Posted in Album of the Month, Music chat, New Albums, New Tunes

SEPTEMBER: Gemini Rights – Steve Lacy

There are certain genres of music that I just can’t get enough of – Girl Groups of the 60s, 70s folk rock, Noughties Scandi electro pop, Native Tongues hip hop, basically anything French. Bring me more of any of these, and I’ll lap it up. And right up there with my absolute fave genres is what I’d call wonky R&B. It’s definitely R&B but it’s got a little kink in there – I’m talking everything from Miguel to Greentea Peng to Lucy Pearl to Solange to – yes, of course – Frank Ocean.

Some of those artists you could almost call soul music, and of course the line between soul and R&B has always been a difficult one to draw. But what you can hear is where that wonky R&B draws its inspiration. We’re talking 70s Curtis Mayfield at his most rootsy-ish, bit of Sly & The Family Stone, but perhaps the cornerstone of these influences is early 70s Stevie Wonder – and in particular, that incredible trilogy of albums that ran Talking Book – Innervisions – Fulfilingness First Finale.

What made those albums so groundbreaking wasn’t just the Moog synths, or Stevie’s ability to push the sound of soul music forward. It was also that they were deeply musical and driven as much by melody as they were by grooves. They expanded the language of soul/R&B and freed it up in such a profound way that they essentially became the template for so many artists who followed. Just like the shadow The Beatles have cast over rock since they recorded, I think Stevie did the same for R&B. Prince, surely the greatest innovator that followed Stevie, was clearly hugely inspired by that template – and he was just as comfortable singing an out and out pop song (Raspberry Beret) or a slow soul jam (If I Was Your Girlfriend) as he was writing a groove (Get Off).

I am SUCH a sucker for music influenced by these artists – that mixture of soul and groove and melody but also a bit of experimentation and oddness, just like Prince and Stevie had, is absolute catnip to me. To say that this album falls right into the centre of that universe is possibly even an understatement. If someone could have created an album for me, it would be this one. So I’m aware that my response is a personal one – well of course it is, all our responses are – but I don’t necessarily expect everyone to feel the same as I do!

So. Steve Lacy. Not a rock star name, certainly not an R&B name! I really liked The Internet, particularly their album Hive Mind. Sprouting out of the pretty out there Odd Future collective, they did a nice line in a forward thinking R&B jams, that, coupled with their sexually liberated/queer vibe, made them feel fresh and interesting. Steve joined the band half way through their life (they’re still going, but haven’t put out a record since 2018), and immediately added a missing layer to their sound. He then made a solo album, Apollo XXI in 2019 that I admired more than I liked. I found it frustrating – he was exactly the kind of artist I liked, and I willed myself to enjoy it, but there was something missing. You ever done that? You know the artist is capable of making something you’ll love, but somehow they haven’t delivered.

In all honesty, I wasn’t loving the look of many of the new releases when it came to this month, and then I noticed Steve Lacy had a new album out. And then I heard Bad Habit. And I was like – OK, THIS is the music I was hoping you’d make, Steve.

But nothing prepared me for how much I was going to LOOOOOOVE this record. What is that I find so beguiling about it?

  • Massive genre hopping? TICK
  • Sunny melodies mixed with angsty lyrics? TICK
  • Sexually ambiguous AF? TICK
  • Several genuine bangers? TICK

Opener STATIC is a perfect intro to the album – lyrically odd and personal, a weird mix of yearning, resentful and self-loathing (pretty much the album’s themes in a nutshell), before it ends with this beautiful cascading melody and incredible (5? 6?) part harmonies.

And then – oh boy – then the album gets going proper, and for me, Track 2 – 6 are the best sequence of songs I have heard on an album this year and better than most in any year. HELMET is Stevie meets Prince funky, with a giant slice of emotional angst thrown in. MERCURY, maybe my favourite song on the album, is a delicate Bossa Nova number with incredible harmonies, and a beautiful melody. I’ve probably listened to it 50 times already! BUTTONS is a Prince style slow jam with falsetto and lyrics of yearning and regret. BAD HABIT is a fucking slow banger with a refrain that will stick in your head for weeks.

(A sidebar: This got me thinking about great sequences of tracks and here’s 3 that immediately sprang to mind:

  • Tracks 2 – 6 (Slip Away – Wreath on Perfume Genius’s No Shape
  • Tracks 3 – 6 (Revival to Desire Lines) on Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest
  • The Opening 3 tracks of Mos Def’s The Ecstatic
  • 2 – 5 (Lost Ones to Doo Wop) on Lauren Hill’s the Miseducation...

A good discussion for a show sometime?)

Brother Joey has already suggested that he thinks the album falls off after this (though he also admits he hasn’t quite had time to connect with it yet). I’m not on board with this. BROTHER CODY is a strange, ethereal tune but I love it as a giant leftfield turn, full of gay desire and 80s synths. But my god, I love AMBER so much – I initially dismissed it as a bit of a filler, but it’s now completely won me over, not least that incredible moment where it moves from solo ballad to an entire choir of voices coming in. It reminds me of Frank Ocean at the absolute top of his game. It literally gives me goosebumps every time I listen. Give it some time and I hope it’ll do the same for you.

Then we’ve got another giant album highlight, SUNSHINE, a gorgeous sunny slab of delight, love Foushee’s voice on this, and the whole dreamy vibe.

Finally, we end GIVE YOU MY WORLD, in which Steve plays out his Prince obsession in a pure slow jam vibe. How much you dig this will depend on how much you like Prince style slow jams, but for me, what better way to close the album?

And then it’s over. 35 mins. That’s another big plus. What a statement and what a tight, lean way to express it. 35 mins, and then I go back to the beginning and press play again.

For the avoidance of doubt, this is currently my album of the year, and I’d be astonished if anything tops it. I doubt you’ll feel quite the same as me, but I hope this little gem of an album has got under your skin….

4 thoughts on “SEPTEMBER: Gemini Rights – Steve Lacy

  1. First and foremost, this album is so David. If you listen to the podcast or have followed this blog for a while you will know what I mean…. if not, believe me when I say that this album isn’t only in his wheelhouse, this album is the steering wheel.

    Like David I have thoroughly enjoyed this album throughout the last few months of sun drenched summer days. It’s great in the car, it’s great on in the house (warning there are tracks that aren’t child friendly). The album flows well, interludes and all (soz Joey).

    It’s an album that can pass you as the curation is so slick. 10 tracks, 35 minutes long, perfect.

    I’ve really enjoyed learning more about Lacy and his journey so far through articles I’ve read. His journey with the Internet and now his solo work. Like David I was / am a fan of the internet and love how he’s carved his space with and out of the band. His confidence in his ability really shines through on this album.

    ‘Bad Habit’ has snuck onto the Radio One and 6Music playlists, and ‘Mercury’ seems to be moving in the same direction whilst the album (rightfully so) is climbing up the UK charts. And why wouldn’t it? It’s an album that you can recommend to so many people with varying tastes in music. It’s super approachable.

    Sure there’s the touch points for me. I hear K-OS, Prince, Frank Ocean with a sprinkle of Cody Chesnutt, but mainly I hear a very calculated and composed music artist.

    David has nailed the write up of this album and I share many of his thoughts. It’s a great listen, and I’m really enjoying it.

  2. When this was suggested I had that familiar reaction of ‘who’? It was only when I’d dug a little I realise this was a nice callback to previous pod favourite The Internet, when we covered it as an album of the month in 2018. I enjoyed it at the time, but it got filed under ‘didn’t quite stick enough for me to revisit’. I didn’t clock (or recall) the 20-year old Steve Lacey in that outfit, and it’s not a connection I would’ve made And in some ways, all of this was immaterial, because even if that was context, a solo album and your part in a band isn’t always a calling card. But if David’s excitement was anything to gauge the album by, then it was one I was interested in. No pressure.

    Bring our resident ‘Pop Being’ (™) I had some assumptions here, pleasantly played out over that all-important first listen. This is MEGA DAVID. The multi-tracked harmonies of opening track Static, its cascading guitar and melodies, and my antennae were up. Any why wouldn’t they be? All those TINH favourites had energy in this one: Prince, Frank Ocean, Stevie, and even dare I say some less obvious, such as regency era Lenny Kravitz with a sprinkling of Funkadelic. A 38-minute, r’n’b-fused guitar/soul album that traded on the sexuality of its creator with all the classic music tropes of breakups and love, with modern twists of mental health and soul-bearing yet dryly-delivered emotion.

    And what a ride it is. Helmet may be David’s favourite song of the year with its squelchy guitars but its spiky lyrics stand out above it: “loving you was a hazard, so i got my heart a helmet”. But from that a pivot to a sort of a 60s pop-feel Mercury, with its bossa nova vibes. Buttons’ laconic melodies are twinned with heartfelt laments, morphing into pure Wonder. This guy, four songs in, is really staking his claim for music to sit up and listen to. Bad Habit follows with another zinger of sly guitar-pop twinned with tales of love and loss. It’s so tightly realised, too, the guitar and bass and drums, and harmonies all part of the overall magic. I also love how Lacey’s voice isn’t perfect either, but that adds to its allure for me. It’s not wonky when it’s slick and note and tone-perfect.

    Now, some of us have questioned if the album keeps up the goodness through from this point. I can see that point, but don’t quite go with it. There is an ‘Enterlude’, but it’s a beautiful segue into Code Freestyle, a sort of cosmic trip that you have to blink twice when you clock the subject matter (‘a heavy dick, a cannon’). Amber feels like wonky piano soul, that lifts to the heavens with a quite amazing falsetto finish. This isn’t slowing down into a finish of lower quality, but – to me, at least – sailing out into more adventurous waters. And boy, does it do that with Sunshine, my favourite on the album. And in closer Give You My World, it’s another laconic, but beautifully realised slow burner that closes an album that gives you so many ways to view an amazing talent. Like looking through the crystal and seeing all the colours of its rainbow.

    I haven’t nearly got remotely close to brother David’s 3059 listens, but every time I do (and I’m over a dozen now) I enjoy it more, and hear something different and I have its songs stuck in my head, which is always a good signifier. It may be a second album but this feels like something special. As ever, what will I feel in 6 weeks? 6 months? Who knows, but the fact I know this new musical character, Davide, I thank you.

  3. Glad everyone’s enjoying it. I really do think it rewards with every repeated listen. As you say, Nolan, it’s a confident record made by someone who really knows what they’re doing.

    The thing I’m really discovering now I know it well is how inventive the songwriting in. On so many of the songs, they start in one place and then end in a totally different universe – without losing a sense of the song as a whole.

    Opener Static starts quite stark and bitter, and then ends up floating off into a this very plaintive musical cascade at the end. Buttons starts as a slow jam love song and ends like a big slab of rock. It’s amazing that Bad Habit has become this giant hit (160m plays already! Apparently it’s a big song on TikTok my kids tell me), cos half way through the song, it totally breaks down, goes acapella, throws in some harp and then turns into a funny little home made beatbox number. It’s such a strange song to be a hit, and it makes me so happy that it is!

    Joey, let’s hear from you!

  4. Here I am.

    I’ve been trying to develop some real connection with this album before I wrote anything. But I’m still waiting.

    Its not that I don’t like it. It’s not that I don’t think it’s good. It ticks a lot of boxes for me. I think it was me who chose the Internet album in 2018 (is that correct?) and i hear a lot of what I loved about that album here. I also hear some of what you guys hear in this too. The one I disagree on is Frank Ocean funnily enough. I get the Stevie similarities too and like you David Innervisions and Talking Book are up there as some of my favourite albums ever. So I should really like this right? Oh and I also ABSOLUTELY love Deacon by Serpentwithfeet from 2021. This was the first album that really hit me hard with lyrics and funky word play about gay relationships and encounters, using standard R&B genre tropes. So … I should really like this right?

    Well, I love the first half.

    As David says the 1st 5 tracks are awesome. They flow so nicely together even though they are stylistically quite different. I think ‘Helmet’ is the strongest but the peak in the way that energy flows through the album is ‘Bad Habit’. For me it drops off thereafter and the flow seems to stutter through the second half. ‘2Gether’ just gets in the way. It doesn’t add anything for me and interrupts the album just when you don’t want it to be interrupted. I think the album would flow way better without it. Cody Freestyle, again, on paper, feels like something I should love and I almost do but there is something that stops me loving it. Don’t start me on ‘Amber’. ‘Sunshine’ is great (the most The Internet sounding track?). ‘Give you the World’, for me, is completely disposable.

    I find myself in the position that some of my favourite tracks of the year on an album that I don’t think works as an album. Its interesting. It’s bold. It’s adventurous. I agree with David’s point on the adventurousness of some of the song writing. There’s so much I can agree with that’s been written but for me, it’s not working.

    I find myself in the rare position that I don’t have much more to say than that.

    Sorry.

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