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Visible Cloaks – Reassemblage

Visible Cloaks is an electronic / ambient duo based out of Portland.  Their debut full-length, Reassamblage, was released in late February, and I’ve been listening to it on and off ever since.  Like the best ambient music, it’s a subtle record, and I’ve spent close to three months trying to make heads or tales of my opinion on it.

In short, this record is really, really well-crafted.  The word ‘texture’ gets thrown around a lot in music (a friend of mine once cynically stated that people described music as ‘textured’ when they had no real opinions and were trying to sound verbose and intelligent), but it should really be reserved for albums like this one.  You really can feel all the sounds on Reassemblage, and there are a lot of them.  Synth notes, often disguised as marimbas, flutes and traditional Asian string instruments like the koto, trickle like pebbles through your hands and flutter like sticks and reads whipping your legs.  This record sounds incredibly organic.  One image that comes to mind is the surface of a pond, which, as one zooms in closer and closer, reveals itself to be teeming with life in every corner.  Another image is of a time lapse of organic life putting itself together, one step at a time, like in this video.  Both the album’s title and artwork are able descriptors.

Visible Cloaks makes excellent use of panning (placing specific sounds at various spatial locations along the left-right channels) all over the record, creating dense, colorful worlds in which a trickling chime pops up over here while a wet, splashing sound buzzes along over there.  The songs develop as a collection of disparate parts, like a series of different insect or plant species, humming along at their own unique cadence and frequency until the natural symphony reaches a breaking point, at which the songs dissipate into the sounds of shattering crystals.  Occasionally we hear voices, cloaked in chorus effects, hum and ‘oohh’ soothingly in the background.  A singular Japanese spoken word passage is presented within the empty spaces left by the gentle clanging of pipes on “Valve”. The record has a notably Japanese vibe to it, and my fiance twice asked me if I was listening to the sound track to Mushi-shi (a beautiful, calming anime that takes place in rural villages of 18th century Japan).

This is the kind of album that doesn’t lend itself to highlighting specific songs.  The ideas within each track are distinct but also make use of similar discrete pieces, and thus the work should be taken as a whole, but some moments do stand out as examples representative of what the album is doing at its best.  “Mask” lets a marimba melody build as whooshing, windswept synths envelop it further and further until it exits out of nowhere, allowing a few glimmering, glistening notes to drift about as if on a light breeze while heavily processed vocals coo softly behind.  “Bloodstream” is the record at its busiest, as rippling notes shoot in every which direction before huge, warm, earthy bass washes over the entire track.  The effect is gorgeous.  “Terrazzo” dips, bends and curls while buoyed by the mysterious sounds of a chorus of shakuhachi flutes.

Reassemblage is incredibly detailed, cohesive, pleasant and thoroughly interesting.  It represents an adept stroke of ambient song craft, and I anticipate enjoying this record at opportune times for years to come.

Score: 9/13

Spoon – Hot Thoughts

Spoon are an Austin, TX based indie rock band that’s been pumping out LPs at a consistent clip since 1996.  Hot Thoughts is their 9th album, the follow up to 2014’s They Want My Soul, an album I thought was pretty mediocre but somehow still netted them some critical acclaim.  Still, the band has shown considerable consistency across their releases, and opinion is split on which from their great three album run – 2002’s Kill the Moonlight, 2005’s Gimme Fiction and 2007’s Gagagagaga is their definitive statement (my vote would undoubtedly be for Kill the Moonlight).  While the group is far from Radiohead-like when it comes to developing a new sound or sonic identity, their familiar palate of tough, drum-led rock songs, often featuring pounding, rhythmic piano and Britt Daniels’ signature raspy, too school for cool vocal delivery has served them well and produced myriad catchy, poppy rock songs.

All that said, I think Hot Thoughts is actually a great late-career album and a return to form.  It doesn’t reach the heights of the band’s creativity at their peak, but it’s consistent, interesting, well-sequenced, very well-produced, cohesive and has great sequencing.  The lyrics, as is often the case with Spoon, more often shoot for slick, cool-sounding turns of phrase than profundity or subtlety, but here they’re are never really weak, cringe-worthy or awkward.

You can split the record’s songs into two camps – the ‘classic’ Spoon rock songs, and the darker, more atmospheric and experimental tracks.  The record does a great job of shifting back and forth between these modes, and letting their elements bleed into each other.  Take leadoff “Hot Thoughts”, delivered entirely in falsetto (not uncommon for Daniels), driven by funky guitar rhythms overtop of a minor synth chord, and coining a catchy phrase to discuss courtship / romance.  It’s followed by the record’s best track, the eerie, progressive and building “WhisperI’lllistentohearit”.  The song is the very definition of tense, riding crackling fuzz and synthesizers to a fantastic payoff when the song shifts gears into a driving rock track that trades in anticipation for reckless energy, where Daniels lets out a wail reminiscent of Nebraska-era Springsteen over a riveting, jagged guitar solo.

“Do I Have to Talk You Into It?” and “First Caress” are back to girls, jaunty, plodding pianos and bar-room rock choruses, the latter featuring some nice female harmonies and a very dancey, feel-good rhythm.  These songs also develop one of the signature sounds of the record – shifting, twangy guitar chords that alternate rhythmically and across both channels.  But the record’s A-Side all feels like a build toward the fifth-sequenced “Pink Up”, a very slowly developing, six-minute, largely electronic track, consisting in part of vibraphones, tambourines, wood blocks and reversed vocals.  Daniels’ single verse is delivered almost as a chant and features the album’s most interesting lyrics – “Break off from everyday / Spend a week in the moment / Take the train to Marrakesh”.  The meaning is oblique and veiled, but haunting ambiance is thoroughly delivered as the song builds further with additional drumming and ghostly falsetto harmonies.

The second half of the record kicks off with the obvious single candidate, the catchy, smoldering “Can I Sit Next To You”.  The track is cut from the same cloth as the band’s biggest hit, “I Turn My Camera On“, is prominently set in Memphis, TN and features what I think is the record’s best vocal performance – I love the passionate delivery of “Under Tennessee skies!  Down on South Front Street!”.  “I Ain’t the One” and “Tear It Down” are fine but the production and development fail to excite relative to the A side’s denser arrangements.  The former is a little too minimalist and underwritten, while the latter is sure to raise politically minded eyebrows with its chorus of “Let them build a wall around us / I don’t care I’m gonna tear it down” (though I’m inclined to believe Daniels’ liked the phrase regardless of its extraneous connotations, a la the title track).  The penultimate “Shotgun”, though, is great.  The guitars are tight and edgy, and the story in the lyrics, which seems to address another musician Daniels has fallen out with, are both biting and idiosyncratic (“Back when we couldn’t afford the Continental / You and me dreaming ’bout full medical and dental”).

The record ends with one of the most experimental and avant-garde tracks Spoon has ever recorded, an ambient, psychedelic, instrumental saxophone piece titled “Us” that reprises some melodies from “Pink Up”.  I think the track works, and I love that both sides of the album mirror each other in energy and structure, with both ending in atmospheric, electronic tracks.  I think there’s enough tightly written rock songs for the band to afford themselves the luxury of trying something different, and the variety and color delivered those risks pays off.

Like most Spoon releases, my biggest issue with the record is emotionally and lyrically, where I think the band still falls well short of acts that both rock and cry, but from a purely musical point of view, the album is very solid, has some great tracks that are right up there with some of Spoon’s best, and feels cohesive from a sonic perspective.  The band didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel here, but they still came out and delivered 10 good tracks, a few of which could crack any fan’s top five.  I’m pleasantly surprised by this album and will likely be coming back to both its better moments and the entire project as a whole.

Score: 9 / 13

Sun Kil Moon – Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood

If you aren’t familiar with Sun Kil Moon (aka Mark Kozelek), here’s the rundown:

1990s – Kozelek is in a band called Red House Painters that releases some, slow, atmospheric albums about Kozolek being sad and disillusioned.  They’re all pretty good.

2003 – Solo under the name Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek releases Ghosts of the Great Highway, which is a fucking amazing album.

2000s – Idk, output probably mediocre.

2014 – Sun Kil Moon puts out new LP, Benji, composed of long, drawn out acoustic songs that feature Kozelek speak-singing incredibly personal, diary-entry, prose-style songs about people he’s known who have died in Ohio, his family, his upbringing, his mid-life crisis, etc.  It gets rave reviews.

2014+ – Kozelek is an asshole to journalists and other bands, gets in feuds, frequently in the music news, doubles down on speak-singing story songs with new album that does not get acclaim.

So then this two hour behemoth drops and its basically the 2010s Kozelek style (speak-singing, stream of consciousness, long songs) to the max.  The average length here is like eight and a half minutes.  They include incredible minutia and trivialities from Kozelek’s life ranging from buying fruit from a roadside stand, speaking to a Syrian shopkeeper about ISIS, staying in the hotel where Elisa Lam (the girl from that unsettling elevator footage who was found in the hotel’s water tower) died, trying to buy shoes in Portugal and corresponding with a Sarah Lawrence College concert organizer.

For many, this album will be insufferable.  The instrumentals are very minimalist and repetitive, typically consisting of a bass, drums and acoustic guitar just chugging along the same phrase or 2 chord progression for 10 minutes, often with a “bridge” or alternate refrain thrown in every few minutes or so.  The Kozelek’s mind-numbing details about his life, and the narcissism required for someone to put two hours of that to tape, can be off-putting.  The record requires 2 hours to listen to in full, and its often not remotely catchy.

Still, like some, I find this album fascinating.  While Benji was just melodic and poetic enough to be universally adored and labeled as ‘groundbreaking’ or something, this record was always going to be far more polarizing.  I’m just someone who was attracted to the positive pole.  I like this album for the little details, the humor, the Bay Area and NorCal imagery (there’s a whole song about driving down highway 80 from SF to Sacramento, which I do multiple times a week), and the observations that break through into insightful, even profound territory.

When you get an album this full of one person’s day to day life, the themes that emerge are just the idiosyncrasies and personalities of that person, and those can be both interesting and charming to behold.  Kozelek is obsessed with murder, serial killers and deaths under mysterious or bizarre circumstances.  He acknowledges that this is messed up, but he likes it, and I can relate – I’m sure we all have our Wikipedia guilty pleasures (mine would be… lists of populations of metropolitan statistical areas).  Kozelek sings on one song about planning a trip to the hotel where Elisa Lam died (“Window Sash Weights”), then in another song (“Stranger Than Paradise”) he actually goes there and talks about his own private investigation.  And then later, he lies in bed and feels guilty for doubting the girl even existed (“She died at 21 years old in 2013 / the height of the internet age / Yet only 2 known photos”), thinking about her grieving parents.  On the aforementioned “The Highway Song”, he fabricates a hilarious murder story about an Eric Clapton impersonator who was killed by someone who’s middle school heartbreak loved “Wonderful Tonight“.

Kozelek has strong feelings about the current political climate.  The ‘fuck Trump’ sentiments are obviously expected but are dull and don’t really interest me, but his long passages about how he’s disgusted by the North Carolina transgender bathroom legislation (“Hicks and hillbillies, unite and get along / Rednecks, bury your axe with transgenders and be strong”) is politically incorrect enough to be genuine.  Ditto for his thoughts on the Orlando massacre (“It’s my opinion that he deserves a blunt object lodged into his temple”) and the concert shooting in Paris (“Or Paris, France about that Eagles of Death Metal / Actually don’t mention that one ’cause for them the dust is still not settled”).

The famous curmudgeon takes plenty of shots at twitter, millennials, social media, the internet age, the death of culture, the ‘me’ generation, etc. etc., that plenty of critics have already focused on, but I’m neither offended nor focused on that aspect of the album.  The skit where he plays a journalist talking to a fan (“Oh yeah I know Jim James, Doctor John Misty / Hold up Suf-jan Stevens is texting me”) is actually great.  I’m not so sensitive that insulting my generation and people exactly like me makes me dislike Kozelek’s little touches, like how he “watches The Shining every Christmas”, any less.  He makes it clear that his hatred is directed in a general direction, but his interaction with a millennial with whom he plans a concert at Sarah Lawrence College is touching and demonstrates some effort on his end to bridge the generation gap, and he even seems to have a great time at the show – “A nice girl named Sophie played piano on a few songs with us because my mic couldn’t reach the piano / She played the four notes on “Richard Ramirez…” and “Carry Me Ohio” really, really, well / That was a lot of fun”.

Some of the melodies are truly pretty as well.  Kozelek’s style of using harmonies to echo his sentiments in nice, major chord arrangements are hilarious when they’re paired with phrases like “Guns from the trolls” and “Huge fucking asshole” on the wonderful “I Love Portugal”.  The opener “God Bless Ohio” would have actually fit perfectly on Benji, given its content (Kozelek’s love/hate of his home state of Ohio and the tragedies he’s witnessed there) and its sad, downbeat, minor tone, kicking the album off with perhaps its most song-like track.

I don’t really love all these songs (or parts of these songs) – some of the sections aren’t funny, go on too long and are too monotonous to be enjoyable.  It certainly could have used just a big of editing to keep it focused on the more interesting passages.  But this record is a magnifying glass on one musician’s life and thoughts, in excruciating detail, over the course of a year, and every additional ten minutes of it just adds linearly to the big picture, and that pointillism crafting of an image is the whole point of the album.  It’s not a traditional sort of record, where you can throw on nice headphones to enjoy all the production flourishes and read all the lyrics and think about the arc and sequencing and scope and themes and motifs.  Rather, you put it on in the background, and listen in and out, catching glimpses and chuckling at some lines here and there, and every time a more complete picture of this man at the age of 50 emerges, which is pretty satisfying.  And no one else is doing this, easy as it may seem, so its still incredibly original.  I like it.

Score: 9/13

Xiu Xiu -Forget

Note:  This review was originally published on the Berkeley BSide.  You can check it out (along with the rest of the site) over here.

Xiu Xiu, led by South Bay native and creative genius Jamie Stewart, are one of the most interesting, refreshing, consistently abrasive, and unpredictable bands this side of Death Grips. In some ways, they are to synthpop what Death Grips are to rap–very coarsely a member of the genre, but riding multitudes of innovative and what some might call ‘inaccessible’ production techniques, combined with an extremely emotional vocalist and a prolific work ethic. Their last effort, 2016’s Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, is one of the most beautiful but downright harrowing albums I’ve ever heard, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for exciting, avant-garde instrumental music (with a few amazing vocal performances thrown in).

The record’s opening seconds are perhaps its most off-putting, as Jamie raps in a fast, aggressive voice “You wanna see it/ you wanna tick it / wanna lick it wanna kiss it you wanna whisper in my ear, bitch?” “The Call” thus rides along at a breakneck pace and Stewart delivers evocative lyrics in his trademark operatic, vibrato-heavy style regarding the desire to be wanted and loved by an emotionally abusive partner, and the rap voice that returns of a chorus of “Clap, bitches!” appears to represent the aggressor. The narrative technique is masterfully employed, but the question with Xiu Xiu is never “can they be interesting?,” but always “how much do these experiments take away from the enjoyment of the record?” “The Call” straddles that line, but I think the lack of a great melody tips it in the wrong direction.  Forget is the band’s 10th (!) LP in fifteen years, and while it incorporates some of the elements from Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, the LP also sees the band return to some of their more familiar sonic and lyrical elements. Forget feels like a breakup record, but helmed by a songwriter as tortured and manic as Stewart, the record could potentially be alluding to numerous personal relationships in his life. Perhaps it could even serve as a metaphor for the struggles of others. The songwriting nonetheless sounds pained and personal, as do almost all Xiu Xiu releases. The sonics are still jarring, the structures eerie, off-kilter, unexpected. There are no shortage of surprising, almost jump scare-like moments on Forget and the record holds onto lyrical themes, including learning to forget a bad relationship, and relearning how to not hate oneself after years of emotional abuse.

“Queen of the Losers” ups the production intensity, with huge, climactic industrial rhythms, metallic and squirming synthesizers exploding all around, a whole host of indescribable sounds, and a characteristically fierce Stewart performance. “What’s your name? Fucking nothing,” he repeats in the songs outro, reinforcing the idea of forgetting oneself, or some previous version of oneself. The record’s best song, “Get Up,” dials back the intensity for a sweet melody and some of the most straightforward lyrics on the record, with Stewart singing, perhaps to a parent, “A piano fell on my face / you told me to get up / Do you hate me / Because I seem so stupid?”  The song maintains a delicate balance: always teetering on the edge of a climax the way a nervous person teeters on the edge of a breakdown, and when it’s finally delivered, it does not disappoint, kicking off with Stewart yelling “You’re the only reason I was born!” a line that is at once simple and extremely difficult to parse.

Similarly, the record’s best songs are the one’s where Xiu Xiu can strike a balance between melodicism, exciting production theatrics, and raw intensity, like lead single “Wondering”, which couples a wonderfully catchy chorus with anthemic vocal harmonies. The second half of the album pushes more in an electro pop direction (it’d be a stretch to call Xiu Xiu music dancy), to mostly positive results.  The title track moves between sections of vibrant but ominous synthesizers, acoustic guitars, industrial rhythms and Stewart’s insane, pleading chorus of “Forget!  Forget!” “At Last, At Last” juxtaposes stripped back verses with choruses that sound like an EDM show inside a haunted house, while the penultimate “Petite” takes a break from the electronics and grind for a pretty, but unnerving acoustic and string ballad that Jamie has stated (in this great Tiny Mix Tapes interview) deals in subjects as dark as sex trafficking.  It then links to the closer, “Faith, Torn Apart,” which combines an airy, almost middle eastern instrumental suite with churning, marching beats and unsettling spoken word lyrics (“What do you want me to do? I want you to kill me.  Crushed to death)” before a creepy, haunting poetic finish read by notable queer writer and artist Vaginal Davis, listing attributes of child sex workers whose photos Stewart came across online.

The record is another solid Xiu Xiu release, as they proves once again that so long as you wield a weapon as powerful as Jamie Stewart’s singing voice, it’s hard to go wrong.  At the same time, I feel that the band is treading familiar waters, tragic as that territory may be, without breaking through to new and exciting sonic territory, as they did on Plays the Music of Twin Peaks.  Nonetheless, as long as the Chainsmokers are topping the charts, it’s comforting that you can still reliably grab a handful of new Xiu Xiu songs secure in the knowledge that you’ll still be treating yourself to some emotionally disturbed nightmares for as long as you engage in Stewart’s fucked-up world.

Score: 9/13

Allison Crutchfield – Tourist In This Town

While Beyonce and Solange are certainly the most successful and well-known sister act in the music scene, my personal favorites are Katie and Allison Crutchfield.  The twin sisters, native to Alabama but transplants to Philadelphia, started writing songs and performing together in high school as P.S. Eliot.  Katie, going by the moniker Waxahatchee, was the first to break through into mainstream success on the back of her incredible 2013 album Cerulean Salt (which is all time favorite of mine), and pretty much every song she’s put out since has been at least notch above your typical indie singer-songwriter fare. Meanwhile, Allison put out two somewhat overlooked but excellent records with her punk band, Swearin.  Because the sisters have such similar voices, Waxahatchee was in some ways like an unplugged version of Swearin’, or vice-versa.  But anyone who listens to these songwriters as closely as I do would notice subtle differences in lyrical style, melodies, arrangements and song-structures.

Those differences come to a head on Allison’s Tourist In This Town, the first release under her own name.  For one, Tourist is a synthesizer based record.  Guitars still abound, and there is live drumming, so I’d hesitate to call this an electronic record, but the best description would be to call it a synthpop/indie-rock hybrid.  While Waxahatchee lyrics are beautiful and poetic but opaque beneath layers of metaphor, Allison has always written in more straightforward language, and does so consistently throughout Tourist.  This is easily decipherable as a breakup record, and although veiled crypticism is a hallmark of Waxahatchee music, there’s something refreshing to Allison’s everyday imagery.  She’s “drinking champagne sangria on the rocky beach” in Porto, “Losing her shit… in the backseat of a van”, or finding “empties at the headstones” (which signals that her love interest has gotten back with his ex-girlfriend in their old stomping ground).

The record begins with its strongest song, “Broad Daylight”, which opens with a red herring of a prelude that positions it as a vocal a cappella before synthesizers fade in to introduce us to the brand new world of Crutchfield’s musical palette.  Crackling drums shatter the delicate synth arrangements, making the 2-minute mark the best moment on the whole record.  Lyrically, Crutchfield mixes well-worded (if not well-trodden) breakup sentiments (“Was it mutual respect or was it mutual frustration?”) with more personal details (“Was it the great moonlight that night in July? Just remembering the heat’s enough to make me cry”).  The follow-up, “I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California” features one of the record’s best melody lines and returns to a familiar, easy-going surf-rock vibe seen on many a Swearin’ song.

At ten songs and 33 minutes, Tourist is consistent with the brevity of Swearin’ releases, but a couple of these songs drag on longer than previously seen.  The biggest offenders fall in the rough stretch of songs 4-5.  On “Dean’s Room” a triumphant but unchanging drum pattern persists for the songs long 4:17 runtime.  I’m also not crazy about the chorus here, a repetition of “You just wanna catch me alone” that feels lazy next to far-superior lyrical moments on other tracks.  “Sightseeing” comes next, a percussion-less, atmospheric snoozer that has some nice imagery about Paris but also goes on far too long (4:38).

The back half, however, starts on the right foot with one of the album’s best tracks, “Expatriate”, a lyric from which the album takes its name.  Up until this point in the record, Allison hasn’t really sung about anyone but ex-lovers, and without a careful eye for detail, “Expatriate” would fall into similar terrain.  But lines like ” write me one more song”, “you were my only family”, “even after a disaster, some things remain intact” and “I will always love you” lead me to believe the song is written about Katie.  Behind an upbeat, bouncing piano melody, this track also reveals more about the singer herself, displaying her worry about touring, her career in music, and the feeling that in the music industry, she’s “a tourist in this town” (at least in comparison to her sister).

My biggest gripe with the record is, unfortunately, the production.  The drums and vocals frequently sound cheap and scratchy, either over-condensed, over-reverbed, or both.  Nowhere is this more apparent than the blazing 1-minute punk track “The Marriage”, which has a great melody and energy but gets crushed by the lo-fi recording, which sounds dirty and murky next to every other track on the record.  I’m also not a fan of the cover art – something about that background looks so green screen, Allison’s blank expression doesn’t do anything for me, and those weird white lines behind her look tacky.  Between the art and the production, Tourist comes off somewhat amateurish, which is a shame, knowing that Allison has put out well-produced, professional music in the past.

But overall, Tourist is a success.  Allison’s pivot to synthesizers feels natural, and the sound she nails on the album doesn’t neatly fall into any over-done genre.  The melody lines are always on point, her singing and personal, affected vocal styling is still her biggest asset, and the big, anthemic, cathartic moments are satisfying emotional payoffs.  While this isn’t the slam dunk that the latter two Swearin’ records have been, it’s not a regression, either, and I look forward to Crutchfield’s next project.

Score: 9/13

William Basinski – A Shadow in Time

Ambient and experimental composer William Basinski is likely best known for The Disintegration Loops, the most melancholically beautiful piece of ambient music I’ve ever heard.  The story goes that Basinski had been transferring an old magnetic tape to a digital format, but as the tape played over and over again, it physically disintegrated, leaving the short, 10 second or so sample to deteriorate, a grain of sand at a time, to complete silence over the course of an hour.  The project was completed on September 11, 2001, before Basinski and friends watched smoke from the World Trade Centers through the twilight hours from their rooftop in Brooklyn.  The music subsequently became the soundtrack to footage of that event.  Some patience is required to endure an hour of a single sample repeating over and over, but the emotional payoff of the effect, which settles in slowly but surely, is certainly worth the time.

Basinski’s newest project, A Shadow in Time, consists of two tracks, each just over twenty minutes in length.  The first, “For David Robert Jones” (aka David Bowie), echoes The Disintegration Loops in structure, looping a few samples that have been treated so heavily with reverb effects that they feel as if they’re artifacts being pulled from somewhere in the distant past.  Early in, a mysterious and haunting saxophone sample makes an appearance and lingers throughout.  The song gradually gets louder and spacier, building so slowly and organically the effect is hard to notice.  The saxophone gradually dulls and disintegrates, and soon the song becomes swallowed by a vast an ominous ocean of deep bass tones.  The piece then spends its last few minutes fading out.

The piece feels like an eerie black and white image that morphs and changes slowly, becoming something much darker and scarier so subtly its nearly imperceptible.  Its worth noting that between the song’s title and the prominent saxophone, which was Bowie’s signature instrument, the song is both an homage to the late singer’s death and an interpretation of him reaching out to listeners from beyond the grave (not that Bowie hasn’t already done that), and I wouldn’t be surprised if the sample was pulled straight from a Bowie song.

The second track, from which the album takes its name, immediately juxtaposes itself with a bright bell tone and horns before evolving into another dreamy, cavernous and ominous soundscape.  Soon distorted fuzz and oscillating bass fill in around high string notes and creepy, echoing ‘everyday’ noises as well as mutated bell and organ sounds.   Late in the song, old, vintage pianos that sound as if they’re peeling away from a decrepit wall plink soft, pleasant melodies, an effect similar to the repurposed 30s and 40s dancehall music on The Caretaker’s outstanding An Empty Bliss Beyond This World.  The bass relinquishes its grip on the track, and the ghostly white noise, ever present, finally subsides to end the piece on an optimistic note.

The project represents long-form ambient music done very well.  The music moves along at a glacial pace, but that’s kind of the point – to show how sounds and moods can evolve through a single note here, or a subsiding effect there.  The title also hints at what I think is the predominant theme of the record, the passage of time and the ability to capture snapshots of it.  The first song is a swelling, black and white glimpse of Bowie from his earlier years or from the afterlife.  The second is a representation of how time heals and soothes traumatizing events until they’re nothing more than a memory.

I could have done with a little bit more variety – 3 or 4 songs, at 15 minutes a piece or so, may have really elevated this record for me.  But the project still works well in two parts.  The first sees time as a continuous loop, the second demonstrates gradual growth and decay.  Both songs are equally evocative and haunting.  While more goes down in “A Shadow of Time”, I think I prefer the staggering bass and sad, wandering saxophone from “For David Robert Jones”.  The project truly does feel like a cousin of An Empty Bliss, both in its instrumentation and its focus on the past as subject matter.

I would actually recommend A Shadow in Time as a starting spot to someone unfamiliar with the ambient genre.  While the magnum opuses of Tim Hecker and John Hopkins can be overwhelming in their breadth and complexity, A Shadow manages to be straightforward without sacrificing production value or emotion.  Though not particularly ambitious, this is one of the most satisfying and thorough ambient projects I’ve heard in a long time, and I anticipate coming back to it throughout the year.

Score:  9/13

Kool A.D. – The Natural

I find some humor in the fact that the first two albums of 2017 I’ve written about both came out in the waning days of 2016.  They’re also both rap albums, but in that regard they couldn’t be further away on the spectrum of hip hop. Where Run the Jewels are a serious, tightly produced, extremely aggressive duo, Kool is basically their exact opposite; far from serious, rambling on and on over endlessly repeating beat loops, encouraging everyone to chill out, reflect, find the subtle beauty in everyday life and smoke some weed.

As an Oakland rapper who constantly shouts out East Bay spots (“Alameda In N’ Out, Berkeley stand up, West Side Oakland, Fruitvale, Lake Merritt, East Side Oakland / Acid visions in an El Cerrito parking lot”), I feel some regional attachment to an artist that I haven’t since I started following music (Houston’s indie rock scene was… lacking). The former Das Racist member dropped 10 mixtapes on his Bandcamp in 2016, two of which had 100 tracks. I listened to another two of these when they dropped (Official and Have a Nice Dream), and although I enjoyed both (Official was superior imho), they were both experimenting with a particular sound, and didn’t hold a ton of replay value for me.  The Natural, on the other hand, is the most straightforward Kool tape I’ve heard since 2013’s Not O.K., and I can’t stop listening to it.

The formula here is simple; find a sunny/jazzy/80s pop music beat, loop it for 3-4 minutes, then casually ramble through bars that sound half-freestyled, throwing in as many non-sequitur pop culture references as possible and flavor with dashes of philosophical epiphanies that emerge like moments of acid clarity in the midst of gnarly trip. Pretty much the exact opposite of RTJ.  The rhymes flow loosely, easily, with Kool often laughing or trailing off, getting himself back on track with a “I feel like (insert celebrity name)”.  The songs often end when it seems like Kool has simply run out of things to say and has grown bored of the beat. Production is a non-factor here; the beats just loop until the song ends with no interruption.  There are few hooks (one of note is on “This Mane (Reprise)”, which is a reworking of one of Official‘s best tracks) and only three features across the fifteen tracks.  But there is also a formula to enjoy this album; throw it on in the background, enjoy the chill beats, and occasionally a lyric will grab you and make you laugh or think (often both) either for its absurdity or its profundity.

With no lyric sheet to be found on the internet, you have to pull the lyrics the old-fashioned way, through listening. Here are some of my favorite lines I’ve collected over the seven or eight listens through I’ve given this thing in the last few days:

“Look at the sun, look at the sun, okay stop looking at the sun now, close up your eyehole, open your third one / try to understand if you even know what love is” -The Natural

“I feel like Bill O’Riley, I got no feelings / but it’s still fuck Bill O’Riley and his whole feelings” – The Natural

“This is my music my music is me, it’s really good sometimes, but other times it’s bad, but that’s whatever it’s love” – Respect, Acknowledge

“Young alphabetical male with the money / With the B.A., the B-A-star-select cheat code styles of the previous ages” – Punic Wars (Scooby Doo)

“The young fresh prince, the young restless, trees for breakfast / I said everything all times it’s all time / all time is illusory, that’s shout to Albert Einstein” – Lay Up

“Your boy transcend counties / in a horseless carriage / life is a divorce-less marriage / all homicide, suicide / life is truly divine, please cherish it / all ideas are embarrassing” – Love, Love, Beautiful Love

Through it all, Kool comes across not like the ‘too smart for his own good to the point where maybe he’s a dick‘ guy from his Das Racist days, but as someone who has truly found peace and happiness in their life and is half trying to convey it through raps, then realizes that such ideas and feelings can never be translated, and thus devolves into his own silly pop culture references that crack him up.  This isn’t a style unique to Kool (see Lil B), but he does it in such a likable way, over beats that sound friendly and familiar, melting into one after another with ease.

My favorite moment on the album comes from ‘Rest In Power Dr. Sebi’, where Kool gets on a particularly emotional rant of listing off celebrities that at first don’t feel linked at all, but slowly reveal their subtle connections: “I’m lil Yachty on a boat / I’m Yo Gotti at the Rob Lowe roast / Fuck Ann Coulter / Jill Stein for president / peace Allah Baraka plus Barack Obama”  (he also later shouts out Haruki Murakami, my favorite author). This album is one of personal, favorite moments. The point in the final song, ‘Respect, Acknowledge’, where the beat changes and Kool states, almost as if he’s genuinely surprised, “And we still rapping, it’s still the same song / It’s all the same song” is another favorite.

I feel like listening through The Natural is an exercise in stepping into Kool’s house, smoking a j with him, then listening to him freestyle as you drift in and out of paying attention. But when you’re there with him, and you get it, it’s warm, inviting and rewarding.  What can I say, I really like this album.  Now I have to go from these warm East Bay vibes to the cold new xx album that I feel like I’m gonna hate and I’m not siked.

Score: 9/13