stellar Centipede Hz

I had a hard time getting into Animal Collective, until a friend gave one of the best pieces of advice ever about this band. You can't be preoccupied with what your expectations are or what you think their music should be. Each album is its own unique journey, and the listener has to be willing to let the band take them where they want you to go. They aren't the only band this applies to, but for a band as out there as Animal Collective it's non-negotiable. Take their music on these terms or not at all.

Naturally, this requires the ultimate test of open mindedness on the listeners' part. But few bands are capable of taking you to such exotic, otherworldly locales as Dave Portner, aka Avey Tare, and crew.

Coming off the career affirming success of 2009's Merriweather Post Pavillion, the band found itself in a dilemma. Merriweather was not wholly representative of the sound they had been issuing on the eight albums that preceded it. Do they be true to themselves, or streamline their sound further?

Those who jumped on the Merriweather Post Pavilion bandwagon may be less thrilled with the route they chose. Centipede Hz is a return to form for the Baltimore psych rockers, while still signifying they understand the importance of melody. It presents a dizzying blend of fuzz, static and radio waves, while projecting an image of being stranded in deep space.

Opener "Moonjock" clatters and sputters to life like a projector that hasn't been used in a long ages, then kicks into gear with a series of sharp buzzing percussive cymbal clashes before launching into a tune that sounds like Avey is broadcasting from space. It ends with a joyous climax that gives a hint of the party that Animal Collective is gearing up for.

Some songs sound like they were written by someone with severe ADD. "Applesauce" and "Monkey Riches," in particular, are a massive clusterfuck. They are characterized by an ever shifting, ever evolving gyroscope of different hooks and melodies. Keeping up with the structure of "Monkey Riches" can trip up even the most steadfast listeners; at over six minutes it can't sit still for any significant length of time. Even Avey Tare seems in awe of the staggering collection of riffs he's assembled here, as he sings: "It makes me wonder how I even wrote this song/ Does this not occur to almost everyone?" In truth, the lyric actually reflects more upon trying to make it through a tough day to day existence, but one could be excused for thinking it a comment on Portner's songwriting.

Both Panda Bear tracks are loopy slow burners. "New Town Burnout" in particular sounds like he's suffering from a drug burnout as he slowly meanders his way through the song. It captures the droning atmosphere of pieces like "Scheherazade" and "Drone" from Tomboy while also possessing a watery, fluid sound like something from Down There. The instrumental break feels like The Little Mermaid on acid. It isn't the only song with fluidy, watery beats. "Pulleys" and "Father Time" also fit into this mold, seeming to draw influence from Down There.

While Panda Bear's voice sounds very similar to Avey Tare's, there's no mistaking Deakin, who takes lead vocal on "Wide Eyed." His voice is flat, but gives the track a psychedelic Indian vibe. The track gets loopy at the end with maniacal laughing and tape loops running over each other.

There are even progressive elements in play at certain places. "Today's Supernatural," for example, goes through several clear phases, and when it ends it's clearly a different type of song than it was in the beginning. The opening verse is bolstered by a demented buzzing riff which is reminiscent of the organ grinder guy in the windmill who teaches you The Song of Storms from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. But it gets spacier and more thoughtful as it progresses, ending with Portner musing: "Today feels so supernatural."

Another key element on this album is transitions. It's something the band has been obsessed with ever since flawlessly merging together the first two tracks on Campfire Songs, and over the years they've further refined the technique. Songs seamlessly flow into one another, often assisted by spacey, radio wave effects that earmark the album. "Moonjock" and "Today's Supernatural" both float around in a warbly spacey wash of radio wave effects before transitioning into the next piece. Recognizing that the audience needs a breather from time to time, however, the band does insert clear start and end points at the end of songs at regular intervals.

Animal Collective's lyrics are often bizarre and rambling, but despite that they do manage to get a clear theme across. It's like reading an essay paper from a slacker student; there's often a bunch of excess and extraneous verbiage that doesn't seem to relate to their central point, but you can see what they're getting at. "Today's Supernatural," for instance, contains imagery including dressing yourself up in chains and paint dripping from a canvas on an easel. But the real story is told by the central refrain let-let-let-let go; the song at its core talks about relaxing, easing up, and taking things as they come.

Some songs provide more clarity. "Applesauce" is quite clearly about the awesomeness of eating fruit, while "Moonjock" charmingly tells the story of a long backseat ride on the way to a family vacation. "Amanita" is the best representation of that childlike parading off into the forest vibe they championed on Spirit They're Gone, Spirit They've Vanished. Portner sings: "What are you gonna do? Go into the forest/ Until I can't remember my name/ I'm gonna come back and things will be different/ I'm gonna bring back some stories and games."

Animal Collective have employed a masterful range of sounds and musical concepts throughout their career. Their albums have focused on everything from gentle campfire acoustic music to sounds fully drenched in electronica, and some albums have even bordered on freak folk. Centipede Hz sounds like a logical progression from Feels and Strawberry Jam, with Merriweather being the true outlier in the band's catalog.

Yet Centipede Hz, which was influenced by CDs of radio station call signs, doesn't live up to some of its predecessors. Some of the ADD pieces, particularly "Monkey Riches," get a bit wearisome  and some of the drone/burnout pieces don't quite hit the right notes. Yet Animal Collective succeed in playing to their key strength. The new album is every bit as endearing and charming as anything they have put out. Though it isn't perfect, it fits in perfectly with the rest of their output.

Score: 82/100