Albums

Album Review: Wolf Alice-Blue Weekend (2021, Dirty Hit)

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No, it’s not Christmas yet. But as I wrote this, there was a team of Chicago fire department firefighters right outside my window. That automagically warm and fuzzy green-red combo dabbed with the blue of Chicago PD, rebounded from the opposite apartment’s yellow brick lattice, finally seeping into my eyeballs. Then I looked down at this album’s cover with the exact same mixture, even the watercolor haze, here in my apartment reproduced by the lax window cleaning over the past many months.

I can see how Wolf Alice resemble firefighters – versatile jack-of-all trades who escape genres with as much confidence and ease as one must when responding to a fast shifting blaze. They were frequently criticized on dithering between styles and lacking in commitment, shoegazing with the other foot on indie rock slathered in back-country twang sauce. I think such a complaint misses the mark. They are simply both comfortable and fluent across multiple ways of making music. In their third full length album, Blue Weekend, Wolf Alice clearly assert their maturity beyond 2015’s My Love is Cool. Although they have not strayed far from the similar ingredients of decisive melodies, big choruses, screaming recitations, and ascending volume/scale, the alchemy that emulsifies these together has certainly improved.

So, indeed, the “production value” is much higher, perhaps attributable to their incidental aging and experience accumulation. But there is also a somewhat attendant loss in rawness as their arrangements become highly polished. As engaging and enjoyable as the tracks are, the sum of the parts does not match Visions of a Life for, well, vision. And attitude.

As if implicitly understanding we may have come directly from the two previous albums, however, Blue Weekend starts off with “The Beach” as palate cleanser and “The Beach II” as a chaser. Between those sand patches, Ellie Rowsell’s highly malleable voice, whether through the quick changes in registers of “Lipstick on the Glass” or the delicate yet precise “How Can I Make It OK?”, remains the backbone of the band’s incredible range. With melodic lines that never fail to impress, my favorite on the album might be the short and sweet ballad “No Hard Feelings”. Overall, though you might not be sated in any one stream, it is quite difficult to go off a wrong path on Blue Weekend.

There was one more window, way off in the distance, that pumped out the same tri-color light in a light-house like rotation. But that was just some random disco ball. I wondered if a disco ball was on beach number two… it was definitely better than the Scottish play on the first.

Retro Album Review: The Selecter-Too Much Pressure (1980, 2 Tone Records)

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In a twisted way, some blues enthusiasts could be mistakenly interpreted as masochists. Just realizing that one is in fact distilling sonic pleasure from painful experiences, with only the emotional range to sympathize not empathize with the struggles of the people who felt, wrote, and must keep plodding through with the daily blues. On that far-off wavelength, the same alternative lens could be placed on much of classical music – simply contextualize Mozart’s keyboard pieces not as high culture touchstones but the onion, mustard, and relish that dresses the weiner and franks of ritualized Prussian aristocratic courtship. Try to flush that scene down the toilet the next time you cue up a piano sonata.

The 1.5 year drought of hotdogs and other essentials (definitely not ketchup) has clearly clouded something.

Ska, then, is really a lighter, more upbeat, skankable Jamaican take hiding behind the same root issues as the blues – making it easier to jump and dance to one’s blues lightens but does not dilute them.

The Selecter are a ska band from the working class backdrop of Coventry. The American rust belt took after the universality of the blues. After their own similarly rapid and prolonged decline from manufacturing glory, ska was evolved in English West Midlands to become the (societally) preferred outlet to such “raging angst”. Let’s just say that having an identity and community produces an extremely comforting anchor, and is probably the more placid and productive group activity relative to soccer hooliganism and revolution.

The aesthetics of 2-tone albums were apparently standardized by the few record labels, and reminds me of the dicing tartan on police hats of the UK and oddly, Chicago. Perhaps somewhere, someone had mistaken 2-tone for halftone, and was not half-unpleased with the results? But I digress.

Too Much Pressure is in fact the Selecter’s first of two albums before breaking up officially in 1982 (though they’ve since reformed). I was surprised at the amount of worthwhile numbers in this one album, which for me includes “Missing Words”, “Time Hard”, “They Make Me Mad”, and “Out On The Streets”. These are particularly brilliant, descriptive, and melodically attentive. I might have presumed there would be something that could accompany the intervening panoramic shots for Death In Paradise. Clearing that musical low bar obviously wasn’t even a question, and I should not have prepared to be dismissive and then feigned such “surprise”. This music clearly has staying power. Although imagining it being performed in tuxedo and tailcoats of 400 years into the future is an exercise equally interesting as re-creating 1980s Coventry. I’m sure it’s not hard to find a MET opera that screams “MURDER!!!”


The special edition of The Selecter’s ‘Too Much Pressure’ out now via Chrysalis Records.

Album Review: black midi – Cavalcade (2021, Rough Trade)

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Does anyone ever wonder if the authors of Cole’s Notes read themselves in old age to marvel at how beautifully complex, deep, and in-tune with all manifest faculties they once were?

Whether chanting (“Diamond Stuff”), traversing alternate pasts (“Marlene Dietrich”), or narrating a seemingly terrifying future a la Hieronymus Bosch (“John L”), black midi disembodies itself from space-time, climbs the throne of objective observer, describes its perspective back to you in the metaphoric language of the French opera cakes, and asks you to stay Zen and not attempt to understand.

Post-punk Buddhist monks might be a suitable descriptor. For what it’s worth, in the absence of those potential metaphors, the delivery vehicle that is Cavalcade still sounds like the soundtrack to a quasi-meta-movie called Being Johnny Cash-ovich. A thickly rhotic, faux American accent might have intended to cultivate an exuberant art deco ambiance to contrast the frenzied, post-post wouldn’t-give-a-rats-tail about traditions and forms instrumentation. Yet both still follow a stream of consciousness style that bend and stretch together. I observe that except for the middle 5/6, every even number on the album is softer and every odd number, odd and harshly dissonant. But in a sequence of less than 10, that hypothesis might well have a p-value of 1.0.

The album seems pleased with itself and stands in proud extroversion like a white-hot thermite covered highway billboard for modern-day Freemasonry – as if the album cover ever cast a shadow of a doubt. But the many elements of the album were continually pleasant to discover. The guitar hooks, the propulsive percussion and arrangements are always decisively clever. But I can do without the vocals and the lyrics that lend a layer of unnecessary sleaze, like some brownish organic ooze that interferes with the otherwise well-honed precision of the instrumental play. Cavalcade is merely mysterious and never incoherent, always perfectly able to paint a vivid picture. It is the clear results of careful craftsmanship, even though it carries the appearance of a rummaging mess of a jam session.

On repeated listening, however, the album is slower and harder than most to savour and digest in whole. You will either like it, have little opinion of it, or must reflect and then perform your decision on either of the two options when asked. In that sense, it’s built to be a museum piece that confronts. It attracts moths and critics to its ghostly flames without ever causing a stir with bees and plebeians. And when an album ends itself with an extracurricular multi-instrumental major key crescendo, that aim and aptitude for critical consumption is so patently conspicuous as to be circular. It is not built for a lazy, afternoon couch listening with your neighbor’s 2-year-old stomping opposite your ceiling. Unless that kid learns how to tap dance like Gene Kelly only to listen to this album in 70 years time and metaphorically lament his youth. Little Punk.

Album Review: Vanishing Twin-Ookii Gekkou (2021, Fire Records)

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I cannot even begin to write about the ironically apropos and prescient title of Vanishing Twin’s second album. At least not with a straight face. Somewhere a masonic temple’s granite eyeball finial must have been struck by black-and-white lightning and gained access into a colorfully rich, well-marbled dimensions.

Given their well known habits for experimentation, I think I could be similarly excused in such synesthesia. Co-mingling ready-made genres and samples into beautiful Frankensteins is, after all, air and water to Vanishing Twin. Coming on the heels of that 2019 album The Age of Immunology, their third such exploration switches from French to Japanese kookiness. Ookii Gekkou starts with an ostensibly odd but oddly-working merger between ’60s/’70s movie soundtrack and full lyrical song.

Busier, more vocal (not just in voice but tone) and more esoteric in comparison to Age of Immunology, Ookii Gekkou resembles a circus freak show in the best positive meaning of that term. With less thematic cohesion, the tracks have individual personalities like they busted out of a soundtrack from an Italian psycho movie on schizophrenia. I kid of course, about the country of origins for the brand of weirdness – the band is based in London. But if we are after a dose of stereotypical minor key hijinks, “In Cucina” does have that and some. Together with the album’s namesake “Big Moonlight”, it bookends a first phase of the album that has fresh, propulsive notes. Ookii then offers a more familiar imprint from Age seemingly designed to please previous fans, and almost as if on-cue, submerges into more electronica territory thereafter. While never trite, it is also never predictable. It is delightful to discover that genuinely enjoyable, not just artsy-fartsy, music can erupt this way.

On the notes of “Phase One Million”, then, I will be glad to return to my insouciant and carefree stroll (indoors) while chewing on marbled beef tacos de ojo, however ill-advised that might be. And on the fact that both this and the other album reviewed this week featured pink covers, I have no comment.

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