“Blackout”- araabMUZIK

You’re first impulse when listening to araabMUZIK is likely to be a frantic reach for the volume knob as soon as the onslaught begins. The oft-repeated “if it’s too loud, you’re too loud” doesn’t apply, for anyone with a functioning set of ears the music is likely to be “too loud.” Drum beats emanating out of his famous MPC 2500 don’t kick so much as they pulverize. Girding the drums are low-end bass knocks that have all the pleasantry of a police battering-ram coming through your door at five in morning. While most DJ’s use their tag as an identifier, araabMUZIK’s “you are now listening to araabMUZIK” is a warning.

On “Blackout”, that warning comes in the middle of a no-man’s land, flanked by hypnotic chopped-up vocal cheers and screaming sirens. It swims between Scylla and Charybdis, and Greek mythology is all I can recall when those Spartan drums hit. The sound of 100,000 strong military marching in unison couldn’t replicate the volume of this one. Getting steamrolled is an undulating synthesizer whose snakelike patterns could soundtrack any number of horror flicks. When you tune out all the “noise”, you begin to get lost in the melodious earworm supplied here. Few current producers blend beauty and brutality as well as araabMUZIK, and if you turn it down you might just miss it.

“Blackout” is from the forthcoming For Professional Use Only 2, the sequel to early-Spring’s ferocious mixtape, and you can listen to the new track here.

“Birth in Reverse”- St. Vincent

St. Vincent’s last solo-album, 2011′s Strange Mercy was a beguiling experience. In covering the record for 2011′s year-end list, I wrote the album took the smiling face of guitar-driven pop and “sent it to another planet, bloodying it up in the process.” “Champagne Year” teased celebration as a new year began and instead ruminated on past mistakes. The promise of “it’s going to be a champagne year” delivered by a subdued Annie Clark was empty. Much of Strange Mercy took a similar tract, giving us the blissful stutter-step of “Chloe in the Afternoon” only to tell the tale of a high-class prostitute grown existentially bored. If one descriptor can be appended to St. Vincent’s “unclassifiable style”, it’s her own notion of “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood.” 

“Birth in Reverse”, from St. Vincent’s forthcoming self-titled release, continues this stark dichotomy. Clark assures us it’s an “ordinary day” in the opening lines, but couches this pledge of normality in squalling guitar antics. She can’t keep her inner-guitar nerd at bay here, while dogs bark and birds chirp she aims to stab the listener straight in the heart with her jagged guitar lines. “You can say that I’m sane”, Clark rattles off in the chorus, though all this discord says otherwise. Just before the drums drop out of their steady gallop and the guitar begins to whirr like a chainsaw, Clark delivers the track’s most honest line “it’s my report from the edge.” If we learn anything from the report, it’s that St. Vincent won’t stop masking the strange as “normal” anytime soon.

St. Vincent is out February 25 through Republic/Loma Vista. Check out the tracklist below and listen to the track here.

St. Vincent:

1. “Rattlesnake”
2. “Birth In Reverse”
3. “Prince Johnny”
4. “Huey Newton”
5. “Digital Witness”
6. “I Prefer Your Love”
7. “Regret”
8. “Bring Me Your Loves”
9. “Psychopath”
10. “Every Tear Disappears”
11. “Severed Crossed Fingers”

“You’re So Dark”- Arctic Monkeys

Don’t say the title didn’t warn you with this one. This one comes batting catty eyelashes, cloaked in a Dracula cape. Trade in whatever you’re reading for a collection of Edgar Allan, and head to nearest cemetery gate, because that’s where you’ll find Arctic Monkeys residing on new B-side “You’re So Dark”. Death obsessed doesn’t begin to describe it. The band’s own warped take on a soul track, it slinks through the dark with a lurching bassline, mechanical drumming, and punctuated organ blasts pulled out of a Gothic-church basement. Alex Turner’s voice lingers in a trance-like stance. Captured in a low-end drawl, he tells a story of someone willing to turn towards the darkness in the name of “love”. “I know I’m not your type, because I don’t shun the daylight, but I’m willing to start” he belts in the hook, showing the first signs of a pulse. There’s no better way to feel alive than to have a brief brush with death.

Arctic Monkeys fifth album AM is out now on Domino, and “You’re So Dark” will be backing the chugging AM cut “One for the Road” on a new 7″ out this coming Tuesday.

 

Kanye West/Kendrick Lamar Live at the Sprint Center

(Taken at the Seattle performance, photo courtesy of Stereogum.)

Heading into Kanye West’s and Kendrick Lamar’s performances at the Sprint Center last night, I was ready for anything. I’d already heard the tales of mountains for set-pieces and the appearance of White Jesus, so I had a vague idea of what I’d be getting myself into. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Kendrick Lamar perform twice before, so I knew to expect verbal pyrotechnics from the reigning heavyweight champion of lyrically dexterous hip-hop. And I’d seen Kanye West perform before. Two years ago in Milwaukee, he arrived with a stone angel backdrop and was joined by ballerina dancers during the critical moment of “Runaway”. Knowing all of that still didn’t prepare me for what unraveled last night.

Kendrick took to the stage first, workmanlike in appearance rocking his now famous Nike Cortez’s and a blue hoodie. In many ways, he was presented as the anti-Kanye West for the show. Instead of relying on spectacle, he won the meager crowd of 4500 over with sheer talent. Bolstered by anvil heavy drumming and sweltering guitar riffs, “Backseat Freestyle”s “rin-tin-tin” opening provided the perfect sing along and sent more than a few over-eager fans running to their seats. When the bizarre full-band reworking of “F***in Problems” threatened to run off the rails, Kendrick salvaged it with his “pep talking” showmanship. Elsewhere, “B**** Don’t Kill Vibe” cued clouds of smoke almost in unison and though Lamar’s energy was ratcheted up to 11 for the track, no one’s mellow was harshed. A brief foray into 2Pac’s immortal “Hail Mary” had fans of the fallen MC screaming in excitement and everyone else recoiling in horror at the lurking number. Soon the subtle nightmare of “Hail Mary” was obliterated by good kid, m.A.A.d. city highlight “m.A.A.d. city”. A year removed from the album release and still the song inspires full-out mobbing when it arrives. Those Bernard Hermann indebted strings laid waste to the crow and ensured everyone was jumping up and down or at least yelling out “yawp yawp yawp.” Taking a final victory lap, Lamar rode through the sunny vibes of “Compton” and brought out KC-staple Tech N9ne; simultaneously saluting his hometown and the city of Strange Music. And while he could’ve ended there, Lamar humbly ended with the introspective “I Am”.

In between sets, washes of ambient music filled the arena hinting at the minimalist influences that informed much of Yeezus‘ aesthetic. Nothing about the intro though could be confused for minimalism. A heavenly choir dressed in white robes descended on-stage, their purity tempered by the threat of ski masks. “I am not here right now” an unseen West repeatedly bellowed out. Soon the wriggling electric tentacles of “On Sight” snaked into the arena and West came out decked in a gold mask. The sounds of a Decepticon on its dying breath only halted for the gospel-choir, but it re-assumed control to crush them under its mechanical heel. Gothic demons were unleashed for the stark ping-ponging of “New Slaves”. The sins of this infernal f*** everything racket were atoned by Kanye’s ascendant auto-tuned outro. Nearly 5 years have passed since he embraced the device on 808s and his mastery of the technology has only grown.

“Send It Up” came next, and though on Yeezus it’s a forgettable number (King Louie’s unaffected mumble never quite lands), live it was devastating. The Sprint Center became Britain circa 1940, with sirens going off that recalled a German bombing raid laying waste to entire city blocks. Appropriately “Mercy”, the song that kick-started West’s dancehall obsession, was up next. Robbed of the other guests, the track still raged; fitting right into the initial proceedings by weeping/moaning/wailing as loud as anything.

West’s setlist was bifurcated into 5 distinct parts for the night and after the aptly named “fighting” section drew to a close, it was time for the “rising”. Alighted on a white mountain and now bearing a black ski mask, Kanye sought to “bring the power back” by firmly clutching the crowd in his grasp as they joined in the now familiar chorus. All deference to 808s, but “Power” represented the moment of Mark II Kanye West, where the sonic-manipulation became both darker and more expansive. Brilliantly combined with Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice”, the skittish electronic-beat of “Theraflu” (“Cold”) confirmed this expansion. Weaving together such disparate strains convinced anyone who didn’t already realize that anything was possible on this night.

Though this section was named “rising” the name became a misnomer as the firmly-grounded monolithic stomp of “I Don’t Like” took hold of the crowd. “Black Skinhead” continued the trend. A bracing industrial-punk/electroclash hybrid, the number cut through the thick, sweat drenched air like a Ginsu knife and its high speeds had West down on the ground by the end, exasperatedly singing over a mournful piano. “I Am A God” came along to betray its holy title as presumably naked women pranced around in Caucasian flesh-colored skin suits. Inevitably they congregated around West to lift him heavenward, but his wraithlike screams signaled he was in hell. West then perched atop the pointed main stage, which had risen to a 45-degree angle, for the slow-mo bragfest of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”; offering the first respite of the set. It was an opportunity for everyone to catch their breath and “get their money right”.

That brief moment of self-consciousness that opens “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” where ‘Ye realizes no matter he’s bound to “act more stupidly” turned to complete agony when he reflected on being told in 2007 his mother Donda West had passed. His brief anecdote of being in London, thousands of miles away when he heard the news was the first crack in his diamond veneer. The isolation of 808s-closer “Coldest Winter”, which poured out snow on the crowd, further cleaved West’s already fragile mind. “Falling” was the next segment, but the downward spiral had already begun. As a circular jumbotron defined the word, a quote appeared claiming “mere mortals cannot ruin their own lives.” We’re born into ruin the quote presumes and we can only attempt to escape it, never create it.

The Chief Keef feature “Hold My Liquor” listlessly floated in a sea of toxic emotions and numbing agents. The bitter nadir of the night seemed to have been found and then the “Computer Blue” covered by Leatherface vibes of “I’m In It” sent the crowd swirling further down the drain. “Guilt Trip” (an under-appreciated highlight of Yeezus) and “Heartless” which incorporated a record scratch recalling a sputtering chainsaw continued the bottoming out.  However all of that was only the rehearsal dinner for unholy matrimony of “Blood on the Leaves”. Here the scorched earth of past relationships became literal when flames shot into the sky and the white mountain behind Kanye turned into a volcano. The first horn wallop provided by TNGHT remains 2013′s most arresting music moment and live that beat drop was somehow more captivating.

“Falling” bled into the soul “searching” of “Lost in the World”. Well into his fourth costume change, West’s face was obscured by a diamond mask as he frantically searched for riches he could never have. All of the pain and frustration of the limelight, of being misunderstood and being rap’s “super villain” weigh heavy on West and with “Lost” the weight was felt.

Given that no one outside of West can top his larger-than-life spectacle, it only seemed natural that “Runaway” would follow. Now alone, Kanye took his sweet time dipping into MBDTF‘s spiritual center, playfully taunting the crowd with countless strikes on the MPC2000XL machine before committing. “I just blame everything on you; at least you know that’s what I’m good at,” West confesses at a pivotal moment in the song. He’s never been a perfect person and he never can be. The moment of clarity came during the extended outro where he attempted to explain what he means by “creative genius”. And while the off-the-cuff explanation missed the mark, he hit the nail on the head when he sang in his shield of auto-tune “I’m just dreaming out loud.” And along with his nightmares, that’s what a crowd in KC got last night. The audible dreams of a man who will never wake up.

Setlist:

 

Fighting

1. “On Sight”

2. “New Slaves”

3. “Send It Up”

4. “Mercy”

 

Rising

5. “Power”

6. “Theraflu”

7. “I Don’t Like”

8. “Clique”

9. “Black Skinhead”

10. “I Am A God”

11. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”

12. “Coldest Winter”

 

Falling

13. “Hold My Liquor”

14. “I’m In It”‘

15. “Guilt Trip”

16. “Heartless”

17. “Blood on the Leaves

 

Searching

18. “Lost in the World”

19. “Runaway”

 

Finding

20. “Stronger”

21. “Through the Wire”

22. “Jesus Walks”

23. “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”

24. “Flashing Lights”

25. “All of the Lights”

26. “Good Life”

27. Bound 2

(Notes: You’ll notice the final section is absent from the review. More than anything this final segment became the “greatest hits” segment of the night and while welcome by everyone in attendance was largely disjointed from the rest of the proceedings. Also, while I attempted to incorporate as much of the extravagant stage-show into the article, some details like a demonic gorilla and road flares going off in unison couldn’t coherently fit. At one point during “All of the Light” West was light up by the cellphones of the 4500 strong. One final note, West went through at least four noticeable costume changes during the night and if anyone should be applauded for last-night it’s whoever helped him slip in and out of attire.)

 

The Mowgli’s Live at Mills Record Company

There are at least a million things to do on Black Friday. Jockey for position in a seemingly never-ending line. Frantically call up a child, loved-one, or friend and ask if it’s season 2 or 3 of Community they don’t have (the small details matter). At any number of big-box retailers, you can test out your arm span by seeing just how many electric-scooters you can grasp. Maybe scouring through a DVD bin like a digital-age Viking is more your speed. If you’re me, you’re scarfing down a plate of warm pancakes to refuel before venturing back out into the madness. One improbable option is to go and see a midday concert, but thanks to the fine folks at Mills Record Company that tryptophan induced pipe-dream became reality.

Firmly nestled in Kansas City’ vibrant Westport district, Mills is a new minted record haven for music junkies such as myself. Swear “I’ll only spend five minutes inside” and you’ll end up thumbing through their wood-crate bins for an hour plus. Getting lost in an opaque album cover from an unheard of band is the quickest vacation you can take. If you can’t wait to get home to spin some vinyl and are fiending for music, there’s a cassette tape or two to ease your blues if you’re still rocking a Walkman. Today though, the listening experience was more immediate courtesy of So-Cal transplants The Mowgli’s.

I must plead ignorance when it comes to the eight-piece “indie, gospel, folk, love-rock” group. Before today, I’d never crossed paths with their sun-soaked tracks. Packed into the store like a still-living sardine, I had zero expectations or reservations about what I’d be hearing. When KC-native Colin Louis Dieden and crew dug into their all-too-brief set, I was instantly sold. A cut like their top-4o alternative hit “San Francisco” rode an infectiously giddy wave of 60s pop “ba-ba-bas” and bore a drumbeat closer to the sunshine than any sidewalk. The rousing “Say It, Just Say It” adorned by jangly-tambourines and steady handclaps had the entire crowd of patrons and onlookers joining in on the jubilant chorus. I couldn’t see much over the crowd, but Dieden’s grin was easy to spot. While it may be virtually impossible not to smile during such a track, he seemed genuinely thrilled to be back on “home soil”.

That youthful energy sparked acoustic shuffler “Time”. Imagine a version of Pink Floyd’s similarly named song where you feel younger every day and defiantly tell the bank to “kiss your ass” and you’re close to the conceit. As “pie-in-the-sky” as a line like “let’s make a harmony and life will sing” may appear, it lent the proceeding a communal feel. It was a community that easily could’ve been out at Walmart, as vocalist/percussionist Katie Jayne Earl joked. But instead, they’d taken time out from the fast-paced day to relax. On a day all about deals, the best one to be found was entirely free.

“Littlest League Possible”- Guided by Voices

Somewhere in the list of the musically inevitable, Robert Pollard putting out another album ranks close to the top. Since he first tasted success with Guided by Voices breakout album Bee Thousand in 1994, the longest he’s gone without releasing an album has been a scant two years. In some years, he puts out two to three LPs while juggling multiple side-projects and dropping the occasional boxset of unreleased material just to keep things interesting. If train-travel permanently ceased, you could set your watch to Robert Pollard releasing a new record.

That said he’s been particularly reinvigorated since reuniting the “classic” mid-90s incarnation of GBV, dropping three full-lengths of solid earworms last year, and two sturdy offerings of hook-laden rock in 2013. If anything, the classic GBV lineup reconvening dispels the notion that it doesn’t really matter who’s backing Bob up. In the mid-90s GBV, Pollard had his foil in the inscrutable Tobin Sprout. If you subscribe to the notion that Guided by Voices are the Beatles with substandard recording equipment, then Spout is roughly the Lennon to Pollard’s McCartney. Tempering Pollard’s blasts of arena-ready rock on Bee Thousand, Alien Lanes, or Under the Bushes Under the Stars were Sprout’s ragged acoustic melodies in the way of “Awful Bliss” and the acid-tinged hypnosis of “To Remake the Young Flyer”. The miniscule “Littlest League Possible” from the forthcoming Motivational  Jumpsuit continues the tradition. The cavernous drum strikes burst forth from a garage circa 1966, while the massive power chords recall any number of early-70s Cheap Trick records. Soon the guitar snarls, interrupting the indelible hook without fully disturbing it. The bass chugs in place as Pollard defiantly intonates “you’ve run out of gas, but that’s not possible.” With Sprout back in the saddle, there’s seemingly nothing that can slow Guided by Voices down.

Motivational Jumpsuit is out February 18 through Fire Records, and you can here GBV’s latest offering here.

“Blood Moon”- Raum

By now it’s been well-documented on the blog that Liz Harris’ ambient wanderings as Grouper register as “quiet cries for attention that go unnoticed”. Grouper’s aching whispers don’t push through but waft, constantly in danger of floating away. More than simple “cries for attention”, they’re cries of desperation. Harris’ work quite often provides auditory evidence of a silent struggle.

Raum, her musical collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Jefre Cantu-Ledesma doesn’t stray far from the slowly decaying Grouper formula. In true Grouper fashion, ambient waves spill forth from the speakers, creating a near-drowning sensation. Mere “dabbling” with Liz Harris work is impossible, only immersion can occur. Here though, that immersion or drowning sensation doesn’t feel so isolated. The ambient waves cresting towards white noise suggest a doomed choir, submersed under the water. Layers of voices struggle towards the surface, as bone-numbing feedback continues to churn. Similarly swathes of shoegazing guitar fight to be heard in the whirling vortex. As dispiriting as it sounds, there’s a silver lining buried underneath. If you’re already doomed, there’s joy in knowing you’re not alone.

Event of Your Leaving is available digitally through Boomkat and iTunes now; head here to listen to the track.

“Cash In”- Solange

Indie or “alt-R&B” has been floating around for a few years now, defined by early-decade classics like the industrial judder of the Weeknd’s House of Balloons or Frank Ocean’s sonically restless Channel Orange. And like any nascent “scene”, trying to shoehorn disparate styles into such a narrow label is unquestionably difficult. Even between the aforementioned albums, there lies a vast chasm of difference. Trying to define a movement in its infancy is akin to being a gatekeeper while the gate is still under construction.

Solange’s Saint Heron compilation (out through her own imprint) ambitiously attempts to catalog the movement, while simultaneously pushing it forward. Similar to Brian Eno’s No New York comp, her curative-effort weaves disparate threads together in the hope of crafting a seamless tapestry. The aquatic boom of newcomer Kelela’s “Go All Night” nestles comfortably alongside Sampha’s twitchy piano-laden “Beneath the Tree”. If one commonality can be found, it’s a will to “get weird” without forgoing unadulterated pop pleasure. Solange’s sole contribution to the album, closer “Cash In” demonstrates the principle as well as any. A lingering organ figure edges the song into gothic romance territory, before cavernous drums spring the track from a dark prison. Clanging bells add color to the monochromatic proceedings. Fraught by the need to “get away” and put the past in the rear-view, Solange’s wispy vocals capture the slow-trek of a relationship into an uncertain future. “We don’t need to pave our way” she partially hollers early on during the enticing hook. With the release of Saint Heron and a song like “Cash In”, she’s failed to take her own advice.

Saint Heron is out now through Saint Records, to her Solange’s offering head here.