We owe you a bit of an apology. A lot of good music happened in July, but due to some personal things that happened during that time (not going to bore you with details), we struggled to get things written. Rest assured, we were listening and intend to remedy the lapse in posts…
Cuddle Magic – Bath (Northern Spy)
Bath is the sixth album from Brooklyn-based sextet, Cuddle Magic, and it is a damned shame that it took me six album to hear of them. As of this writing, I have not traveled back through to their origins, but if Bath is at all indicative of their body of work, they have a fan for life.
Folk-pop is a genre that doesn’t get a ton of radio play or heated discussion outside of your local bookstore or coffee shop. It’s also rare to find a folk-pop outfit that challenges the dynamics of the genre. Bath is acoustic. It is also orchestrated to be extraordinarily intoxicating. Voices float in and out at precisely the right moments. The instrumentation is consistent by changing to suit each individual song, whether that’s a harmonica (“Gracefully”), a pump organ (“This Way”, “Eleanor”), or the simple pluck of an acoustic guitar (“Hurt a Little”, “Still In Touch”), it is the perfect accompaniment to the softly sung vocals of Benjamin and Kristin.
Yeah, I learned their names. So what?
From the first moments of “What If I”, you can feel the love. Love for the music. Love for each other. Love for the listener.
Oh, and the fun part…
The whole album was recorded live in a bathroom. That’s right! Six people, no headphones or electronic tricks. Just microphones, instruments, and pure, unadulterated talent.
FFO: The Shins, Bon Iver, Iron and Wine
Denai Moore – Modern Dread (Because Music)
This record is chill incarnate. It’s champagne on ice, the other-side-of-the-pillow cool, and what it would feel like to have it be 72 degrees in your head ALL. THE. TIME.
Jamaican-born, London-bred phenom Denai Moore rocked the scene back in 2014 when she provided guest vocals for SBTRKT on “Wonder Where We Land”. Since then, her efforts have largely gone undiscussed.
Which is unfortunate. Her R&B, tinged with electronica, soul, and dream-pop, is satisfying in a way that is hard to describe. She is brooding and melancholy, but so smooth it’s comforting (“Too Close”, “Fake Sorry”). She is indignant about the state of the world and singing her heart out (“To The Brink”, “Slate”). She is simultaneously nostalgic and hope-filled (“Grapefruit On The Porch”, “Turn Off The Radio”).
Stylistically, she pulls influence from a wide spectrum of artists. Her voice is a cocktail of Erykah Badu, Kimbra, Bjork, and Jessie J. Musically, she falls somewhere among Lauren Hill, Beyonce, Kimbra, and Aaliyah. The tracks that are dance-y will have you up and clapping. The songs that are silky are so damn buttery you’ll want to eat them with dinner rolls.
Not a questionable track on it.
FFO: Erykah Badu, Kimbra
Cloud Nothings – The Black Hole Understands
I feel like Cloud Nothings are that low-key “it” band for me: the one that I will randomly see in discussions of the best current acts, or the best song of X year. I never listened to a single track, until The Black Hole Understands was released… and honestly, I don’t know why. I have apparently missed a lot, though, because this is pretty fantastic.
Let me set the stage: Cleveland’s finest Cloud Nothings have 6 full-lengths under their belt already, with The Black Hole Understands making #7. As you can imagine, in a world with a pandemic looming about, it can be pretty hard to get everyone together to write. Due to that, all discussions between frontman Dylan Baldi and drummer Jayson Gerycz were had via email. The rest of the process was split between Philadelphia (vocals, guitars, bass) and Cleveland (drums and mastering). Consider it a modern-day take on The Postal Service’s reliance on the mail to develop tracks.
The Black Hole Understands does a good job in balance, with the track ordering pretty spot-on throughout. Never too high, and never too low, Cloud Nothings walk the tightrope well. Baldi will not be teaching any vocals courses at his local community college, but his voice and delivery style fit the looser tone of the album very well. “A Weird Interaction” is far from the weirdest song on this album, but it’s definitely the best. The “weirdest” distinction goes to “The Sound of Everyone”, which is also a rad track.
This release may be tough to find, with it being absent on the streaming services that I checked (Spotify and Tidal). The band has the release available on BandCamp, and it can certainly be found by more nefarious means for those who seek it out. Overall, The Black Hole Understands is well worth (legally!) listening, if you can track it down.
FFO: Surfer Blood, Wavves
Gucci Mane – Gucci Mane Presents: So Icy Summer (Atlantic)
Gucci Mane, or Radric Davis if you prefer, went to prison in May of 2014, and was released in May of 2016. He STILL put out two full-length albums before the end of that year.
And I can’t even wake up most mornings without two different alarms on my phone.
Whether you like his music or not, you can’t deny that Gucci works his ass off for his craft. He’s released two or more albums in five different years, since his debut in 2005. He’s released four since the start of 2019, including Gucci Mane Presents: So Icy Summer. With so much volume, the quality should suffer, but, dear readers, it does not.
Part of that is fire featured artists: Young Thug does the Young Thug things on several tracks, Pooh Shiesty lays down some great bars, and Lil Baby does too. But make no mistake… Gucci isn’t hiding behind anyone, and more than holds his own no matter who else is on the track. His delivery is almost hypnotic, the way he tends to float from bar to bar, but he can go in harder when he has to (as evidenced on “Iran”).
This is a hefty release, with 24(!!!) tracks to pore through. “Both Sides” is a true gem; “The Plan” has one of the best beats on the album, with Foogiano going in as well (“Hit you with the Roddy Piper” made me chuckle). “Main Slime Remix” is another solid jam.
It’s mid-June, which, by my calendar, means that we could get another Gucci release before 2021. Gucci Mane Presents: So Icy Summer may just be an appetizer after all, but still mighty filling.
FFO: Young Thug, T.I., Jeezy
Pop Smoke – Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon (Republic Records)
Often, we talk about a first album for an artist: often their debut, sometimes their first as a solo act. However, it’s typically much harder to swallow when we speak of an artist’s final album.
Bashar Barakah Jackson, better known as Pop Smoke, was murdered during a home invasion on February 19th of this year, about 5 months before this album, Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon, dropped. It feels a bit insensitive to even review this album at all, regardless of how good it is (and don’t get it twisted, it’s VERY good). But one of our goals at Fairly KickAss is to shine a spotlight where deserved, even if it’s sadly posthumous.
By-and-large, rappers nowadays tend to emphasize beats and featured artists more than lyrical content or delivery. That’s not to say that Pop didn’t have a good list of featured artists here, but there are also several tracks where he rolled solo, and those tracks shined the brightest.
“Gangstas” was everything you want in a rap track: strong-yet-unobtrusive beat, stellar delivery, solid rhyme scheme throughout. If I had to pick a track with a featured artist, it would be “West Coast Shit” with Tyga and Quavo. Even among the featured artists, though, Pop is still the star of the show throughout.
Bashar would have been 21 eight days after I wrote this review. Only 21… damn, man. He at least got to see two of his mixtapes garner critical acclaim, and he had to know he had something special here too. Rest in peace.
FFO: Desiigner, A$AP Ferg
The Real McKenzies – Beer and Loathing (Fat Wreck Chords)
The Real McKenzies are perhaps the best Celtic punk band to come out of Canada. Yes, Canada. Don’t knock it ’til you try it.
The constant has been frontman and founding member Paul McKenzie, who has been the only member to stay with the band throughout their nearly 30-year run. According to Wikipedia, Paul claims to have worked with “as many as 100 different musicians” in as a part of The Real McKenzies, and the list of previous members would lend credence to that. With this music style, though, the vocals are hard to top in importance, and Paul does not disappoint.
The Real McKenzies hit the more punk-y notes with “Nary Do Gooder” and “Death of the Winnipeg Scene”, and the more Celtic-y notes with “Overtoun Bridge”. They even sneak in the requisite Robert Burns poem, opting for “Cock up Your Beaver” (a beaver is an old style of hat, you pervs). All the while, the tracks feel very accessible and entertaining, even as someone who is not huge on Celtic music. Paul doesn’t lose a thing with his Canadian heritage, as every song is authentic and complete. There’s no gimmick here, just enjoyable, well-crafted music.
Overall, Beer and Loathing is one of those releases that will fall into the “not for everyone” camp, but I feel it is far more accessible than most would expect. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys a quicker-paced punk sound, and to consider the Celtic aspects a wonderful bonus.
FFO: The Pogues, Flogging Molly
Twin Peaks – Side A (Grand Jury Music)
Now, if y’all have been reading past reviews, you know that one of us has a penchant for going a bit left of center. The standard format is the standard for a reason, don’t get me wrong – it provides you an idea of several facets of the album, as clear and concise as possible. But sometimes, certain situations call for a slightly different approach.
So, without further ado, I present a review of the latest Twin Peaks EP, Side A… using the eponymous television show as a guide. Spoilers afoot, obviously.
Track 1 – “What’s the Matter”
Much like the show, “What’s the Matter” doesn’t beat around the bush; it jumps right in. The rhythm draws you in and hooks you immediately. The Zelda references land well if you’re into that sort of thing, and a few curveballs (the pre-chorus at 1:01 for example) keep you at the edge of your seat. Clocking in at 3:22, it never has time to overstay its welcome – unlike noted trashbag Leo Johnson, who no one was happy to see until he became spider food (but actually unsatisfyingly shot instead).
If the Track Was a Character, It Would Be: James Hurley. I mean, c’mon: was there ever any doubt? “Rip that clover from the sky”, “All I want is to see that sparkle in your eye”, “I can’t stand to see you cry”… just picture him, guitar in hand, crooning these lyrics from the stage of the Roadhouse. Go ahead, I’ll wait. I prefer to not suffer that infernal sound alone.
Track 2 – “Whistle in the Wind (End of Everything)”
Well, this is the most David Lynch-ian named song of the bunch by a mile. It meanders in and out of your head, much like the slow-and-steady traffic that comes through Big Ed’s Gas Farm every day. Like, has that place EVER been packed? Are there even other gas stations in town? Certainly there should be more cars there, right? I digress.
If the Track Was a Character, It Would Be: Audrey Horne. The track has a bit of a sultry feel, which absolutely matches Audrey’s demeanor. The brief saxophone interludes hit the mark as well. For those who watched The Return, the lyrics speak to some of Audrey’s final scenes, especially “It’s just another wrinkle in the cloud” and “Everything considered, still a drop in the pail”. Poor Audrey. She deserved better.
Track 3 – “Any More Than You Want”
It’s a jaunty, upbeat tune – which really doesn’t match much of Twin Peaks, does it? There is one place that evokes the same sort of feel-good vibes, however, and that’s the Double R Diner. When Shelly brings you out a damn fine cup of coffee, and a slice of that award-winning cherry pie (or huckleberry pie, if you’re feeling adventurous)? Nothing else matters, man.
If the Track Was a Character, It Would Be: Dale Cooper. It sounds like a pleasant, happy song, right? “There’s a ray/I’ll be gone today”, “If I see my friends/Where I’m goin’/I’ll let you know as soon as I know it/Cause I feel so alone”, “Since we’ve seen death come before”. Yeah, there’s some sinister stuff lurking just below the surface of this track. I’m just hoping we get the Dougie Jones Remix in the future.
Track 4 – “Above/Below”
We end our journey through the weird and uncomfortable with “Above/Below”, which is fitting as it could have been written specifically about the Black Lodge. The song feels a bit unsettling, with some effects that probably aren’t of this planet. Rumor has it that Major Garland Briggs wrote the words “Above” and “Below” repeatedly in a secret notebook, but that has not been confirmed.
If the Track Was a Character, It Would Be: Bob. “Legion, its heart has been flayed and laid bare/The dead walk, but don’t close your eyes, they’ll be there”. Yeah, convince me that Bob himself didn’t pen those lyrics. Be careful though: listen to this track too many times, and your hair may suddenly turn white. And, uhhh, other things too.
FFO: Log Ladies, silent drape-runners, people trapped in wooden knobs
Rufus Wainwright – Unfollow The Rules (BMG)
Rufus Wainwright is one of a long list of artists that I will randomly remember, or hear someone mention, or just hear the music itself. I think, “boy oh boy, I gotta remember to listen to that!”, not so much because I love it, but because I may love it. The seeds of loving it are sewn, and may not blossom at all, but could also become a sprawling oak tree. Which brings us to Unfollow the Rules, and yes, it is a sprawling oak tree of love.
I haven’t done a single drug today, I promise.
Many of you know Rufus for his entry in the vast sea of “Hallelujah” covers. For those folks, the voice will be recognizable, but not much else. To be fair though, if you listened to one song, the others wouldn’t sound similar either. Rufus truly unfollows the rules throughout, with a very wide variety of tracks – including several old-school sounds (“You Ain’t Big”, “Only the People That Love”), and some seriously great harmonies too (“Trouble In Paradise”, “Damsel In Distress”).
Every track benefits from Rufus’s sublime songwriting. It’s not so much an innate storytelling skill, or an expansive vocabulary; rather, it’s the ability to place the right word or phrase in the right place, without fail. The lyrics are great just reading, without the music and vocals; when that gets layered in, they reach another level altogether.
The title track is my personal favorite, sporting the awesome lyric “But I’m no Hercules/And this is Herculean/Tomorrow I will just be feeling the pain”, but I could have chosen a half-dozen others too. If you don’t count his opera Prima Donna, or his Shakespearean sonnets, then this is his first album since 2012’s Out of the Game. Trust me when I say that he hasn’t missed a beat.
FFO: Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens
Juice WRLD – Legends Never Die (Grade A Productions)
One of the saddest things about being a music lover is coming across artists that you hadn’t previously experienced, only to know that you won’t get to experience any new music from them. Sometimes, that’s due to a band breaking up or moving in a different direction; other times, the reason is far more tragic.
Jarad Anthony Higgins, AKA Juice WRLD, died at the age of 21 after suffering a seizure in Midway Airport in Chicago. LiL PEEP, XXXTentacion, Pop Smoke, and now Juice… none of them celebrated their 22nd birthday, and if I may be candid for a moment, that shit is fucking heart-wrenching. But, just like with our review of Pop Smoke, we did not want to let this stand in the way of celebrating a great artist, or a great release.
Juice’s next album was to be The Outsiders; however, Legends Never Die was put together instead as a posthumous tribute album. If it sounds a bit like a collection of somewhat-disparate tracks, that’s because it is: these tracks were taken from the estimated 2000 unreleased tracks that Juice has recorded. But the album doesn’t suffer for it at all.
One of the most endearing things about Juice in general, and Legends Never Die specifically, is that he was always very relatable. Juice talked about his sadness, depression and anxiety without any shame or taboo. This isn’t something to whisper in hushed tones, or with a heightened level of metaphor; rather, it’s right there in your face, over and over again. He also discussed his struggles with drugs, mainly lean and pills, but without any sort of glorification. The trials and tribulations are very real, and shared by many people, in a way that drives solidarity.
“Hate the Other Side” feat. Marshmello, The Kid LAROI and Polo G, “Titanic”, and the big hit “Wishing Well” are standouts, but the style is pretty consistent throughout: if you like one, you’ll like them all. The final track, “Juice WRLD Speaks From Heaven”, consists of audio from an Instagram Live stream that Juice did with DJ Scheme in 2019, acting silly and pretending to be streaming from Heaven. It’s an eerie, prophetic end to the release, but I took it more as a “remember me as I was” sort of homage. The final line is “The party never ends”; let’s make sure we keep it going for artists like Juice that we lost way, WAY too soon.
FFO: I’m honestly at a loss here. I can’t think of another artist with a similar style.
The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers (Carpark Records)
Jump Rope Gazers is the kind of album that you forget that you’re listening to, but in a great way. Let me explain:
The original plan was to review this album using the relative quality of other famous Beths, because it’s such a great name and it should be celebrated. The idea quickly died, because they aren’t all winners folks – these are the lengths we go through for you! – but before it did, I pulled up a YouTube vid of a Conan O’Brien vid with Beth Behrs. I wanted to find something that I could use in the review, but I realized that I couldn’t hear what she was saying. And I realized THAT was because I still had the album playing! It’s so damn pleasant that it blended right in.
Auckland, New Zealand’s The Beths opt for a tried-and-true formula: upbeat pop melodies layered with delicate vocals and nuanced, simple-yet-effective lyrics. The band is fronted by the namesake, Elizabeth Stokes; her vocals shine through perfectly on every track. Whether it’s a quicker song with lots of instrumental backing (“Dying to Believe”, “Out of Sight”), or a more stripped-down track (“Do You Want Me Now”, “You Are a Beam of Light”), the vocals are never too much or not enough.
If I had to pick one track, it would be “You Are a Beam of Light”. It’s an especially great track about the need for communication and companionship, even in our largely digital world (moreso over the past few months than ever before). You’re not gonna find much experimentation at all here though: at the expense of being a broken record, if you like one, you’ll like them all.
FFO: Alvvays, Hazel English, Snail Mail
The Streets – None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive (Island Records)
If Mike Skinner was to be believed, None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive should not exist.
Released nine years ago, Computers and Blues was to be the last album under his The Streets moniker, after all; it was a great album, up there among his finest works. The timing could not have been better – he was a married man at that point, a father even, and Computers and Blues was to be his fifth album of his five-album deal. He would go down as one of the more successful British artists of the 21st century, with two #1 albums in the UK, as well as a #1 single (the brilliant Damn Yankees-sampling “Dry Your Eyes”). The Streets even said it best himself, on the final track of Computers and Blues: “I’m packing up my desk/I’ve put it into boxes/Knock out the lights/Lock the locks and leave”. The lights should have remained knocked out, and the locks should have stayed locked.
Now, you may think that I’m gonna sit here and shit all over None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive, and that’s not the case. It’s not bad at all! There are a few issues I have with it, however:
1) It’s not bad, which is about all I can say. A comeback after a near decade-long hiatus – especially one that was supposed to be a retirement – deserves an absolute fire release, one that enters the discussion of the best album ever released by an artist. None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive is simply not that. There are still some great tracks – “I Know Something You Did” stands atop the heap, mainly because it actually features The Streets primarily. Which brings me to…
2) There’s not a ton of The Streets on this album… at least not as much as we’re accustomed to. Previous tracks would feature guest vocalists for emphasis on this track or that, but said vocalists always served to emphasize Skinner’s bars. In contrast, None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive has a featured artist on every single track. Some are better than others, with Kasien being one of the standout artists on “Eskimo Ice”. But it just seems a bit shoehorned at times, and never allows for a rhythm to form like other The Streets albums in the past.
As a big fan of The Streets for many years, I’m sad to say that None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive doesn’t hold up against the rest of the discography. Perhaps this is just a one-off project, and Mike has additional music planned? If so, then I will definitely be first in line to check it out. There were flashes of the old lyrical prowess, as well as the production, so I have high hopes for any future releases. It would be hard to accept this as the actual final album from The Streets.
FFO: Dizzee Rascal, Kano, Devlin