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El-P

Cancer 4 Cure

(Fat Possum)

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El-P
Cancer 4 Cure


Any performer with Oscar ambitions should “never go full retard”, warns Robert Downey Jr.‘s Kirk Lazarus in 2008’s Tropic Thunder. Prestige culture was the target, but outcry from disability activists was the response, leading to pickets and memes before reemerging as lead single “The Full Retard” of El-P’s Cancer 4 Cure. Here the context is hip-hop, but the disdain for acclaim-grubbing remains the same. The indefatigable rap iconoclast’s fourth solo outing pulls a bait-and-switch on year-end canonization by turning talking points—the police state (“Drones Over Bklyn”), institutional oppression (“Stay Down”)—into occasions for stream-of-consciousness spoonerisms and scattered venom. What glimpses there are of lyrical coherence reveal ethical ambivalence, as on “For My Upstairs Neighbor (Mum’s the Word)‘s” tale of overheard abuse: “If you kill him, I won’t tell,” he urges. Powered by the rapper/producer’s signature deep-space funk breaks, Cancer 4 Cure is the album that refused to vote in an election year: frustrated, skeptical, and hilariously morbid, but with little use for empty liberal pieties. Benjamin Aspray


 

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The Toure-Raichel Collective

The Tel Aviv Session

(Cumbancha)

Review [26.Mar.2012]

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The Touré-Raichel Collective
The Tel Aviv Session


“Transcendent brilliance” is not too strong a phrase to describe this album-length collaboration between Malian guitar maestro Vieux Farka Touré and Israeli keyboardist/pop star Idan Raichel. The album is the fruit of a spontaneous jam session held in Israel in which the musicians sat down to swap musical ideas, with the results betraying a rare but profound responsiveness to one another’s work, and a refreshing willingness to set aside ego in favor of musical purity. Touré sets aside his electric guitar for these sessions, and the relevation—one of them—is that his snaky, sinuous melodies are just as much at home on an unplugged instrument. Songs like album opener “Azawade” find their rhythm right off the bat, quickly settling into hypnotic grooves that provide the musicians ample room to improvise and explore. This is, simply put, one of the best Afro-pop collaborations you are likely to hear since Touré‘s father Ali sat down with Ry Cooder to record Talking Tuimbuktu back in 1994. Yes, it’s that good. David Maine


 

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Bat for Lashes

The Haunted Man

(Capitol/Parlophone)

Review [25.Oct.2012]

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Bat for Lashes
The Haunted Man


“Haunted” is right. If you’re the subject of a song on Natasha Khan’s third album as Bat for Lashes, chances are there’s some considerable damage in your past, whether it’s unrequited love, the isolation of fame, or shell shock. With all of this baggage, The Haunted Man could have easily been an album-length-wallow, but Khan instead crafted a song cycle about struggle. From the stately opener “Lilies”, on which she declares, “Thank God I’m alive!”, these songs offer salvation through love and optimism. Where you see a wall, she sees a door.


Khan also ups her already considerable compositional game. For an artist who’s often praised for her moody atmosphere, she’s also exceptionally attuned to percussion arrangements, and The Haunted Man lays off the thick orchestration to reveal even more rhythmic complexity than usual. In addition to isolated feats of syncopation like the twitchy guitar picking and drum programming on “All Your Gold”, she subtly weaves marching rhythms throughout until they appear overtly on the title track, accompanying a male choir. Khan has cited her grandfather’s return from war as a key influence on the album’s themes, and she masterfully gets the fallout of war across without tipping her hand lyrically. It’s smart touches like this, combined with Khan’s continued flare for dramatic flourishes, that help make The Haunted Man her richest release. David Bloom


 

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Esperanza Spalding

Radio Music Society

(Heads Up)

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Esperanza Spalding
Radio Music Society


Radio Music Society is Esperanza Spalding’s fourth recording and the flip-side Chamber Music Society. So it ought to be a pop album designed for radio play—right? It may have ripping hooks and huge bed of soulful grooves, but Spalding, at her core, remains a jazz musician. So, the opener, “Radio Song”, may be built around an irresistible chorus and a very hip two-note vocal hook at the start, but then there’s the long middle section with a charging brass figure that sets up a “vocalese” break followed by a swinging tenor sax solo. Tack on a long, modern-jazz piano solo on the end for good and you’ve got… not kind of radio hit at all. But, of course, that’s why Spalding is terrific. She’s not Adele or even Macy Gray. She has made an ambitious jazz record that creatively uses soul forms to grab our ears. You can call it whatever you want, but you’ll want to listen. Will Layman


 

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Hot Chip

In Our Heads

(Domino)

Review [10.Jun.2012]

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Hot Chip
In Our Heads


It’s been incredibly rewarding to watch the streak Hot Chip have been riding since their sophomore LP The Warning in 2006. Coming on Strong, their 2004 debut, wasn’t bad by any means, but if someone had told me that band would be responsible for In Our Heads, I’d have laughed in their face. But Hot Chip aren’t a band to settle in to the comforts their genre provides them. Although there are infectious choruses and unforgettable synths throughout In Our Heads, it’s by no means an electro album that’s all surface. The mature, philosophical nature of the band’s music that started to flourish on 2010’s One Life Stand is exemplified at its highest form on this record. One moment, they’ll have you ready for the dancefloor (“Night and Day” is easily Hot Chip’s best single to date), the next they’ll have you meditating on the meaning of love and life itself (“Look at Where We Are” and “I Have Always Been Your Love”). In Our Heads is the kind of album that demonstrates why Hot Chip are going to be remembered for the years to come, and it’s also refined summation of the group’s MO to date. Hot Chip are consistently life-affirming in their ability to highlight the joys of the human experience, all to the sound of some of the best electronic dance music around. In Our Heads is not only the definitive Hot Chip recording, it’s also one of 2012’s best works. Brice Ezell


 

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Robert Glasper Experiment

Black Radio

(Blue Note)

Review [28.Feb.2012]

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Robert Glasper Experiment
Black Radio


Black Radio is not a reflection of what is currently spinning on urban radio stations, but a rich, multi-layered portrait of progressive R&B and hip-hop through the prism of jazz. It’s the antidote to an “overabundance of mediocrity”, to borrow a phrase from Angelika Beener’s incisive foreword. Led by pianist Robert Glasper, Black Radio offers a sophisticated yet accessible rumination on how black music traditions have always birthed new vanguards in popular music, from jazz to funk to hip-hop. Bassist Derrick Hodge, multi-instrumentalist Casey Benjamin, and drummer Chris Dave are the engine of Glasper’s radio dial while Erykah Badu, Meshell Ndegeocello, Bilal, and Musiq Soulchild are among the dozen guest artists who join the “experiment”. Amidst Glasper’s original compositions like “Always Shine” (a co-write with Lupe Fiasco) and “Gonna Be Alright (F.T.B.)” (a collaboration with Ledisi), he tours a range of material, from Bowie to Sade to Nirvana. His experiment succeeds. To best experience Black Radio, all you need are “your ears and your soul”.  Christian John Wikane


 

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Death Grips

The Money Store

(Epic)

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Death Grips
The Money Store


Death Grips are the real deal, and it’s becoming increasingly hard to discern that in the age of limitless self-doubt, auto-critique, and instant backlash, but it’s the truth. Death Grips are certainty an anomaly, the exception proving the rule. Theirs is a music where anger and negation are simulated at every level, throughout the entire package, rage as contagious pathology (“I got the fever”). MC Ride’s barking hoarse voice is the obvious entry point, a pitiless stream of raw aggression spewing forth the most beautiful pornography of disgust and vitriol, his lyrics an imaginary language daubed in sanguinary hues of Burroughs and De Sade for the street set. On The Money Store, Ride breaks into gated communities, hacks bank accounts (“I know the first three numbers/ I’m in”), and slips the gun to your lips and appreciates the phallic symbolism, but Death Grips move beyond shock value into the most pure transgression of late capitalist values as demon intruders.


Their “System Blower” not only melts speakers, but upends the status quo in a manner where the paucity of resources—lo-fi as Anarachist Cookbook homemade terrorism like their power noise predecessors—acts less as stage relish than fetishistic attention to detail. Of course, it wouldn’t work if the sonics themselves didn’t also leave your eardrums feeling slightly violated. Zach Hill’s wonky, disjointed percussive gait makes the entire crushing industrial ensemble feel like a miswired, circuit-bent machine from the island of misfit terminator drones. Andy Morrin’s programming only compliments this, running on the textural grit of 20 years of scorched earth electronics and incorporating everything from the epileptic seizures of footwerk to the ‘Nuum fueled vocal science of chopped female voices that actually sound like terrorized caged birds. The Money Store is a psycho-delic horrorshow on the surface alone, but with one with unexpected (and somewhat unseemly) depth and resonance for those willing to plunge in for multiple visits. After a ka-jillion spins, this is still a thrilling release. Timothy Gabriele


 

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Andy Stott

Luxury Problems

(Modern Love)

Review [13.Dec.2012]

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Andy Stott
Luxury Problems


Manchester producer Andy Stott has spent the better part of the last half decade burrowing a small niche for himself amidst a splintering dub techno landscape, his expertly fashioned fortress of isolation and cavernous atmosphere having, up to now, felt about as unwelcoming to human harmonization as one could imagine. But with Luxury Problems Stott has reconciled his unstable machinery with a mounting sense of mortality in a way that feels not only unique, but inevitable. Coming after last year’s bleak double bill of Passed Me By and We Stay Together, Luxury Problems can sound comparatively plush and inviting, as Alison Skidmore’s vocals emanate naturally from the fabric of Stott’s air-tight productions, a swarming conflation of digital noise, 4/4 beat science, and dub atmospherics. In a year where spiritual contemporaries such as Raime, Demdike Stare, Shackleton, and even Burial released benchmark work, it was Stott who stood tallest amid the ruins, his scorched-earth triumph a new rite-of-passage for anything electronic-leaning that dares arrive in its wake. Jordan Cronk


 

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Father John Misty

Fear Fun

(Sub Pop)

Review [7.Jun.2012]

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Father John Misty
Fear Fun


Even for an alt-country record, Father John Misty had a sense that this might be a bit of commercial enterprise. Singing “look out Hollywood, here I come” as the last line on the first song of his Sub Pop debut, Fear Fun, Misty channels a series of broken Western dreams, an old American trope, moving them to the nation’s far Western boundary, placing them delicately in a washed out and fucked up Los Angeles. All the same themes work, death in Hollywood isn’t just a metaphor; it’s as American as F. Scott Fitzgerald. And so Misty, nee Joshua Tillman, traffics in all these broken, Western dreams, shreds of religiosity creeping in at the corners. The album’s lead single, “Hollywood Cemetery Sings”, opens with the line, “Jesus Christ, girl, what are people gonna think?” The exasperation isn’t for show with Tillman discussing the disjoints between commerce, religion, and the new American West, which like the Old one, turned into a damn ghost town. Geoff Nelson


 

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Dr. John

Locked Down

(Nonesuch)

Review [12.Apr.2012]

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Dr. John
Locked Down


It’s tempting to label this a comeback album for the 72-year-old Dr. John, but one look at his post 2000 output shows a staggering number of quality releases. Instead this is yet another album that reaffirms Dr. John’s position in music history. Locked Down does feature one interesting quirk though as the album is essentially produced by Dan Auerbach (of Black Keys fame), who seamlessly blends the old school aesthetics of John’s New Orleans R&B (or “Voodoo” as John calls it) with the Black Keys signature new school meets old school style of fuzzed out blues. The final result feels so natural that you can’t help but wonder why these two didn’t meet up sooner. In today’s world of “here today, gone tomorrow” artist, it’s almost inconceivable that a man who began his career in the ‘50s would be making albums that not only equal, but possibly surpass his early classics, but Dr. John has done just that. Proving once and for all that age ain’t nothing but a number. Adam Maylone


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