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Review: Panda Bear, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper finds Panda Bear staking out a middle ground between quirky abstraction and pop accessibility.

3.5

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Panda Bear, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

For his fifth album as Panda Bear, Noah Lennox wanted to translate the “common” into the “impossible,” assembling Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper out of boilerplate sample kits. But what scans as most common about Lennox’s latest isn’t the aggregation of sounds, which are neither as everyday and earthbound as those of 2007’s kaleidoscopic Person Pitch, nor as alienating as the effects-pedal drones of 2011’s Tomboy; it’s the fact that with their foregrounded backbeats, generous hooks, and relative brevity, Grim Reaper’s songs represent the closest Lennox has come to straightforward pop.

This is noteworthy, because neither Lennox’s nor his main band Animal Collective’s approach to pop music has ever been “straightforward.” Anchoring the Beach Boys-like tunefulness of Person Pitch were two near-quarter-hour psychedelic song suites, while Tomboy obscured its verse/chorus/verse architecture under the muted pulsations of minimal techno. By contrast, Grim Reaper favors funkier rhythms, elastic basslines, Vocoders, and Moogs, and with a couple of exceptions, concise lengths. As if elaborating on his collaboration with Daft Punk last year, Lennox has frontloaded the sounds of electro-tinged indie rock on his sonic palette, particularly on “Mr. Noah,” “Crosswords,” “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker,” and “Boys Latin.”

But Grim Reaper is a headphones album first and foremost, and the clarity of lyrics and song forms are deputized to finding what outsize, shambolic sound can be made from Lennox’s sample kits. Even an infectious hip-shaker like “Mr. Noah,” the album’s self-referential lead single, is more like a sustained loop that ends abruptly than a traditional song that religiously hits all its marks. Part of what made the indie world respond so favorably to Person Pitch was its density: The album’s mosaic layers of melody and bric-a-brac sound encouraged and rewarded deep listening without demanding it. But Person Pitch’s stream-of-consciousness veneer masked a keen sense of structure—albeit one drawn from avant-garde and progressive rock—that Grim Reaper lacks. It’s thus best approached as a set of well-sequenced but self-contained grooves.

As such, Grim Reaper is consistently engaging, often catchy, and sometimes disarmingly pretty. Spaceman 3’s Pete Kember produces, as he did on Tomboy, and makes his presence felt in the swelling organs of opener “Sequential Circuits,” the garnishes of clipped feedback that bookend most tracks, and the dubby delay effects throughout. Occasionally, Kember’s deliberate dissonance can get tedious, like the phaser noodling interludes “Davy Jones’ Locker” and “Shadow of the Colossus.” Elsewhere, though, the noise balances out the sweeter stuff: fuzz envelops the soaring synths of “Butcher Baker Candlestick Maker,” and a loop of Debussy’s “Arabesque No. 1” is subjected to a slow-burn decay on “Lonely Wanderer.” Kember enlivens Lennox’s choirboy vocal hooks with a touch of chaos: The chromatic calisthenics of “Mr. Noah” and the chopped-and-skewed portomento della voce of “Boys Latin” in particular bring to mind Animal Collective’s manic musical antics.

Predictably, the most tepid track on Grim Reaper, the electro stomper “Principe Real,” sounds the most like someone else—say, Washed Out or Toro y Moi, purveyors of the so-called “chillwave” style with which Panda Bear has been peripherally linked. Along with “Principe Real,” the album’s tail end lacks the sing-along potential of “Come to Your Senses” and “Mr. Noah,” and on the whole the album doesn’t quite match Person Pitch’s textural richness. But after the gloomy, monochromatic Tomboy, the catchy, blissed-out buoyancy of Grim Reaper is rather refreshing, showing Lennox staking out a middle ground between quirky abstraction and pop accessibility.

Label: Domino Release Date: January 13, 2015 Buy: Amazon

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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

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Chaka Khan
Photo: Island Records

“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

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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

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Walk Through Fire
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen/Nonesuch

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

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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

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Signs
Photo: Shore Fire Media

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

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