Our last Album of the Month (AOTM) was the beautiful 'Life on Earth' by Hurray for the Riff Raff. This month the This Is Not Happening crew tackle Kendrick Lamar's 'Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers' head on! We get stuck right into this challenging album in Part 1 of the pod. In Part 2, we play 'Spin It or Bin It?' where we judge the tracks that we've chosen for this month's theme.Part 1 – Album of the MonthThis month it's Nolan's choice, Kendrick Lamar's 'Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers' . We discuss the album in length, favourite tracks and their impact on us and other music fans and if there is a missing track from this album. We want you to have access to great conversations about great music – here are some links to some of the best content on this album that we've consumed;A great 'explainer' article from Ambrosia for Heads – read hereNYT's Popcast Podcast Episode (this one is great for a Kendrick Sceptic view) – listen hereGreat Tempo Tribe Podcast conversation – listen hereA shorter listen at 22 mins – the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast – listen hereThis was one of our toughest albums to think and to talk about … but we hope you enjoy it.Part 2 – Spin it or Bin ItIn the second part of this episode we get stuck into 4 tracks representing this months theme – 'LA Tracks' – or favourite tracks from LA based artists. We all pick a track, introduce our track and ask the others the painfully binary critical question; 'spin it' or 'bin it?' We try not to go super-obvious on our track selections each month … this is what we chose to represent LA;Joey's track selection is – 'Chum' by Earl SweatshirtDavid's track selection is – 'Twelve Thirty' by The Mamas and the PapasNolan's track selection is – 'Runners' by Evidence ft. DefariGuy's track selection is – '86' by TruncateNext MonthEpisode #25 will be with you soon – Guy will be guiding us through 'We' by Arcade Fire one of is favourite artists ever … what could go wrong? Have a listen to the album and share some thoughts with us on the blog or on our Insta. Other episodes of the pod and 10 years of the blog;If you enjoyed this episode, please check out the others. If that's not enough for you then there's 10 years worth of music discussion on the blog at http://www.thisisnothappening.net, which runs alongside the podcast choices and much, much more. So check them out so to see what we like and where we clash, and comment if something catches your eye. We'd love to see what you think.
Last month we shared our thoughts on ‘Dragon New Mountain I Believe In You’ by Big Thief. This month This Is Not Happening stays in the broad genre of ‘Indie’ with Hurray for The Riff Raff’s ‘Life on Earth’ which we get into a deep discussion about in Part 1. In Part 2, we play ‘Spin It or Bin It?’ where we judge the tracks that we’ve chosen for this month’s theme.
Part 1 – Album of the Month
This month it’s Joseph’s choice, ‘Life on Earth’ by Hurray for the Riff Raff. We discuss the album in length, favourite tracks, what other artists’s energy we can hear in this music … and what has become the killer question for us; ‘is the production engaging or disengaging ?’ Big scenes on this pod guys!
There’s some great bits to link you to this month too;
The Metacritic review page is always a good start and can be found here
Check out this live performance of some of the album’s tracks here
The following are podcasts that are really interesting to listen to if you like the album and want to hear more and/or other people’s opinions on it;
In the second part of this episode we get stuck into 4 tracks representing this months theme – ‘Minimalist Grooves’. We all pick a track, introduce our track and ask the others the painfully binary critical question; ‘spin it’ or ‘bin it?’
After last month’s Spin it or Bin It ‘fiasco’, this month is a little calmer and another great chat. It’s a bit more of a love-in than last months with lots of ‘Spin Its’ but a couple of ‘Bin Its’ in there too.
Episode #24 will be with you soon – Nolan will be guiding us through Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers by Kendrick Lamar and WOW, there’s a lot to talk about there! Have a listen and share some thoughts with us on the blog or on our Insta. Its hard not to have an opinion on this one.
For May I was dead set on Pusha T’s “it’s Almost Dry’. It’s pretty impressive and has met all of my expectations. It’s perhaps my favourite album of 2022 thus far. All the stars were aligned, until Kendrick Lamar announced he was releasing new material in mid May after a 5 year hiatus. Sorry Pusha, sometime you need to make a sacrifice and this was an easy decision.
Before we get into the new album, I think we need to remind ourselves how impactful he is. You would be hard pressed to have missed the evolution of Kendrick Lamar over the last 12 years. Through ’Section.80’, ‘good kid, M.A.D.D. city’, ’To Pimp a Butterfly’, ‘Untitled’ and ‘DAMN’ not to mention a plethora of guest appearances and film soundtrack anthems he’s created a vast catalogue with something for everyone it seems.
From early 2010 he has been surrounded by hype. Back then, backed by Ab-Soul, Jay Rock and Schoolboy Q (with their Black Hippy supergroup), they started making serious waves with their unique West Coast sound. When Kendrick released Section.80 he had my attention straight away. ‘HiiiPower’ is still one of my favourite songs. Funny enough he reminds me a bit of Pusha T on that track and a few others on the album with his flow. It was only a matter of time until he found himself on a major, and Dr Dre’s Aftermath (through TDE Artists) was a natural home. Differing from other Aftermath artists, Lamar blazed his own trail without the ever present cross pollination of Aftermath artists that we’ve come accustomed to throughout their catalogue. ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ pushed Kendrick into the forefront of not just hip hop but the music industry. ‘Swimming Pools’ became a summer anthem, ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’ was a radio hit and ‘m.A.A.d city’ set foundations in hip hop that Kendrick was a serious contender as an MC.
Kendrick teased us with his fierce flow in 2014 with a verse on ‘It’s On Again’ with Alecia Keys from the Spiderman soundtrack. Little did we know that that taster was nothing like what he was working on. He was about to move the nets. When Kendrick released ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ in 2015, it felt like he flipped music on its head. Was it hip hop, or was it a jazz album? It was the most creative album that broke the main stream in recent times and showed the world the layers that Kendrick was able to achieve. Not only musically, but also as a performance artist as he took the presentation of his live show to what felt like uncharted territory for a hip hop artist. The album wasn’t without faults. I still find it his least approachable album. Though it gained acclaim and opened him up to a new audience, it was a far step from his first album. The surprise release of Untitled brought many Kendrick fans back into the fold. We all got it, he still wanted to make the music that we loved, but the tracks on Untitled didn’t fit into what he was trying to do on Pimp a Butterfly. An album of rejected songs that were miles ahead of most albums… sort of insane, and very cool.
By the time DAMN was released in 2017 Kendrick was an established artist that seemed to have found this nonchalant confidence that made the album arguably his best to date. By that point he had won Grammy’s, the Pulitzer Prize, and almost every other music related award.
So his new album, where do you start? Well he’s taken a page from Big Thief and released an 18 song, 73 minute album. He starts with the album with the line ‘I’ve been going through something’… has he ever. There’s lots to go at!
I’m still digesting the album. Like many, I’ve spent the last week digesting (what I thought was) the lead single ’The Heart Part 5’. The lyrics and the video are amazing and so important…. but the track isn’t on the album. This guy sits in a different space!
It’s hard to name an artist that has evolved and pushed boundaries as much as Kendrick, especially within hip hop. On this album we find a rounded Kendrick that musically blends the feels of both DAMM and TPAB. Lyrically his confidence is apparent throughout. His thoughts are honest, complex and at times uncomfortable. He has a voice and he uses it. He faces into some tough subjects; religion, addiction, infidelity, relationship struggles, queerness and so much more. Hip hop gives an artist a platform to delve into subjects perhaps different than other genres and he does this masterfully.
N95 is the lead single. What a single! I’m trying to figure out what track I would share with someone as a good catchy track on this album to start? It’s tough. They’re all really deep. They all have layers. Sampha laces ‘Father Time’ with a lovely hook, but the song is beautifully honest. Perhaps too honest for some. On the flip side ‘We Cry Together’ is really hard to listen to at first, but also has a beauty to the bleak honesty. Unapologetically honest. Is anyone else like this in music? This is an album of two halves, and it being a digital only release it the moment lets you forget this is a double album. The first half cuts deeper the the second, but needs to be there for the second half to fully work.
I wrote some bullet points the other day about Kendrick when I was listing to his back catalogue:
Kendrick is honest
Kendrick lets you into his mind, not just his world
I don’t think anyone really knows Kendrick Lamar through his music
Kendrick is an anomaly
… my view still is the same after listening to the album for the first 5 times.
Lamar has stated that ‘he is not the messiah’, but he does have a voice and a message. He has extreme influence on numerous generations, and all levels within those generations. People listen to Kendrick. Kids, mums, dads, grandparents. There is A LOT to digest with this album. And many will take the time to do so. Isn’t it wonderful that someone is making music that is so complex that everyone wants / needs to listen to?
I look forward to all of us digging into this and everyones thoughts. There’s a lot to go at. Ive not even touched on who is Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers? Nor have I talked about the well thought out and controversial guest appearances?
There’s something really exciting about new music from artists you love, and with the pandemic (supposedly) ‘over’ there’s a ton of albums coming, from Kendrick to Hot Chip, and of course my favourite Arcade Fire.
This really feels like a nod back to the old school of Funeral after Everything Now. Bring it on.
This is actually the 2nd time that I’ve introduced the This is Not Happening family to Hurray for the Riff Raff. In 2017, I chose ‘Pa’lante’ as my track of the year, and wow what a track that is. Check it and the stunning video out here. Since its release, this track has become an Anthem for Puerto Ricans the world over. The album that it came from, ‘The Navigator’, received significant critical acclaim and attention and announced Alynda Mariposa Segarra to a much wider audience than they had previously.
But let’s pause a second to understand how Hurray for the Riff Raff got to this point. Whilst I don’t want to get caught into a detailed history of their life, the backstory is important to understand them and this album. Alynda grew up in the Bronx, estranged from her birth parents she grew up with her aunt and uncle in a 14th floor, claustrophobic flat. She has Puerto Rican heritage which we’ll come back to shortly as this is another touchpoint in understanding them as an artist. Alynda has spoken openly about her teenage realisation of how small she is (5ft 2) and how little space she took up in the world. She reflects on finding the punk scene, the music, the clothes, the hair and the make up and wearing them as a kind of armour to protect her from the realities of her life in New York. At age 17 Alynda ran away from home.
Alynda found like-minded ‘run-away-kids’ as she describes them, on the road whilst travelling the length and breadth of the country riding freight trains. This is a time that in some interviews she makes sound like an amazingly poetic bohemian existence and in others, a dangerous time where survival was the most important daily task. It was at this time that they started to play in bands, learn instruments and write music.
Alynda finally settled in New Orleans and started to record self released music in 2007. The genre of this music is best described using the catchall of ‘Americana’ – fusing traditional American folk with notes of protest, punk and more traditional blue grass instrumentation and style. Their first label-released album was in 2011 with 3 others following between then and 2014. Alynda speaks of a dissatisfaction with the lack of representation of her Nu Rican heritage in her music which perhaps explains the 3 year gap before the release of the Navigator. And we’re back to where we started. The Navigator is a proper rock album, a love letter to her New York experience and the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Despite the critical acclaim and attention, there has been a 5 year gap between the Navigator and the AOTM ‘Life on Earth’. That 5 years is demonstrated in a not-insignificant shift in the sound of this new album. This is also their first release on Nonesuch Records. It feels like the album sounds as it does, at least partly due to the relationship between Alynda and the producer Brad Cook (Bon Iver, War on Drugs, Sharon Van Etten and many more). This partnership works. Alynda has spoken in interviews about the encouragement that they received from Brad to explore and to release previously held beliefs about what they were as an artists. If you fancy reading a little more about Mr. Cook this Pitchfork interview is a good read ‘Is Brad Cook your favourite indie band’s secret weapon?’ The production is both low-fi / low-key but also feels very polished at the same time. Alynda’s voice sounds amazing on every track, as much to do with her incredible voice but still, it has been recorded beautifully.
In a podcast that I will link later in this write-up, the podcast host uses a lovely turn of phrase ‘I hear the energy of … in this album’. This is a phrase I will shamelessly steal (now and undoubtedly in the future too). I think it’s a lovely way of saying ‘I can hear the energy of these artists without the any single track, or the album as a whole, ever sounding exactly like them’. For me, I hear the energy of 70’s New York, Lou Reed, U.S. Girls, Patti Smith, Blondie, Stevie Nicks, Arcade Fire, Japanese Breakfast, Violent Femmes.
So what is this album? It’s a ‘tight as a drum’ 11 tracks, 40 mins of fiendishly catchy, guitar driven (but richly instrumented) 3-4 minute tracks. There is some seriously radio friendly vibes on this album but its SO not a sell out pop album. This is a pandemic album, I am not sure if it fits the ‘lockdown’ album tag, but i think it speaks strongly to the paranoia and claustrophobia of the last 2 years. The lyrical themes are world weary, often dark, rarely truly uplifting except for the album closing ‘Saga’ which while it is uplifting its about choosing to thrive rather than simply survive. To sing so beautifully about such dark themes in a pop song reminds me of U.S. Girls and Japanese Breakfast at their best. The thrive vs. survive motif really reminds of the sentiment of last years ‘Jubilee’ by Japanese Breakfast and I am very happy about this.
Alynda describes this album’s sound as ‘Nature Punk’. And I think I get that. It has a lot of natural, acoustic sounds. There are a few synths providing atmospheric drone to a number of tracks but otherwise this is an album of acoustic guitars, pianos, simple drum kits, all sorts of percussion and even woodwind and some lovely horns popping up here and there. The result, overall, is that this is a very percussive album. One of the reasons I described their backstory is because I can hear the rhythm of the freight train living in many of these tracks. That chug, chug sound of the tracks can be found on some tracks in an acoustic guitar and in others the percussive use of the piano. The street performing run-away-kid-band background can be heard in the really simple kick drum and snare drumming … I don’t think there is a single cymbal on the whole album?
In terms of standout tracks … well there’s not a weak track on the album. No, they’re not all radio friendly indie bangers. There are beat-less, self reflective tracks that break up the ‘poppier’ tracks. But ‘Pierced Arrows’ is the obvious stand out single …
… but ‘Pointed at the Sun’, ‘Rhododendron’ and ‘Saga’ are not far behind in terms of radio-friendly memorability. ‘Rhododendron’ is my favourite track but I also love ‘Precious Cargo’ which explores the migrant / refugee experience and what awaits them when they arrive in the US.
I think this album is so accessible. It’s so easy to listen to and easy to consume multiple times in one sitting. There are of course layers, really engaging with the lyrics helps to open a new layer to the album. However, as always, learning more about the artist helps you to really get into the layers that lie below. With this mind, and because I am more of a listener than a reader, I am linking a few podcasts below that if you’re that way inclined, will help you to get even more out of this album.
I hope you enjoy the album as much as I am enjoying it. If this isn’t in my 2022 top 10 then it will have been a great year of music. But I suspect this will be right up there, it feels like it’s been hand crafted just for me.
This is an interesting interview with Alynda recorded in March this year, following the launch of the album – Launch Left Podcast
This one is a great listen, recorded back in May 2020, this is an interview on Radio Menea, a podcast about music from Latinx artists. The conversation covers a lot of background from Alynda’s life that sets the scene for the conversation on the Navigator but there are nods to the music that we hear now on Life on Earth – Radio Menea Podcast
Now this one is a little different. This is an interview with Alynda from a podcast called Living in This Queer Body that is described as ‘a podcast about barriers to embodiment and how our collective body stories can be bring us back to ourselves’. It’s not a straight up and down chat about music, it’s a spiritual discussion about the human condition … I found this one to be the most revealing in understanding Alynda as a human and an artist – Living in This Queer Body Podcast
Ah, the double album. What a complicated thing you are. How many double albums would make a better single album? Well, all of them, you could argue. But I think that, at its best, a double album that can offer something so much richer, shaggier and more honest about a band/artist and where it’s at than a nicely curated single. I’m thinking Sign ’O The Times. I’m thinking Tusk. And, of course, I’m thinking The White Album.
What do all those albums have in common? They’re sprawling. They’re free-wheeling. They encompass quite a few different genres and sounds within one record. Sometimes, they’re a sound of a band creaking at the edges, or falling apart. Oh, and they probably have a track or two we could do without. Not even the die-hardest Beatle fan (and I speak as one) would cry many tears if Wild Honey Pie or Don’t Pass Me By had failed to make the White Album final cut.
So where does Dragon (please don’t make me type out the full name of the album, which I’m sure we all agree is a fucking abomination of a title) sit amongst this? I guess we have to first acknowledge the extraordinary rise of Big Thief. The Brooklyn based quartet seem to have hit a crazy sweet spot somewhere between Americana traditionalists and indie wunderkinds. They encompass both the hipster Brooklyn where they live and the rural Minnesota and Texas of Adrienne Lenker and Buck Meek’s childhoods. Over the course of 5 increasingly confident albums, they’ve gone from new kids on the block to Grammy nominations and critical adoration. People FUCKING LOVE Big Thief. I’m one of them.
I first came across them about 5 years ago when I saw a Tiny Desk concert. The sound! The intensity! I was immediately smitten:
And yes, despite that, there is something elusive about them. I love them, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why they seem to do this stuff better than any of their contemporaries. Throw a rock in Brooklyn, and presumably you’d hit someone from an Americana indie band on the head. Is it just the songwriting? The passion of Lenker, and the interplay between her and Meek? Their appeal is hard to quantify. And as they’ve got bigger, there’s also been the beginnings of an inevitable backlash, a kind of ’what’s so special about Big Thief?’ This excellent NYT podcast does a good job of exploring this, especially as the host is one of those doubters: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/the-enigma-of-big-thief/id120315823?i=1000552637027
So what about the album? Christ, where to start? Well, it feels both like a progression from the excellent U.F.O.F. and Two Hands albums, and a giant leap forward – and perhaps also sideways, up, down, and in several directions at once. The variety of the songs is a bit dizzying, and it takes quite a bit of time to digest. Indeed, I still tend to listen to either the first or the second half of the album in one sitting, which is perhaps a strong hint that it’s almost TOO rich at times. In fact, if I’m being honest, I was confused about my initial response, and that was partly because the band had been slowly leaking songs onto Spotify, and EVERY SINGLE one of those songs were astonishing – so the more rag-tag, messy nature of the album felt almost like an anticlimax at first.
But as I stuck with it, every part of it began to grow on me. I started to love the stylistic changes, the random turns left and right. I began to enjoy the journey, the ambition, the blind optimism of committing this many songs to disc and having the confidence to just chuck it out there and let the audience work it out for themselves. I don’t think it’s always an easy listen, and it certainly has some weaker moments amongst many absolutely breathtaking songs.
Before we get into the songs, I want to say that I found it really handy breaking it up into the 4 parts of the album. It really helps make sense of the record and of the sequencing.
DISC 1/SIDE 1
The first few songs set up the schizophrenic nature of the album – CHANGE is classic Big Thief, as astonishing that might be one of the best songs they’ve ever written. TIME ESCAPING is a totally different beast, like a wonky pop song with that strange industrial rhythm section. And then, third track – WTF, they’re doing a really goofy country song, SPUD INFINITY, with a title as daft as the track. It’s certainly bold curation, I’ll give them that! CERTAINTY is a lovely duet that heads back into Laura Cantrell-style modern country. And then DRAGON (the title track) – what a glorious song, like a lost Dolly Parton ballad.
Opens with SPARROW, which perhaps outstays its 5 minute run time, the first track I felt wasn’t quite essential. But then – boom! – into Cocteau Twins (yes, really!) territory with LITTLE THINGS. Couple of tracks later, FLOWER OF BLOOD sounds like a 80s/90s 4AD band, all feedback and grungy guitars. Next track BLURRED VIEW is a creepy lo-fi thing, with crappy drum machine (or crappy drums!) and Adrienne whispering/muttering darkly into the mic. Repetitive and weird. On we go.
DISC 2/SIDE 3
What an opener. RED MOON is a personal favourite, a proper Lucinda Williams country song that’s robust and cheerful (‘that’s my grandma!’). NO REASON is another astonishing ballad and another highlight, with a chorus that will not leave your brain. This song runs round my head all the time. WAKE ME UP TO DRIVE is a bit of a dirge, but I like its lo-fi energy. But A PROMISE IS A PENDULUM is amazing, delicate and lovely.
So this is maybe where the album runs out of steam for me a little. Yes, it has one of the very best tracks on the album, SIMULATION SWARM. But I do wonder if too many of the last side’s tracks feel like a retread of earlier material. 12,000 LINES is lovely, but LOVE LOVE LOVE’s crunchy indie is a bit exhausting. THE ONLY PLACE feels like quite a minor tune. BLUE LIGHTNING is a lot of fun and sounds very much like the jam session it undoubtedly is, but by then I’m exhausted! And when I listen on Spotify, I often find myself thinking – oh is this the last song? And it’s not. Not a good sign!
So there we have it. It’s glorious, it’s confusing, it’s a mess, it’s ambitious. I guess the big question is – why did they make a double album? My guess is that they wanted to stretch their wings. They’ve made glorious single albums that work as a whole. They’re clearly prolific – look at the fact they released TWO albums – both amazing – in one year in 2019. They seem to me, on listening to this, that they’re just bursting with ideas, and they wanted to try out as many as possible. Whether that works for you will depend on how much you like ’em in the first place, and how tolerant you are of all these experiments, some of which are pretty free-wheeling.
For me, it works. It’s a wonderful album with some of the best songs of their career, but perhaps it just outstays its welcome a tiny bit. Having said all that, are there many songs I’d cull? Not really. Could they have made a more succinct single album? Well of course they could. Do I love that it’s a double album? I bloody do. Do I feel like I know the band better as a result? You betcha. Is it an occasionally frustrating listen? Of course it is: it’s a double album.
If you’ve been reading the blog or listening to the pod then you’ll know that I love a debut. I’ve always been fascinated by the raw honesty of a debut and the breadth of ideas that they often bring. They’re often the culmination of everything that has happened to an artist up until that point. I think it was a Galagher who said something like ‘it takes you whole life to write your debut album … then the record company want another one 12 months later’. For Joy Crookes that ‘whole life’ was 22 years when she wrote and recorded this special debut album. However, ‘Skin’ is far from her first rodeo with 3 EPs and 13 singles recorded and released since 2016.
Joy Crookes was born in Lambeth and raised in Elephant and Castle, and moved to Ladbrooke Grove in South London when she was 14. During these teen years she taught herself the guitar and piano and started writing music, ‘I didn’t know then that this could be a proper job’. Joy went the You Tube route to self publish covers and then her own original music in what is now quite a common rites of musical passage.
In Oct. 2021 she released ‘Skin’. It’s 13 tracks, 42 minutes and is (all puns fully intended) … an absolute joy to listen to. Sorry. Whilst the album would mostly likely be described as nu-soul or something similar, the styles on show are vast, pop, soul, jazz, trip-hop shades of punk and even a track that feels like it could be a Bond soundtrack contender (To Lose Someone). The album feels really personal in a way that many records don’t, even when an artist in sharing their innermost turmoil. This feels like proper soul music, channeling her young (but old) soul.
In some ways it feels very much like a debut album; there’s loads of ideas thrown into the mix, she’s obviously exploring a rich soundscape that she didn’t have access to on previous recordings and there’s a brash confidence in the way that she struts and spins through the album. However, Skin totally lacks the naivety that many debuts (including ones that I love) suffer from. As we found with Arlo Parks this time last year, the signposts for her future output are numerous. She really could go anywhere on the next album … if of course Sony let her.
So, hold on tight … cause … we need to talk about Amy. My skin is crawling from even raising the topic of Amy Winehouse as it’s the worst lazy criticism possible. But, I am sorry, there are valid comparisons. But when I make these comparisons, I mean them as the biggest compliment to both artists. I loved Frank. It’s right up there on my list of faulted but adored debut albums. I properly fell in love with Amy Winehouse when I heard Frank. I felt like I knew her. ‘Skin’ has exactly the same kind of raw personality as Frank. They are both at times heart breaking and at the next moment amusing and jubilant. The broad, lush, widescreen soundscape that is employed on Skin is at times reminiscent of Back to Black. Both artists sound nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. When I say this album reminds me of Amy Winehouse I mean it reminds me of all of the things that I love about Amy Winehouse.
Lyrically, this album is a monster. Joy Crookes is a STRONG songwriter. This album really demonstrates her talent across what are quite different tracks in terms of style and subject matter. Relationships, gender politics, family shit, politics, and London are all in the mix. She writes about all of them in a personal manner that never looks the other way, is heartfelt and often well humoured. There are 1 or 2 tracks where the standard slips a little (Wild Jasmine being the track that comes to mind) but the album is strong enough as a body of work to keep momentum.
If this album was released earlier … even a month or two … I think it would have featured pretty high in my 2021top 10. It’s so easy to recommend to people. Thank you Joy, I’m genuinely excited to see what you do next.
Mano Le Tough, Irish-born Niall Mannion’s career within Dance music has been one that all young music fans dream of. Initially stepping into the realm of dance music after toying with indie music in his teens he was quickly discovered (within minutes) of posting his first tracks on myspace by indie disco stalwart Tensnake in 2007. Soon after he moved to Berlin and quickly built a musical and DJ led following that most would dream of. Combing through his back catalogue, though at times limited, quality his always prevailed and so has his reputation. This from Pampa Records sums up their artist to a tee:‘living alongside sought after personal singles, two full length albums, and remixes for, among others, The Pet Shop Boys, Roisin Murphy, Caribou and Erol Alkan, Mano became one of Europe’s most in-demand DJs, with headline performances across the continent’s dancefloors and the world’s biggest music festivals. Since early 2020, however, he’s been at home, attempting to channel inspiration from eighteen months without live music, amid the anxiety of a global pandemic’.
Any self proclaimed forward thinking dance music wanker like myself will point out that Mano Le Tough is one of the most consistent producers when creating adventurous dance records. In short the hipster dance geeks think he’s pretty special. His 2014 Boiler Room set is one of my most listened to DJ mixes. He has a slew of others that I regularly revisit. He’s a DJ that anyone serious about dance music should see at least once in their life, though this should not be a precursor to this album as this album takes you on journey that at times would create dance floor moments but is more moulded to more laid back situations with a rear view on the dancefloor.
Last year we discussed on the podcast about music that was being made in lockdown and what the music would sound like. Like last months’ album, we’re starting to see the fruits ripened from 18 months of isolation. Largely hashed out in early 2020 from demos and new ideas you get the feel that this is an album of calmness away from the constant travel and DJing in the worlds best clubs every weekend. Mannion has mentioned in a couple interviews that not having his foot in a club every weekend let him to push himself beyond the traditional 4/4 structure that the majority of his previous releases always came back to. One interesting point is that Mannion is often overlooked for both his vocals and indie tinged tracks within dance music, which both shine throughout this album.
We talk a lot about album order and the sequencing of tracks. After the masterclass of Billie Eillish, this too isn’t far away from perfection, though this is more like a perfectly arranged mixtape and less an overall piece of work. The length is hefty, 50 minutes and 12 minutes long. Although I can hear brother Joseph knocking his head on his kitchen table in Chorley at the length, I firmly believe that this won’t be an issue for him as the flow of this album is seamless. For Joey, the deep guitar lead dance feels will undoubtedly sit perfectly in his wheel house.
‘Aye Aye Mi Mi’ may be one of my tracks of the year and I suspect it’s got something in it for us all. I imagine dropping this in a back room somewhere with all four of us in attendance. I can imagine David doing a funny dance to it, Joey giving me his ‘what is this’ bass face, and Guy popping up his head whilst chewing the ear off of someone to swiftly lift his fist in approval. It’s an all-rounder that sits well in most places at most times.
From the psychedelic trip hop of ‘Moment to Change’ to the optimistic dreaminess of ‘Fado Fado’ and ‘Short Cuts’ and deep tinged dance bangers like ‘Pompeii’ and ‘So Many So Silent’ there’s more than enough to peak any music fans interest and keep them interested throughout the 50 minutes. Trying to pinpoint what this album is will be something that I think all of us will struggle to pigeonhole within a genre.
Although there have been similar albums within the realm of this album released recently, most notably new efforts by the Joy Orbison and Darkside, this album has connected with me the most. Perhaps the well woven slowdown sounds have moulded perfectly with the autumnal / early winter feels that I’m adapting to. That combined with the feeling that the likes of Caribou, LCD Soundsystem and Four Tet are all cut from the same cloth makes this album irresistible.
When explaining this album, it’s hard to pinpoint. Is it dance, is it indie, is it ambient, is there a point in categorising it? Whilst writing this I’m trying to get my head around why I love this album so much? ‘No Road Without a Turn’ perhaps sums it up best for me. It’s unexpected, full of emotion, it constantly evolves throughout. Both the song and the album, is something that everyone should have in their lives.
This album is currently or has been number one in over 20 countries. Eilish is genuine, bona fide A list pop star – she sits alongside the Taylor Swifts and Lady Gagas at the top table. Her clothes, her love life, her age, her gender, her fanbase, her lyrics and her career in general have all been dissected over and over again by the press and also by her fans. This is an album about what that feels like. Perhaps that’s not so strange – plenty of of pop stars have sung about life in the fast lane. But what is strange is what Happier Than Ever represents. Eilish is a pop star who makes pop music. You all know I’ll defend the P word to my death. But what extraordinarily INTERESTING place pop music has gone in the last decade or so. Sure, it’s been heading that way for quite a while – but it’s certainly a long way from the Pussycat Dolls and Girls Aloud to this album. It’s the total antidote to those artists. It’s not manufactured, there is no ‘persona’ that Eilish appears to hide behind, and the entire album is not written by a team of crack songwriters, with a list of producers as long as the tracklist. The whole thing, from songwriting to production, was made by Eilish and her producer brother, Finneas. Not a single other musician plays on the entire album.
So if it’s not pop in the old-fashioned sense, then what is it? Well – Happier Than Ever is intimate, downbeat, incredibly personal, political, angry, frustrated, passionate, world-weary, poetic, sexy, goofy and funny. And that’s just off the top of my head. It’s also as tightly constructed as a piece of Swiss watch-making, and it has the best sequencing of any album I’ve heard this year. I’ve tried to find flaws, but dammit, I’m having to look very hard. In short, it is FUCKING AMAZING.
What’s really interesting is what a rich, satisfying listen this is despite the aural palette of the album not really being that wide. Songs tend to come in two flavours – the first is somewhere between synth ballad and pastoral folk (Getting Older, Billie Bossa Nova, Everybody Dies) and sultry, stripped-back grooves with a hint of darkness and even foreboding (I Didn’t Change My Number, Lost Cause, Oxycontin). It’s hardly an upbeat album, but it certainly feels like a more mature and emotionally diverse offering than her first record, brilliant though her debut was by anyone’s standards. So why does this palette work so well on this record? Because it’s a journey. Because each song is a perfect, self-contained composition that’s been crafted beautifully – but then sequenced on a record that takes us through a giant walk through Eilish’s life right now.
We kick off with Getting Older, a rumination on what she’s about to explore through the album – how she can see herself growing, where she’s finding self doubt, trying to process the things that have already happened to her – and then suddenly ending with the bullet of the last extraordinary couplet –
I’ve had some trauma, did things I didn’t wanna Was too afraid to tell ya, but now, I think it’s time
And then she does. A toxic (former?) relationship in I Didn’t Change My Number – which she returns to in the title track Happier Than Ever; a secret new relationship on Billie Bossa Nova that’s then referenced again in the incredible NDA, then a beautiful act of self-love and hope in My Future (one of the highlights on the album for me). On we go through lust (Oxycontin), before we really get into the meet of the record – Eilish confronting the abuse that is endemic in the industry. She touches on this repeatedly in Goldwing and the angry, brilliant Your Power. I’m trying to imagine a pop album 10 or 20 years ago that could have a track like Everybody Dies, a song that genuinely explores the fear of death. Sound of the Underground it ain’t.
And then there’s the album’s mid point, a moment turns the question right at the listener on Not My Responsibility – do you know me? Really know me? Of course we don’t, despite her sharing herself right in front of us. She lays it out. This is what it feels like to be judged constantly. Would you like me to be quiet? There are plenty of artists exploring the notions of what its like to a woman in this universe, but honestly, I don’t think anyone is working at this level. That’s another thing we should discuss – the lyrics. They’re consistently brilliant, sharp, funny – they elevate the already gorgeously constructed melodies into a miniature portrait of entire story, time and time again.
So how come this downbeat, at times almost folky album doesn’t come over like Taylor Swift’s Folklore? I think the simple answer is that Eilish isn’t using the genre as a crutch to create something slightly artificial. Swift – who I actually really like – always feels like she’s calculated her every more down to the last carefully arranged artfully hung woollen cardigan. Eilish feels like this is the music that’s in her head and has come out of her mouth. The lack of gap between her work and the listener is surely one of the reasons this works so well.
Finally, a word on the production. It’s genius. Those hypnotic synths, that slightly narcotic quality to the washed-out electronic sounds. And then Billie’s voice itself – so close to your ears, it’s like she’s whispering into them. I wonder if she’s used that same crazy Binaural head mic that Perfume Genius used on No Shape. It reminds me hugely of that intimacy mixed with very emotional electronica. God it’s good.
Something to share as we think about our response to this record….For some reason, YouTube’s not allowing me to embed any of the songs from album – but it is allowing to embed this extraordinary conversation below – ‘When Billie Met Stormzy’. Apart from it being a total joy to watch two such engaging stars who clearly have such a love for each other’s work (in particularly, Stormzy fanboying over Eilish is just gorgeous), it’s fascinating to see two artists recognise the other’s care and craft in their work. They’re not where they are by accident. They’re both so talented, they’re almost freakishly so by normal human standards. So it’s easy to think that Eilish might not be the real thing because she’s so young or that she’s secretly propped up a production team. The opposite is of course true, as this interview reminds us – she got signed when she was 14 because she is just INSANELY talented.
Happier Than Ever is, by surely anyone’s definition, one of the albums of the year. Indeed, it might well be my album of the year. I mean, what else could really be this well-realised, this articulate, this full of incredible song, giant hooks, intimate whispers?
Man, I’m overheated, can’t be defeated Can’t be deleted, can’t un-believe it.
We’d better believe it. Bille Eilish is here to stay for a long time. This is only the next step on her journey, but what a fucking step it is.
Jubilee is Japanese Breakfast, (a.k.a. Michelle Zauner … and her band’s), 3rd album. I’ve never got my head around is it a band or is an artist but from now on I will refer to Japanese Breakfast as ‘her’ as Zauner is clearly the driving creative force behind Japanese Breakfast.
I nearly chose her 2nd album, ‘Soft sounds from another planet’ as album of the month back in 2017. If I had, you guys would have said ‘it’s ok … but it’s nothing special’ and I probably would have never considered double dipping and choosing her again. So all in all, I am glad I didn’t and I get the chance to introduce you to Jubilee instead. Soft Sounds was a solid, consistent 12 tracks of shoegazey niceness with occasional flourishes that caught you by surprise but were soon gone. Jubilee is almost the exact opposite. On Jubilee, the flourishes are to the fore, the melancholia is still there but it’s wearing better clothes and it has adopted a few new personas. It’s a brighter, poppier, classier affair with massive mainstream chops but don’t assume that’s it’s all surface.
For those that don’t know, much of Zauner’s creative career has been defined by her relationship with and the loss of her mother. Her music was and still is deeply touched by this experience. Her book ‘Crying in H Mart: A Memoir’ is a deeply personal reflection on the pain of growing up, losing her mother and … Korean food. It made no.2 in the NY Times Non Fiction Bestseller List in April 2021. The fact that this album is called Jubilee is massive. It points the way and hints at what to expect and represents a significant metamorphosis, musically and seemingly personally for Japanese Breakfast. There is a 40 minute podcast interview with Michelle Zauner by actor Minnie Driver that I would strongly recommend listening to that explores this in much mored detail and with a very delicate touch – https://open.spotify.com/episode/3LWPCfflisFbPsQqdvRBtd – be warned, I found it very moving but I do think it frames the album beautifully.
Back to the music, Jubilee is a 10 track, 37 minute album. Thank you Michelle. Great start.
Paprika, the opening track literally marches in, heralding the opening of the album with military snares and heralding horns. It’s a proud statement of arrival, perhaps of re-birth following her loss and grieving process? Perhaps I am reading too much into that but it seems beyond coincidence.
Lyrically the album is SOOOO strong and Paprika has some of my favourite lyrics;
‘How’s it feel to be at the center of magic To linger in tones and words? I opened the floodgates and found no water, no current, no river, no rush How’s it feel to stand at the height of your powers To captivate every heart? Projecting your visions to strangers who feel it, who listen, who linger on every word’
Through the remaining 9 tracks Zauner introduces us to Synth-Pop, British sounding 90’s Indie (Belle and Sebastian, perhaps even Camera Obscura?), haunting stadium ready ballads and even a nod to her shoegazing back catalogue. It would have been easy for the variety of styles and influences to result in a messy, patchy album. However, this isn’t the case. There is a thread, a spine running through the tight running time and I think perfect track sequencing. For me, the thread or spine is the genuine emotion, the feels, that drive each track. I believe every word and I feel every note. The brighter, poppier uptempo tracks are some of the most emotionally and significant. That significance comes from top notch, classy song writing.
For this 1st time ever, I feel strongly enough about each song to want to walk through the nine tracks that follow Paprika one by one;
Track 2 ‘Be Sweet‘ is pure pop perfection. One of the strongest tracks by any artist this year. It was my entry point into the album when it was released back in February. It was on a long list that I created with Guy and should have been my selection when we chose tracks for each other a few months ago. It’s a bit 80’s, it’s a bit cool, it’s lyrically intelligent and I love that propulsive bass driving the track forward.
Track 3 ‘Kokomo, IN’ trades, funky 80’s pop for 90’s British indie. An acoustic guitar gives way to harsh string plucks and then to dramatic sweeping string accompaniment. It’s melodramatic, moody and most definitely ‘pretty’. It’s sits next to ‘Be Sweet’ perfectly despite it’s decade-difference in reference points.
Track 4 ‘Slide Tackle’ has been highlighted as one of the weaker tracks in a few reviews … I don’t get it. It’s one of my favourite tracks. It opens like a track from Twin Shadow’s debut album. It’s as if ‘Be Sweet’ and ‘Kokomo, IN’ had a baby together … and that baby played the saxophone?
Track 5 ‘Posing in Bondage’ surprise surprise, Joey love’s the dark one about death. I think this is a beautiful track. It’s the first down-tempo, ballard (ish) track. Spending some time with the album’s lyrics reveals, surprisingly, that there are a lot less lyrics than you might think! When written down, the lyrics look sparse but when woven into the fabric of the track they take on heft, Posing In Bondage is a great example of this in action and one of my favourite tracks. The killer line for me in this track is much discussed in the Minnie Driver podcast …
‘When the world divides into two people Those who have felt pain and those who have yet to‘
Track 6 ‘Sit’ considering that Zauner is often described as a shoegaze artist, there isn’t a lot of it on this album. The exception is ‘Sit’. It’s got a droney, fuzzy guitar that sits (pardon the pun) just behind a very non-shoegazey vocal that sits higher in the mix than you’d expect. Its not a standout track but I think mostly because it’s on such a strong album. I’m in no way offended by it and enjoy it as a simpler pleasure.
Track 7 ‘Savage Good Boy’ … and we’re back to brighter, poppier sounds and melodies. It’s a well humoured, gender-role subverting, piece of perfect pop that is hard to ignore. It show cases Zauner’s ability to tell complex stories, simply and with impact.
‘I want to make the money ’til there’s no more to be made And we will be so wealthy I’m absolved from questioning That all my bad behaviour was just a necessary strain They’re the stakes in the race to win‘
It’s hard to think of catchier song about mankind driving itself into the apocalypse. If you can think of one please let me know.
Track 8 ‘Hell’ – another track that focuses on the theme of loss but done with beautiful pop melodies, lovely backing vocals, Bontempi-like synth flourishes and a big dose of horns. It flies by in two and half minutes but the oddly Morrissey-esque lyrics stick in the mind for much longer.
Track 9 – ‘Tactics’ – Zauner is at her vocally-breathiest, over a string driven, charismatic track. The opening swoon of strings should come as a surprise given the orchestration of the rest of the album but it doesn’t. Once again, the fluidity of the album’s movement from style to style is impressive. I assume this to be a big old lovesick love song to her husband and quite beautiful it is too.
Track 10 – ‘Posing for Cars‘ – If Paprika was a literal fanfare to start the album, then Posing for Cars is a definite ‘farewell wave goodbye’ to close and highlights the perfect sequencing of tracks on this album. It is a well considered finale that builds and grows in a stadium rock stylee, the first nearly 3 mins being free of percussion. But as the song grows it introduces strings, bass guitar and finally a screeching lead guitar solo that feels odd and perfectly in keeping all at the same time. The track is double the length of most of the tracks and for me closes out the album perfectly.
The critical response to this album has been largely very positive with a MetaCritic score of 88% with plenty of 100% reviews. Whilst I don’t think it’s perfect, I do think it is special. It’s very easy to consume and connect with. Its available on many levels. It can be background music, music to work to but I think best consumed when you can give it the attention that I think it deserves. I would be very surprised if I end up listening to any other album as much as this. This will feature highly in my 2021 top 10.
At best we will choose a hip hop album for our album of the month yearly, and it’s for good reason. Hip Hop is at times hard to approach, and hard to find time to listen to away from your kids as 4 middle aged fathers.
For me there’s more of an issue. I remember when I first heard the likes of Nas, Common (Sence) and Rakim. Each song was a lyric twisting journey into their world. As time passes I find it harder to find MC’s that blow me away with their word play. I often wonder is why latter generations of MC’s are less focussed on this? Does it matter anymore? The genre of Hip Hop is a bit confusing these days. I find it hard to understand how much of the hip hop that ‘the kids’ like these days is listenable. Misogyny, violence and criminality seem to be more prevalent than ever.
I came across Skyzoo in 2014 through his collaboration with his New York collaborator weight Torae. Instantly I was a fan. His word play and commentary put him amongst the hip hop heavy weights that I love. The more you listen to his lyrics the more layers to his lyrics you discover. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 90’s made him a student of some of the greats such as Biggie to Jay-Z and it shows. He has an uncanny ability to bring you into his world and keep you there. I was hooked and instantly delved into previous releases which included a heralded mixtape produced by 9th Wonder, followed by his debut album on 9th’s Jamal records (home of Rapsody amongst others) and later releases on two of my favourite labels; Duck Down Records and Mello Music.
You can find music from Skyzoo over the last 20 years, but the last 10 have seen him at his best. Releasing at least an album a year, it’s hard to find any weak piece of work among them. It’s understandable why he’s become one of the most respected underground MC’s around the globe. From working with boom bap super producer Apollo Brown to hip hop general Pete Rock, Skyzoo’s output is diverse and more-ish.
So this brings us to his latest effort, ‘All the Brilliant Things’. Like last month’s St Vincent album, it comes with a theme. This is an album about the gentrification of Brooklyn. Not only highlighting the change but also the world Skyzoo has grown up in, why he loves it, the memories, the stories and the dreams.
My notes for this album have been extensive. I was lost for words, how do you encapsulate the plethora of Skyzoo and what he does to this album? Lucky I read an interview with him where he described it perfectly. He said ‘My music has always been a combination of a few things: storytelling, motive, and intention’. That narrative rings true with another Brooklyn native that I love, Spike Lee. In fact there are cross overs throughout between the two. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Spike Lee movies.
I love hip hop albums that set the scene for the album on the first track and ‘Free Jewellery’ does it to a tee. Skyzoo dives in from the start. Weaving, layering, and provoking thoughts with each line. Amongst the journey he dips his toes into the irony of the critic’s interpretations his world whilst at the same time gentrifying it themselves.
‘So don’t mistake me, yo, I don’t do this for Complex
Nor a Pitchfork or any other facade
Where the culture is determined while chugging a PBR
And telling you how to represent all of the shit that you made
While they move in your building with their roommates’
‘Culture-ish’ is another remarkable track. Full of recollections…
‘I was buying art, my friends was buying dope.
I went and made friends with rappers that was buying both’
….was the line that caught my ears, but every line in the song is spotless. I’ve spent so much time getting my head around the layers of lyrics. He reminds me of Jay-Z on Reasonable Doubt. From Brooklyn or not, you’re pulled into his world (then and now) as you sit ring side in Skyzoo’s world in Brooklyn.
There are lyrics throughout outlining changing worlds. In line with the theme, but not blatantly. ‘The Scrimmage’ looks into money and how it’s made, old and new and it’s ruthlessness. I love the track lyrically, but when the track finishes with a clip of two people talking about being removed from their neighbourhood, it makes you listen again…. Because he was talking about it the whole time.
Hip Hop was born in the Bronx, but since its inception the New York boroughs all battled to own the top spot. Brooklyn arguably has a strong claim for the top spot. Jay-Z, Biggie, Sean Price, Yasin Bey (Mos Def), the list goes on. That mixed with exceptional graffiti artists and their influence on me is the reason Brooklyn has always facinated me. That fascination of Brooklyn for me and so many others may just kill where that fascination comes from; it’s soul. This album concept is well overdue. ‘Bed-Stuy Is Burning’ is not only the stand out track on the album but one of the best hip hop songs that has been released in recent memory as Skyzoo delves into the world he loves and how it’s crumbling at his feet.
‘To whom it may concern, don’t let this happen to you
True to what you heard, they want this back like a loop
They gave you a curb and kept you back on the stoop
And now what they prefer is to help you pack when you move’
There are few reviews on this album, but many podcast interviews with Skyzoo. From a fan point of view some say it’s his best lyrically rounded album while some say it’s too long and the beats could be better on many tracks. I don’t disagree with either to a point. Personally I think that this is an album that when digested the four of us will use as a reference point for many albums in the future as this in its’ bones has the feels. The song by song justification and the ability to continually discover with each listen. Its’ long term importance to all of us is unseen but on different levels this album is important to all four of us and is worth everyone digesting. I’ve stayed in New York three times for work, once in Brooklyn. I’ll take Brooklyn and day of the week. It’s mind kind of place. It’s cool. Like east London is cool. The hipsters came in and made it cool for the middle classes. But at what cost? This album is about that cost. About a changing neighbourhood. This message transcends globally.
One of most common narratives on the blog and on the podcast is album length. ‘All the Brilliant Things’ is 14 songs long and just over 55 minutes which is standard for a hip hop album. At first I considered that the album could drop the middle three or fours tracks, but lyrically they’re growers and some of the best on the album.
The more I listen to this album the more I discover. Will it be perfect to the lesser hip hop fans? I’m not sure. I love it because it’s out and out hip hop that also delivers on a social commentary that we should all digest.