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(Sandy) Alex G – Rocket

Philadelphia’s (Sandy) Alex G, (formerly just known as Alex G) is a twenty-four year-old prolific bedroom recorder/producer whose plethora Bandcamp releases got him a deal with Domino.  Rocket is his second album for the label, following 2015’s Beach Music.  I’ve been following Alex since his 2014 release, DSU, which was affecting and emotional despite (or because of) its lo-fi production aesthetic.  Alex last popped up on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, of all places (he played guitar on “Self-Control”), and on Rocket, he shows that the two enigmatic musicians have more in common than one might think – they’re both in the business of completely throwing the idea of genre or traditional song or album structures out the window.

Rocket starts with one of my favorite songs of the year thus far, the droning, banjo picking, other-world folk of “Poison Root”, on which Alex, singing as though he’s drowning in a puddle of mud, describes taking psychedelic plants before repeating “Now I know everything,” a lyric that I’ve come back to again and again for its endless interpretations as the introduction to an album about learning how to be an adult.  The song rockets immediately into “Proud”, an upbeat, jaunty, head bobbing piano and acoustic number that, even at 4:57, doesn’t overstay its welcome.  Alex sings of his insecurities as a young adult – “If I sink / I don’t wanna be the one to leave my baby out without no bottle to drink”.  “Country” is a slinking, jazzy extended electric guitar solo over which Alex, in innumerable overdubbed falsettos, sings the harrowing tale of being in jail with a kid who had “a few bags of heroin deep in his stomach / He swallowed a razor / See I got some stories” before the fourth-wall breaking “Hey why don’t you write that into a song / Maybe your fans with dig that”.  And, naturally, the album courses directly into the melancholy fiddle and banjo duet “Bobby”.

By this point in the record, it’s apparent that Alex is plays by no rule book, linking his songs together only with his ever present easy acoustic strumming and unique but personal songwriting topics.  Then we hit “Horse”, which sounds like a bunch of cheap Logic bell loops all played a half step out of time with each other around an ominous synth bass, bringing us to the album’s centerpiece, “Brick”.  This experimental, raging, loud, distorted piece of raw, unadulterated free form experimentation sounds like Death Grips meets Mellow Gold -era Beck.  “Proud” might make its way onto the curated eight-hour Yankee Candle store corporate playlist.  “Brick” might make people on bad acid trips kill themselves.  Personally, I think the track is genius and perfectly sequenced right at the record’s half way point, as if Alex was concerned that the listener was growing too comfortable.

I think the record’s back half, however, features Rocket‘s weakest songs, not because they are too inaccessible or self-indulgent, but because the aesthetic concept they shoot for just isn’t that compelling.  The immediate follow-up to “Brick” is “Sportstar”, a piano loop track on which Alex utilizes unflattering chipmunk auto-tune and sings “Sport star / Let me wear your jersey / If you want to hurt me”.  The song appears to be about violence and masochism, but I don’t understand the auto-tune choice and I feel like the song lacks the emotional punch a more raw, stripped back version could have delivered.  The grungy “Judge” is classic Alex G but not particularly memorable, as is the careful, downcast “Big Fish”.  But I do like the unsettling, shifty looping, banjo, fiddle and sound-effect percussion of the instrumental title track.

“Powerful Man” is one of the record’s many ‘WTF’ moments- if I get what he’s going for, Alex is purposefully utilizing a simplistic lyrical style to tell a story that demonstrates a young male’s immaturity and sows the seeds for a violent future as a parent: “Mom’s in a mood this week/ Cause she thinks her family’s going crazy / Guess it started with the baby / She went for a hug but it bit her on the cheek / That was pretty funny to me / Guess I should have more sympathy / I ain’t never raised no kids / But I bet I’d do a good job if I did”.  The title may also be a reference to fellow Philadelphia artist’s song of the same name about domestic violence.  Either way, the song is catchy and the fiddle work is sublime.  The album ends with “Guilty”, another upbeat, jazzy track featuring electric guitar, drums and a saxophone solo.

Rocket is a wholly unique album, and although a couple of these tracks miss the high water mark set by the standouts, the record’s many twists and turns, lyrical, instrumental and production detours and cohesion through raw, intimate recording make it a success.  Not all the tracks are catchy or easy to sing along with, and at times its hard to see where Alex is going lyrically, but I’m willing to bet there are far more nuances and subtleties than I’ve been able to detect, resulting in an album that rewards listeners for closer, careful inspection and reinterpretation.

Score: 10 / 13

Peter Silberman – Impermanence

Peter Silberman is the front man for New York trio The Antlers, an indie-pop / dream-pop band that’s three for three on solid LPs, though may suffer from the dreaded “peaked on their first album” malady.  That album, 2009’s Hospice, is perhaps the best narrative-based concept album of the 2000s, telling the tragic and beautiful story of an abusive relationship between a hospice care employee and a terminally ill patient.  There are seriously chilling and wrenching moments on that record, and I would very highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t heard.  What amazed me, in some recent cursory background research, was that Silberman wrote the album when he was only a twenty-one year-old student!  Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii

Anyway, his new record is the definition of atmospheric, low-stakes minimalism.  Forget the xx – it often takes these six tracks multiple minutes to add a single instrument to the omnipresent reverb-dripping, finger-picked guitar riffs.  The constant presence of tape hiss and Silberman’s bare, prominent vocals, with only sparing use of harmonies, make this album an incredibly intimate experience.  It really does sound like you’re sitting in Silberman’s New York apartment alongside him – you can even hear him get up from his chair at the end of tracks.  These songs are skeletal, to be certain, but they often add just the right instrumental touch to give them some understated grandeur.  My favorite, the second-sequenced “New York”, brings in an absolutely gorgeous flute section, one that still sounds charmingly fuzzy and analog, half-way through.  French horns follow suit through the song’s closing.  “Gone Beyond” adds light percussion and bass to its guitar arpeggios, as well as some additional vocals and the sound of rain, to close out the track with the album’s biggest ‘crescendo’.  The rain opens up the following track, “Maya”, which abandons all instrumentation aside from a single guitar.  Halfway into “Ahimsa”, Silberman brings in a gentle bass drum and light synthesizers that sound dawn’s first rays of sunlight, peeking over the horizon and casting the world in a glowing warmth, completing the touch with the sounds of birds chirping.

That being said, the production work is still sparse, the musical equivalent of Hemingway’s iceberg theory.  But the sound of the record perfectly accompanies the general theme – accepting impermanence, imperfection and the fleetingness of time as essential elements of the human condition.  On opener “Kuruna”, Silberman demonstrates incredible patience, allowing the song to meditate on his voice and guitar for close to six minutes before a finale featuring repetitions of the titular phrase, a Buddhist concept of compassion and awareness.  The slow and drawn-out build seems to suggest Silberman’s own desire to take things slowly despite his limited time on earth.  On “Maya”, he delivers the album’s thesis on a platter – “Our bodies are temporary, let it be known / From the start we start to lose them”, a somewhat depressing sentiment until it’s followed by “Try to see like you see at your very last light / Like you’re watching a flood from a comfortable height.”  Rather than succumb to existential dread, Silberman uses mankind’s temporality as an excuse to appreciate the little things in life, and live each day like it’s his last.

“New York” serves both as an homage to Silberman’s home and also a meditation, an exercise in appreciating the world carefully and with fresh ears and eyes – “When the room grew loud / I learned to stand in back / Behind the crowd / Dam canals with cork / Like I never heard New York”.  “Ahisma” (another Buddhist concept, this one of non-violence) opens by stating “Time is all we have / I hope I have enough / Enough to show you love” before a lullaby-like melody finds Silberman singing “No violence / No violence today”.  The album closes with an instrumental that takes a page out of William Basinski’s book, allowing analog organs and pianos to decay and submit to static and tape hiss, a sonic representation of the album’s theme of inevitable submission.

For a six song, 37 minute side project, this is about as good as it gets.  The album is conceptually focused, the arrangements are beautiful, the songs feature some great melodies, and the sparse instrumentation and production are done with tact and purpose.  The record is beyond gentle, so some might critique it as ‘boring’, but there’s a whole genre based around ‘boring’, and I think this record is a welcome addition to the canon of lyrical, melodic ambient music.  The album doesn’t shoot for the moon, it knows what it is, but like the Buddhist philosophy it so frequently quotes, it executes splendidly its modest intentions.  Impermanence delivers on all counts, and I anticipate enjoying it for years to come.

Score: 10/13

Sampha – Process

This Sampha album, his debut full-length, is great.  There’s not a bad song on here, Sampha does interesting things vocally and from a production standpoint, and his lyrics are thoughtful and personal while staying wrapped in deep metaphors and double meanings.  And because it vaguely fits into the ever-expanding genre of R&B (with Sampha’s sound tinted more by synthesizers and effects ala Frank Ocean or fellow British contemporary James Blake), the songs are pleasant, melodic and listenable as background, dinner-party music in addition to being compelling close listens.  And with close listens comes the revelation that this is very much an album about grief.

Like many, I first heard of Sampha through his vocal work on SBTRKT’s wonderful first album.  His voice has been compared, favorably, to James Blake (and for good reason), but Sampha can dig into softer, more personal territory, and it shines through on some of Process‘s best tracks.  After kicking off with the building, atmospheric “Plastic 100° C”, which extends an outer space metaphor to include spoken-word Neil Armstrong samples and blast-off noises, the album finds true form in second sequenced “Blood on Me”.  Sampha has spoken extensively about where the song’s anxious, paranoid lyrics come from, and the trip-hop drum beat, rattling cowbells, jangling piano and panting vocal harmonies serve to build a nightmare surrounding Sampha’s voice, which sounds like it’s running through the song, losing breath, as he sings “I swear they smell the blood on me / I hear them coming for me!”  This attention to detail, to be sure that all elements of the song contribute to its lyrical themes, are part of what puts Process a cut above its peers.

Ditto for “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”, which, after the claustrophobia of the first three tracks, takes the album into minimalist piano-ballad territory.  Sampha is singing about how “Know one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home”, therefore the song is stripped back and the piano is featured prominently, not doused in effects but sounding like it’s coming straight out of his mother’s home.  But the piano is a greater metaphor for Sampha’s late mother’s love, as he sings on the chorus “You know I left, I flew the nest / And you know I won’t be long”.  The album continues with another stark piano ballad, the two-minute, “Take Me Inside”, to finish the front side, before switching gears again with “Reverse Faults”.  The track uses reversed synthesizers to engineer a beat over which Sampha rattles off metaphors about his own faults – “Took the brake pads out the car / and I flew”, “I shot the blame and it scattered / Now there’s bullt holes spread across the walls”.

Across the album, Sampha sings with an anxious edge, worried less by the actions of others but by his own potential to fall apart, and it isn’t a stretch to suggest he is haunted by the recent losses of his parents.  Never is this more apparent than on “Blood on Me”, but on the second half “Under”, Sampha buries himself under a chorus of vocal harmonies chanting “under” as he sings “Waves come crashing over me, I’m somewhere in open sea/ I’m gasping for air”.  “Timmy’s Prayer” follows suit, a writing colab. with Kanye that takes the latter’s penchant for big, slow-jam drum beats and pairs it with Sampha’s séance-inspired address to his late parents – “If ever you’re listening, if heaven’s a prison / Then I am your prisoner”.

The record concludes with its most ambient track, “What Shouldn’t I Be”, which lacks percussion and is led by harp and soft, spacey synthesizers.  The track ends the record in the present, as Sampha sings “I should visit my brother / But I haven’t been there in months / I’ve lost connection, signal / To how we were”.  This album does not end on a happy, forward-looking, cathartic note.  Rather, Sampha is just as unsure as ever, singing “Family ties / Put them ’round my neck.”  The album title seems to refer to Sampha’s process of coping with his grief, or processing what has happened in his life, but the record’s fleeting happy moments occur only in the past, and the process seems, at the moment, to be ongoing.

Tight thematically, sad but intriguing lyrically, well-arranged and well-sequenced, Process is certainly a success.  I kind of want the record to perhaps take a few more risks, include a few more high energy tracks ala “Blood on Me”, and shoot for some bigger, more bombastic, grandiose moments, but given the content that inspired the lyrics, those moves might not have suited the record’s emotional palette.  Still, I anticipate this cracking many a year-end list, and for good reason – Sampha has delivered one of the best albums of the young year.

Score: 10/13

Bonobo – Migration

I had never heard of Bonobo, who is the alias of 40-year-old British producer Simon Green, until sometime in the past six months or so, through friends who are more in touch with DJs, EDM, electronic music, etc.  And I’ll admit that I’ve never listened to a Bonobo album, or even a single Bonobo song, aside from his latest LP, Migration.  So going in, I had zero expectations.

To my pleasant surprise, the album is great.  There isn’t a bad song on here, and while Bonobo maintains a signature sound of shuffling beats, lush instrumentation and songs that swell to climaxes, he changes things up just enough track to track to keep the album interesting, inventive and, above all, gorgeous.

Bonobo stated that the record was supposed to represent music migrating across continents and between cultures, and the theme definitely shines through, but I enjoyed the consistency of certain hallmarks of his arrangements; harp and acoustic guitar arpeggios, light, treble piano riffs, clapping, shuffling beats, tinkling percussion, huge string sections, live woodwind orchestras, and the feeling that every song was building toward a climax within the style and utilizing the pieces the song establishes in its first third.

Three of the songs here feature guest vocalists and a full lyric sheet- Rhye‘s Milosh, Hundred Waters‘ Nicole Miglis and Nick Murphy, who formerly went by the moniker Chet Faker.  I think the Rhye feature, “Break Apart”,  is the best song on the album, sequenced as the second track following the busy, piano-looping, drum-blasting title track the kicks the album off.  The clap and snare-roll beat, which sounds striking between a finger-picked acoustic guitar and full woodwind section, is a perfect arrangement for Milosh.  Rhye’s 2013 album (and the duo’s only release), Woman, is magnificent, and this track would have been among the best songs on that album. Combined with the fact that Milosh is singing about the divorce from the woman that the entirety of Woman was written about serves to turn the song into a nostalgic, wistful, cathartic epilogue to that LP, appearing three years later.

The album continues with the eight minute techno-influenced experiment “Outlier”, which is fine but not something I’m in love with, then moves to “Grains”, another standout reminiscent of early XXYYXX with its moaning vocal samples, and features Bonobo’s familiar claps, rattles and tinkling percussion, alongside a piano and grand string section that brings the song to throbbing climax.  It’s followed by “Second Sun”, a break from the claustrophobia of “Grains” that, backed by a wall of fuzz, feels a bit like an ambient work ala Tim Hecker, but more melodic, building a harp and guitar arpeggio into an epic, anthemic string crescendo that truly does feel like a sunrise.  The first half then closes out with Nicole Miglis’ feature, “Surface”, where both Bonobo and Miglis perform admirably, but the soft, falsetto vocals, looping over each other amidst one of the busiest, loudest arrangements on the record, almost feel like a bit much relative to the stripped-back “Break Apart”.

I don’t think the album’s second half fares quite as strongly as its first, but the kick off “Bambro Koyo Ganda”, which heavily features singing and chanting by Moroccan traditional musical collective Innov Gnawa, is well done – the hand claps, ringing triangles and generally percussion-heavy arrangement feels authentic to the Moroccan vocals and doesn’t strike me as ‘white dude thinks it’s cool to feature ethnic sounds’, as tracks like this can tend to go.  The B side feels generally darker and more dancey, with the shuffling harp picking “Kerala”, the trip-hop of “Ontario” and the most minimal track on the album, the penultimate “7th Sevens”, which fails to stand out until a wonderful woodwind orchestra fills in from all sides.  Murphy’s feature, “No Reason”, is a bit bland, but that’s probably just because his singing feels so weak and generic- the eerie, minimalist production makes it superior to anything in the Chet Faker playbook.  The record closes on a high note with the understated, vocal sampling, string and acoustic guitar featuring “Figures”, which loops its way into a spacious climax and then loops back down to reverb-drenched, ambient strings reminding me a bit of a miniature Disintegration Loops.

The album works well as an ambient piece, but a more engaging listen is rewarded by the wonderful live instrumentation forgone too frequently in the world of electronic music, where synthesizers traditionally dominate. While I don’t love every vocal performance and sample, Bonobo never beats them to death, juxtaposing every song featuring vocals next to one without. I think the sequencing works well, and I like that the front side feels more epic while the back is darker and dancier. All in all, I’m thoroughly impressed- there are no major flaws to speak of, the music doesn’t get boring, and there are surprises nestled within every song.  I’ll be looking forward to what he does next.

Score: 10/13