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Review: Tune-Yards, w h o k i l l

5.0

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Tune-Yards, w h o k i l l

Grant me the admittedly dubious assumption that it makes sense to talk about “albums like w h o k i l l” and I’ll say the following: Reviewing albums like w h o k i l l makes me grateful to be writing about music at a time when any interested reader is empowered to seek out and experience the very songs I’m writing about before they even get to the bottom of this review. Were it not for that convenience, I’d face the impossible task of trying to describe what this latest batch of Tune-Yards songs sounds like. In attempting to do so, I’d inevitably come around to cataloguing the formidable range of genres and styles that vocalist/composer/multi-instrumentalist Merrill Garbus touches on, naturally taking due care to present you with appropriately discordant juxtapositions like “Afrobeat and punk” or “free jazz and R&B,” trying to recreate in my own writing some intimation of the album’s head-whirling compositional verve. But I don’t have to do that.

What a relief. Because I actually doubt that I could do it, and even if I could, I don’t think I’d be giving this bold and fascinating avant-pop record its due. w h o k i l l is virtuosic noise pop, and it doesn’t sound like a free-wheeling collage a la Janelle Monáe or M.I.A. so much as a cohesive style that happens to be performed by just one person on Earth. If you told me that there’s a name for what Tune-Yards does and that Garbus grew up listening to this kind of stuff (like her parents have the world’s only collection of sample-based analog freak-folk records), I’d believe you, because that’s how organic, how confidently executed these performances are. Admittedly, the trumpets and trombones that burst out of “My Country” around the 2:40 mark do sound like the type of thing you’d hear on an Antibalas record, and they’re soon joined by atonal sax runs that could be inspired by John Zorn, but that barely matters while you’re listening to the song. Those component parts, no less than the odd, honking sample in the background (kazoo? I have no idea) and the funky tom beat that drives it all along, just sound like Garbus doing what she does.

Which is not to imply that w h o k i l l is never abrasive or discordant. The ear-ringing interludes on body-positivity jam “Es-So” sound like rickety, tribal variations on Sonic Youth’s white-noise outbursts, and the closing track, “Killa,” contains a sample of what sounds like Garbus talking furiously to herself. But these moments, where Garbus pushes her compositions to the very limits of intelligibility, are tightly controlled and never indulged for too long. Plus, she’s just as likely to surprise with an abrupt turn toward the accessible and instantly gratifying, a tactic which generates some of w h o k i l l‘s most endearing numbers. “Riotriot” is an unsettling psychosexual confession where Garbus sings about lusting after the cop who arrested her brother until, suddenly, it becomes the best Vampire Weekend song ever. Garbus wails, “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand/And like I’ve never felt before,” at which point it’s all handclaps and joyous brass.

But it’s “Powa” which provides the album with its unequivocal high point, just because it provides the best showcase for Garbus’s most compelling instrument. Listening to her absolutely singular voice it’s impossible to tell if she grew up singing along to Bob Marley or Mariah Carey. Her lower register is rich and somewhat masculine, but she can also ascend to an airy whistle which—and I’m willing to bet money on this—probably moves audiences to whoop and applaud when she brings it out live. But unlike so many talented vocalists who never move beyond a masturbatory fixation with their own chops (I’m thinking of someone who just landed a primetime gig on NBC), Garbus always sings because she has something to say. As the lyrics on w h o k i l l attest, she’s a woman who’s deeply in touch with her own desires and equally as attuned to the less-than-savory aspects of her society. The subject matter can be every bit as transgressive as what you’d expect to hear from, say, early Deerhunter, but Garbus never sounds preoccupied with her own edginess.

I, on the other hand, am pretty well obsessed with her edginess. The music on w h o k i l l is heady, boundary-pushing stuff, and it raises the bar for experimentation and consistency still higher in a year that’s already seen powerful pop-art from the likes of Lykke Li and PJ Harvey. You’d need a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and more free time than this critic’s got to unpack all of w h o k i l l‘s good ideas, which makes it the type of record that’s ideal for sharing with friends (P2P style or, you know, at something so low-tech as a cookout or road trip). A tremendous leap forward from Tune-Yards’ previous efforts, w h o k i l l proves that Garbus isn’t just a brainy artiste with a killer voice, but an event, someone to take notice of, a new center of gravity in the musical underground. Call her Madame Beefheart if you want, because in this inspired and inspirational racket I detect the sound of a cult star being born.

Label: 4AD Release Date: April 19, 2011 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Lily & Madeleine’s Canterbury Girls Mines Nostalgia with Mixed Results

The album is the duo’s most personal work to date, but they seem reluctant to let loose and lean into the music.

3

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Lily & Madeleine
Photo: New West Records

Having already taken a detour from their Americana roots on 2016’s Keep It Together, pop-folk duo Lily & Madeleine’s explore more soul-flavored dream-pop on their fourth studio album, Canterbury Girls. Accordingly, a sense of fantasy suffuses the soundscapes throughout, assisted by producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who co-produced Kacey Musgrave’s Grammy-winning Golden Hour.

The album’s title is a reference to an Indianapolis park Lily and Madeleine Jurkiewicz frequented as adolescents, suggesting a longing for teenage pipe dreams and a bygone time. Over the course of 10 songs, the pair mines memories in search of a semblance of permanence, grasping at the slippery ambiguities that surface from the fog of regrets and unrequited love.

On Canterbury Girls, the Jurkiewicz sisters are most concerned with locating and exaggerating hints of magic in the painful and the mundane. As tender guitar arpeggios crystallize into a beatific waltz on “Circles,” the siblings are wonderstruck by the rush of falling in love again, even though it may be with someone who’s no good: “Got my body in a trance/Holding on to things I can’t stand.” On the more optimistic “Supernatural Sadness,” they emerge from a haze of confusion and despondency amid sweeping piano and synths, shrugging off the burdens of “supernatural sadness” and “magnetic madness.”

Since their high school days performing covers on YouTube, Lily and Madeleine’s most distinctive trait has been their seamless vocal harmonies, which are on full display on “Can’t Help the Way I Feel,” a love song that takes cues from 1960s pop. The track operates on a latticework of honeyed synths, stirring piano chords, and a rambling organ theme, making it one of the album’s most musically compelling. Lovelorn lines like “Sitting pretty, but I’m all alone” bring to mind the giddy musings of vintage girl groups like the Shangri-Las.

Yet, Lily & Madeleine’s vocals are so placid that they can sometimes scan as sedated, clashing with the dynamic musical arrangements and failing to evoke the emotion of the lyrics. “Pachinko Song” ramps up the tension with its brisk tempo, but the song’s chorus feels unsatisfyingly predictable, like a balloon deflating. Elsewhere, the title track is a leaden ballad with a vocal performance that’s so low energy it has a soporific effect. Canterbury Girls still succeeds at being Lily & Madeleine’s most personal and cohesive work to date, but the siblings too often seem as if they’re reluctant to let loose and lean into the music.

Label: New West Release Date: February 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980 – 1990

The album collects ambient music crafted expressly to fit and reflect spaces both natural and manmade.

4.5

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Kankyo Ongaku

Having already worked to rehabilitate new age music with compilations of North American and European ambient tracks, boutique record label Light in the Attic turns its sights to the Far East with Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music 1980-1990. Compiled by Spencer Doran, whose mixtapes helped to bring this Japanese “environmental music” to the West, the album collects ambient music crafted expressly to fit and reflect spaces both natural and manmade. Using music to capture the natural splendor of Japan is nothing new in the nation’s history, and tracks like Takashi Toyoda’s “Snow,” with its elegant loops of dripping synths and whirring pulses, update the tradition of composing for specific locations with emergent technology.

Yet, it’s in the composition of music for urban areas that Japan truly set itself apart in the early days of ambient music, and this is the dominant focus of Kankyō Ongaku. A reaction to the country’s rapid urban development and concentrated population density, the music here manages to soothe while also giving an impression of the buildings that inspired it. “Blink,” one of the pieces Hiroshi Yoshimura composed for the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, starts as plinking lobby muzak before its chirps of noise begin to duplicate and diverge, complicating the arrangement even as it remains tranquil and inviting. Curiously, several tracks are the result of corporate patronage as companies enjoying the rapid expansion of Japan’s 1980s economic boom commissioned composers to create music for their products. Yasuaki Shimizu’s “Seiko 3” was used for a watch advertisement, its kaleidoscopic shimmer a bold attempt to capture the circular motions of time embodied by a portable watch.

Some of the artists featured on Kankyō Ongaku are central figures of contemporary Japanese music. Composer extraordinaire (and regular Hayao Miyazaki collaborator) Joe Hisaishi contributes “Islander,” which introduces a wafting synthesizer riff that’s gradually fleshed out into an almost psychedelic swirl of noise as looping, Philip Glass-esque organs build around the skeletal outline. The track’s dizzying complexity stretches the boundaries of ambient even as the music maintains its sense of relaxing bliss. Elsewhere, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Haruomi Hosono contribute the lyrics to Yellow Magic Orchestra’s moaning “Loom,” which recasts the THX speaker test as background music, and each musician provides a solo work to the compilation: Sakamoto’s vinyl-only cut “Dolphins,” which eerily prefigures the sound on Panda Bear’s aqueous Buoys, and Hosono’s “Original BGM,” 16-minute wash of bleary tone clusters that was written for use in Muji department stores.

Muzak and new age’s reputations for bland, formless schmaltz aren’t unearned, but even amid the more stereotypically ambient tracks on Kankyō Ongaku, the bright synths and tonal pulses never blur together into a homogenous collection of sounds, revealing the innovation behind the music here. Some tracks even anticipate ambitious strides that Japanese composers would make in the realm of early video game music. The shimmering busyness of Inoyama Land’s “Apple Star,” for example, sounds like start-screen music for a Sega platformer, while the rich overlap of mallet percussion, chimes, and digital embellishment on Yoshiaki Ochi’s “Ear Dreamin’” could easily fit on the soundtrack to a 16-bit JRPG like Chrono Trigger.

Above all, Kankyō Ongaku presents music in architectural and civil engineering terms, suggesting that compositions can take on structural forms and even offer a means of understanding and navigating urban growth. As cities grow ever denser and climate change necessitates a critical rethinking of environmental impact and the possibility of reintegrating human spaces with nature, art can likewise change to reflect this new state of being. By showcasing an artistic fusion of the tranquil with the bustling, the primal with the technologically advanced, the compilation shows how much work has already been done to find ways of summarizing and celebrating the potential of this new reality.

Label: Light in the Attic Release Date: February 15, 2019 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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