On his solo debut, 151a, and its follow-up, Lighght, when Kaoru Ishibashi wrote songs about love, he did so effusively. Under the Kishi Bashi moniker, his songwriting about love has been mysterious and miraculous, cosmic in scope, but Sonderlust finds the artist in a different place. As he wrote this album, life on tour had taken its toll on his relationship, and Ishibashi and his wife of 13 years briefly separated. He’d also reportedly struggled from writer’s block, claiming that, as he returned to the layered violin loops from which he’d built his act, he found himself creatively hitting a brick wall.
Facing these obstacles has helped shape Sonderlust into Kishi Bashi’s most sophisticated album to date. Infused with the sounds of disco, R&B, and ‘70s soft rock, it retreats from Ishibashi’s classical music training, leaning more on guitars, synthesizers, and Ableton software. While the musician is still unafraid to occasionally revel in the fleeting thrill of love, these new songs more fully acknowledge the fragility of romantic relationships and the extent to which maintaining their luster requires vulnerability. The whimsy and ebullience of past songs like “Bright Whites” and “Philosophize in It! Chemicalize with It!” are still on display, but these qualities exude an increased sense of realism.
In the past, Ishibashi’s songs have often leaned toward epic storytelling; the narrative of a creation myth was even the centerpiece of 2014’s Lighght. Sonderlust is far more personal, with its spare use of grander images focused not on creation, but destruction. The naïve notion of fairy-tale romance is laid bare during the swinging guitar groove of “Why Don’t You Answer Me,” where Ishibashi sings, “All the kings and princes cannot stop this quiet siege,” as he laments a love that once moved the Earth, but has now grown oppressive and cold. And over the breezy disco beat of “Say Yeah,” he pleads for “one last chance as your lover,” a sentiment that’s as much an expression of his need for reconciliation as it is an acknowledgment that relationships are easily lost.
Regret even tinges some of the album’s more energetic tracks. “Ode to My Next Life” opens with a propulsive electronic burst before giving over to a glistening cosmic disco thrum, yet Ishibashi sings of a crumbling love life and a desire to do it all differently. “Who’d You Kill” turns regret into cynicism about the futile charade of trying to replace a lost love with someone new, as he speaks of greedy partners and sarcastically describes flirtation (“Modern romance is a piece of cake”), and heartbreak turns self-destructive on the synthwave-driven “Can’t Let Go, Juno,” with its narrator drinking his soul away.
The familiar, joyous elements of Kishi Bashi’s music are evident on “M’lover,” which opens Sonderlust with tender finger-plucking over swelling synth lines as Ishibashi sings in falsetto, “I want to do what lovers do with you/I want walk to the edge of the Earth with you.” And the majestic imagery of past efforts continues on the album’s most pop-oriented track, “Hey Big Star,” which returns again to celestial references (a common theme in his songwriting). But these lighter moments, occurring early in the album, only heighten the stakes of the eventual plunge into soul-searching despair.
On Sonderlust, Ishibashi has broadened his range, tapping into a rawer songwriting vein. He doesn’t entirely abandon his violin or penchant for string arrangements, but they only play a complementary role here, with disco, R&B, prog rock, and synthwave serving as a sumptuous vehicle for his foray into the darker side of romantic relationships. By grounding the album in the duality of love’s joy and pain, and the ultimately ephemeral nature of both, Kishi Bashi achieves something close to transcendence.
Label: Joyful Noise Release Date: September 17, 2016 Buy: Amazon
Review: Chaka Khan’s Hello Happiness Runs on Good Vibes
As its titles suggests, the R&B singer’s first album in 12 years radiates positivity.3.5
“I’m tired of hearing bad news,” Chaka Khan sings on the title track of her 13th solo album, Hello Happiness. The last time the singer was in the news, in 2016, she was entering rehab to treat an addiction to fentanyl, the same drug that killed Prince. Given the general sense of ennui that’s endemic to life in the 21st century, you’d be forgiven for expecting a more morose Chaka Khan in 2019. But as its title suggests, her first album in 12 years radiates positivity.
Hello Happiness’s breezy sensibility is intrinsic to its design. The 27-minute-long album’s opening track begins with a kind of mantra: “Music makes me sing/Goodbye sadness/Hello happiness.” The ebullient “Like a Lady” is punctuated with serotonin-spiking disco string stabs, while the chorus—“Ooh, you make me feel like a lady, baby/Ooh, I think I’m falling in love”—feels timeless and nostalgic. If it isn’t enough to put a smile on your face the first time around, Khan repackages the whole song again on the closing track “Ladylike,” pairing the same verses and chorus with a more up-front melody and a sparkling acoustic guitar hook.
Much of the credit for Hello Happiness’s relentlessly good vibes goes to co-producers Switch (formerly of Major Lazer) and singer-songwriter Sarah Ruba Taylor, who plunder the sounds of Khan’s 1970s and ‘80s output for a mélange of styles and textures, from the fat Bernie Worrell-like synthesizers and fuzz-laced guitars of “Don’t Cha Know” to the echoing dub effects of “Isn’t That Enough.” Sometimes the production steals the spotlight a little too much: With its infectious Fatback Band-interpolating bassline, lead single “Like Sugar” barely needs Khan’s vocals to make you groove. Her placement in the tracks, often deep in the mix and drenched in reverb, can give the impression that she’s a guest on another artist’s remix.
Yet, it’s worth applauding Khan, who turns 66 next month, for continuing to make an album as vital and contemporary-sounding as Hello Happiness. Few artists still releasing new music as they approach their fifth decade in the business are producing work like this, with an ear to dance floors rather than the Grammys and NPR. One need only hear the sizzling man-eater’s blues of “Too Hot” to know that Khan is still in fine voice. On Hello Happiness, she pairs those ageless pipes with some of the most danceable music in her career.
Label: Island Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Yola’s Walk Through Fire Feels Like a Musical Time Capsule
The British soul singer’s debut seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969.3.5
Everything about Yola’s debut, Walk Through Fire, seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969—from the album cover, with its muted color palette and chunky vintage fonts, to the musical arrangements, which mix baroque-pop signifiers like glockenspiel and pizzicato strings with more timeless organ and pedal steel. The album’s session musicians are of a similar vintage: Drummer Gene Chrisman and pianist Bobby Wood are both veterans of the house band from American Sound Studio in Memphis, ground zero for Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.
It’s tempting to ascribe this studious retro sensibility to producer Dan Auerbach, whose 2017 solo album, Waiting on a Song, treaded similar territory with some of the same musicians. But Yola, whose colorful backstory includes a brief stint with trip-hoppers Massive Attack, has a voice that lends itself to the analogue treatment: rich and mellifluous, adept at both caressing the melodies of a lilting ballad like “Shady Grove” and blowing the roof off of a belter like “Lonely the Night.” The British singer simply sounds like the product of another era, closer in spirit to the likes of Mavis Staples than to 21st-century R&B stylists like SZA.
If Through the Fire sounds like it’s from 1969, that’s because the late ‘60s were the golden era of country-soul, when a small but significant group of artists, songwriters, and producers were blurring the boundaries between working-class black and white roots music. Yola, who’s cited Dolly Parton as a crucial influence, is right at home in this space, sounding as natural singing atop the fiddles and pedal steel of lead single “Ride Out in the Country” as she does over the organ and horn section of “Still Gone.” The ease with which Yola, Auerbach, and their collaborators blend these genres is a powerful reminder of their shared roots—particularly at a time when musical styles feel at once more amorphous and more rigidly segregated than ever.
While Through the Fire’s facsimile of ‘60s country-soul is uncanny, the sturdiness of its songcraft is even more impressive. Yola and Auerbach composed the majority of the album with seasoned songwriters—most notably Dan Penn, who as the co-writer of standards like “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” played no small role in the creation of country-soul as a genre. None of the songs on Through the Fire are of quite that caliber, and some feel like they’re trying too hard to be: The subject matter of “Ride Out in the Country” is a bit too bucolically on the nose, while a few stray lyrical references to “across the great divide” and “love [is] a losing game” come across as distracting tips of the hat to more canonical—and, frankly, better—songs. But on tracks like “Keep Me Here” and “It Ain’t Easier,” Yola seems capable of not only expertly mimicking the sounds of the past, but also creating something that will itself stand the test of time.
Label: Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch Release Date: February 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Signs Points to Better Times Ahead
The band’s raw, crowd-pleasing blues-rock remains as rousing as ever on Signs.3.5
Tedeschi Trucks Band’s raw brand of blues-rock is a thrilling resurrection of bygone genres endemic to the southeastern United States, and they play with the freewheeling improvisatory energy of hallowed country-rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, and Black Oak Arkansas. The group’s sound hasn’t noticeably evolved since their 2011 debut, Revelator, but their craft—particularly the electrifying, full-throated howl of singer Susan Tedeschi—remains as rousing as ever on their fourth album, Signs.
Lead single “Hard Case” fuses Americana, Memphis soul, and New Orleans swamp funk to tell the story of lovers who can’t quit each other. Tedeschi’s wails seamlessly intertwine with Matt Mattison’s gruff warble. “You’re a hard case to refuse,” Tedeschi sings, her voice tinged with both overwhelming desire and a creeping sense of self-doubt. Like most Tedeschi Trucks songs, “Hard Case” attempts to capture the blistering kinetic energy of the band’s live performances, and it mostly succeeds: The drums pummel, the solos meander, and the guitars, expertly played by Tedeschi’s husband, Derek Trucks, unexpectedly leap forward.
“Hard Case” is the closest Signs comes to matching the unbridled dynamism of “Part of Me,” a soaring standout from 2013’s Made Up My Mind. Yet the album also contains a handful of irrepressible trad-rock jams that allow Tedeschi’s vocals to take center stage, as on the Motown-inspired “I’m Gonna Be There” and “They Don’t Shine.” On “Walk Through This Life,” her voice veers from exuberant and unrestrained to subtle and declarative, yet it never loses its luster, evoking, at turns, that of Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Gladys Knight.
Many Americana outfits have become sociopolitical observers in the Trump era, and Tedeschi Trucks Band is no different. “Signs, Hard Times” is a blue-eyed soul rave-up that calls on bystanders to get off the sidelines in a time when passivity amounts to complicity. “No more fooling around,” Tedeschi shouts, urging us to take action before it’s too late. Yet, at times, their activist message comes off as stilted. “Shame, there’s poison in the well/Shame, you know we can’t un-ring the bell,” Tedeschi proclaims on “Shame.” It’s a well-intentioned but ultimately shallow truism—a lyric that states the obvious without offering any solutions.
At their best, the songs on Signs bristle with a kind of wide-eyed optimism. On “Still Your Mind,” Tedeschi seems to sum up the album’s mission: “You’re not alone/So many people feel that low/But I’ll help you grow.” While not without its flaws, Signs heals in this way. It’s often so joyous and spirited that, for a moment, it’s easy to envision better times ahead.
Label: Fantasy Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon