Nils – Caught In The Groove (Baja/TSR)
Let’s face it: these are trying times. We’re all stuck inside, oftentimes without much to do. Some of us are locked down with significant others, boyfriends/girlfriends, husbands/wifes, etc. After that 5th or 6th ep of your rewatch binge of The Office, you glance at one another, and it’s time. Clothes go off, deodorant goes on – don’t pretend that you smell good right now – and from there it’s into or onto the bed, the couch, or even the washing machine.
You know what’s missing in this scene? The music, of course. But not just any music; it has to be right. The two of you (or more, I don’t judge) deserve it to be right. And that’s where Caught In The Groove comes in.
I can’t claim to know much about German jazz musician Nils Jiptner, or what exactly he was thinking as he conceptualized this album. Maybe it was an audio illustration of the rolling German countryside, or an ode to the neo-gothic architecture still on prominent display in Munich. Perhaps it was more of a call-to-action, to encourage all who listen to unite and make the world a better place. But regardless of any of that, this is very clearly a sex album for doing sex with other sex-doers.
From the uptempo “Good Times are Better” and “I Like The Way You Do It”, to the slower “My Mornings With You” and “All Roads Lead To You”… oh. I guess Nils knew that he was making a sex album all along then. As smooth as a fine whiskey, and as layered as a fine dip, Caught In The Groove delivers as a complete listening experience. Good luck getting through the whole 12 track ride with your pants on.
dvsn – A Muse In Her Feelings (OVO Sound/Warner)
I feel like R&B is a bit of a lost genre these days. Sure, Babyface and Teddy Riley are still putting themselves out there, but we’re far from the heyday. Jodeci and Keith Sweat aren’t walking through that door, nor are the Isley Brothers if you want to go back a bit farther. We have The Weeknd, and Frank Ocean, but we need more. dvsn is doing their part to try and narrow that gap.
In 2016, dvsn – the duo of producer Paul Jefferies (AKA Nineteen85) and singer Daniel Daley – signed to Drake’s OVO Sound label. Three albums and four years later, they have an absolute masterpiece on their hands. There are plenty of similarities between A Muse In Her Feelings and dvsn’s previous album, Morning After: great vocals from Daley and raw, unapologetic lyrics chief among them. But A Muse In Her Feelings improves on the already-winning combination, improving the production and samples, and adding more nuance to the strong vocals. If Morning After was the teen transitioning into their early-20s, A Muse In Her Feelings is the 30-something who has put it all together.
The featured artists aren’t necessary for this to be a great listen, but they are a definite bonus. From reggae legend Buju Banton on “Dangerous City”, to Jessie Reyez on the fabulous “Courtside”, with even Future dropping by to lay down a verse on “No Cryin”, they all blend perfectly with Daley’s smooth voice and Nineteen’s expert production.
dvsn is pronounced “division”, but there’s not a thing divisive about this release. Be warned that you may be wearing this one out if you listen even once.
FFO: Frank Ocean, Jhené Aiko
Incubus – Trust Fall, Side B [EP] (Incubus)
For the record, I didn’t know this was coming. As a long-time fan of the funk-metal fusion act turned pop-nu-metal dynamo, I was pleasantly surprised when this EP turned up in my Spotify list. It wasn’t listed anywhere. Kudos on a well-kept secret.
Stylistically, it has always been a little difficult to pin down what Incubus does exactly. Is it funk? Rock? Metal? Emo/Angst? Is it taking mid-’80s Chili Peppers to the next level? Paying homage to Prince and Bowie?
Trust Fall is all of those things. Led by Brandon’s easily identifiable voice and a sense of melody that is simultaneously wholly original and confoundingly familiar. The music is yet another slight departure from the band’s previous work, including more use of synth and keys, less DJ, and a heightened accentuation on rhythmic and melodic accessibility. Those elements culminate in the record’s closing track, “Paper Cuts”, which features nothing but piano and voice. The stand-out track for me was “Into The Summer”, which is a perfect blend of Bowie, Franz Ferdinad, and the Incubus that we all know and love. Guitars that echo for days, bass lines that walk all over you, and a hook that drives you mad.
To sum up, from its existence to what I heard after hitting ‘play’, nothing about this record was expected.
Lido Pimienta – Miss Colombia (Anti-)
This was one of the most unique listening experiences I’ve had all year. And I didn’t understand a single word of it.
The Spanish spoken throughout Miss Colombia helped me to really tune in to the other aspects, which was its own reward. The vocals, the beats, the wide-ranging instruments and samples. Miss Colombia is all over the place, in the best way possible – but it remained anchored by Lido‘s soothing yet strong voice.
The first track, “Para Transcribir (SOL)”, features Lido singing a few verses acapella. That helped me fully appreciate her voice, as the layers and layers of instruments would permeate the remainder. Listen to “Eso Que Tu Haces” and “Quiero Que Me Salves”, and you may think you were listening to two completely different artists. Same with “No Pude” vs. “Te Queria”. The transitions would be a bit jarring, if not for Lido’s sweet crooning bringing us back with each track.
Lido is no stranger to success – she already has a Polaris Music Prize under her belt, for her 2017 album La Papessa. This album will certainly be polarizing, but if you have an open mind to new musical experiences, this could end up as a favorite. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing what wild thing Lido Pimienta will cook up next.
Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters (Epic)
For many men my age, Fiona was the ‘90s rock goddess whose provocative and antagonistic style of video changed what we thought “feminine” meant. It helped us move on from our child-like crushes on Topanga Lawrence and Winnie Cooper (well, some of us anyway).
In the years since her debut, she has gone from brooding and melodic (Tidal, When the Pawn…) to theatrical and self-aware (Extraordinary Machine), landing most recently at visceral and very, very pointed (The Idler Wheel…, Fetch the Bolt Cutters). You can feel that there is someone at the receiving end of the lyrics to this record, and I would not wanna be that recipient. The overall message is one that needs to be said, and frequently, and by more people than those who have already suffered. It’s a message of strength and the ability to stand up for oneself. It’s a message of changing the status quo and “breaking out” of whatever hell you find yourself trapped in. Take control and Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Fiona Apple was spearheading the #metoo movement before there was such a thing, and she is a powerful, poetic voice.
Musically, the album is similar to her last effort, The Idler Wheel…. Mostly percussion, vocals, and quixotic, key-smashing piano riffs. The songs are melodic and filled with hooks that challenge your sensibility of what “catchy” means. While the songs don’t quite reach earworm territory, I found myself singing alone within the first listen. Of course, then she throws in an unpredictable melody twist, making the whole thing an adventure.
The Black Dahlia Murder – Verminous (Metal Blade)
Hailing from the metro-Detroit area, Black Dahlia Murder is among the preeminent extreme metal bands in the world, which is not something that can not frequently be said of melodic death metal acts from the states. 7 of their first 8 albums have charted on the Billboard 200 list, and it would be rather silly if Verminous did not also make the list.
I have been a fan of BDM for quite a long time. I had the amazing opportunity to see them in their toddler stage (2004, between their first 2 albums), opening up for Cattle Decapitation and Goatwhore. Unholy Balls, that was a great show! I can safely say, as the fan that I am, that Verminous is their best work to date.
There is a physicality to this album that I feel was missing from the last 2 albums. It has raw, spine-shattering power, played with such proficiency, technicality and feeling that it’s easy to get lost in it.
Death metal gets a bad rap in the wider musical community. If you are among those that regularly dismisses the genre as banal and guttural with no appeal to you, I urge you to make an attempt with Black Dahlia Murder. I promise you, I won’t regret it.
FFO: Goatwhore, Carcass, Morbid Angel, (all the bands in Sweden)
RJD2 – The Fun Ones (RJ’s Electrical Connections)
I don’t think you get a Grammy for having the most aptly-named album of the year, but you should. This year, the race would be a done deal, as Columbus, Ohio’s own RJD2 would run away with the crown. The Fun Ones is part jazz, part rock, part hip hop, and part funk, with a double layer of joy on top.
The city influence is strong here. Turn no further than “High Street Will Never Die” and “No Helmet Up Indianola” for proof of that. (I have many fond memories of both streets, to be honest.) But this isn’t just some upstart local campus act: RJD2 has been in the game for two decades, being signed to superb label Definitive Jux in 2002 and never looking back. The Fun Ones is RJD2’s 12th (!!) studio album, either solo or with a collaborator, but it sounds like he’s got plenty in the tank.
Stand-outs include “Pull Up on Love”, featuring the Andre 3000-esque STS and the soulful crooner Khari Mateen; “And It Sold For 45k”, which could be the theme for a Saturday Night Live x adult film convention mashup; and “A Genuine Gentleman” with the highly underrated Aceyalone. Whether solo or with collabs, RJD2 can come off as less music artist and more music curator, making sure that every note in his album’s exhibit is hung just so. Walking through this aural museum could not be any more enjoyable.
I’ll end with this, from the end of “20 Grand Palace”, as it provides a better summary than I could ever pen myself: “Even people on a small, small scale… we might not have the popularity to become an icon, but the DNA is the same.”
FFO: DJ Shadow, J. Dilla
Abysmal Dawn – Phylogenesis (Seasons of Mist)
As cool as some of this record is, the only word that repeatedly springs to mind is “unrelenting.” Usually, when I say that, I mean it in a good way, but this time things just feel like too much. That has actually always been my takeaway from Abysmal Dawn albums, but Phylogenesis takes things to a new level. Leave nuance, hooks, melodies and breathing room for the wussbags who need it. They are going balls to the wall, and that might even be literal.
Something refreshing about the record is the lyrical content. Taking a break from science-fiction themed story-telling and imagery, they have focused instead on commentary about life in a world obsessed with social media, fearmongering, and taking advantage of the mentally ill. The anger is well-placed, well-meaning, and hyper-vitriolic.
Once you muster the constitution to power through the near-constant blast beats and guitar riffs so fast they border on oscillation, this is an example of content that I would love to hear more of from the American death metal scene.
It is also on the short list of my favorite cover art so far this year.
FFO: Annihilated, Aborted, Hate Eternal
EOB – Earth (Over Normal Limited/Capitol)
I think it’s safe to say that Ed O’Brien IS the pop sensibility of Radiohead. In his own words, his job was to “be the mum” to Thom Yorke in order to “service the record.” I don’t think he intended that to be an oddly horrifying innuendo either.
On his first solo record, the English multi-instrumentalist displays his talent for making simple melodies sing out with emphasis. Through repetition and sheer captivation, his hooks sink deep and hold on tight. Mellow electronics move in and around guitar, keys, bells, and found-object instrumentation throughout Earth. The music is understated, well toned and beautiful, showing restraint in experimentation. Ed’s tone of voice is similar to Yorke’s, but more articulate and crisp. It’s less edgy, sure, but when you’re singing messages of hope and compassion, that bordering-on-mania thing really isn’t what you wanna aim for. Most of the tracks hover in a sort of stylistic limbo, undecided about whether it wants to be contemplative folk-pop or danceable, somber trip-hop. “Shangri-la” even has elements of RHCP in the chorus.
In a nutshell, Earth is beautiful and endearing, and I look forward to hearing the next project from the 2nd weirdest guy in Radiohead.
FFO: Depeche Mode, Radiohead, Pulp, Beck
Outsider – Karma of Youth (OK! Good)
I am guilty of overusing the whole “it’s as if Artist A and Artist B had a baby” trope. But I promise this is a good one! Outsider’s Karma of Youth is as if Joy Division and The National had a baby. Once you listen, you’ll understand that it was the best description.
One thing that I personally appreciate is for an album to have different themes or overtones, without being completely consumed by the same. Karma of Youth is, at the core, a very deeply spiritual and religious album. I understand and respect that may be a non-starter for some, but I feel that it’s never overt or unbalanced. Unless you listened pretty closely to the lyrics, you would never know it.
The vocals are very airy, floating and dancing effortlessly across synth-heavy tracks like “Míol Mór Mara” and “Young Gods of Na Sionna”, as well as more percussion- and guitar-driven tracks like “Brotherhood O.A.” and “Revelation Night Drive”. The comparison to The National is more than just simple simile too: Grammy winning mastering engineer Greg Calbi mixed Karma of Youth, as well as The National’s last three albums. It’s a formula that has worked in the past, and it works here to great effect.
If I had any complaint, it would be length (which interestingly enough is a complaint I hear often). The album clocks in at 8 tracks, a mere 30:27 runtime. I would’ve liked to hear more of what the man behind Outsider, Seán Ó Corcoráin, could come up with. As is, it’s a short ride, but a really entertaining ride nonetheless.
FFO: The National, Arcade Fire, The War on Drugs (all three artists have had albums mixed by Greg Calbi, so I guess the real FFO is anything that Greg Calbi mixed)