Herb Albert, Korn, DaBaby, and More! September 2019 Lightning Round!!

DaBabyKIRK

This album would’ve slid completely under my radar had it not found its way to the trending section of Twitter upon its release, partly due to fans celebrating their favorite tracks and partly from casual rap fans mocking DaBaby’s flow. While the rapper made his major label debut earlier this year, his catalog includes a long list of self-released mixtapes. His career has recently been heating up as he was featured in the 2019 XXL Freshman Class and dropped guest verses with the likes of Post Malone and Lil Nas X. Because of this, he’s trying to cash in on the growing success, and this album really feels like it.

Baby’s flow is often mocked for his tendency to fill every available second with a bar, and that is certainly frustrating on this LP as none of the tracks have a chance to breath. However, there’s a much larger problem in that there’s just no breathing to be done by these instrumentals. Nearly beat on this album is clunky, poorly produced, and entirely uninspired. There are bizarre choices like using church bells and other strange instruments, and these certainly drag the tracks down, as does DaBaby’s weak lyricism and repetitive flow, but the fact of the matter is that the melodies and rhythms on these tracks are thoughtless and lazy, and there’s just no salvaging that.

3/10

OpethIn Cauda Venenum

A staple of the mid-90’s metal scene, Opeth was often lumped in with prog-metal acts like Tool and Nine Inch Nails. Unlike like these contemporaries, however, the Swedish four piece pulled in heavy influences from death metal as well as folk, jazz, and classical music later in their career. This wide array of influence, along with their excellent technical ability has gained the band a cult following among prog metal fans who are more than happy to dive into every longwinded, conceptual LP they drop. In Cauda Venenum is no different.

Coming in at over an hour long, this LP really carries that time quite well. Every track feels well fleshed out and nothing seems to drag. Even tracks I didn’t care for didn’t seem to overstay their welcome. The album employs of a wide instrumental pallet spanning from the traditional electric guitars to orchestral strings, folksy guitars, and a full choir which appears several times. There are plenty of experiments that just don’t quite pan out and the overly long opening feels a bit pretentious, but the power of cuts like “Continuum,” make this well worth a listen. I would’ve liked to hear a heavier album, as much of the instrumentation is either acoustic or orchestral, but what we get is certainly listenable.

5/10

Herb AlbertOver the Rainbow

Herb Albert debuted all the way back in 1962 with his unique blend of swing jazz and latin percussion and instrumentation. Albums like Going Places and the infamous Whipped Cream & Other Delights brought Albert’s danceable sound to the forefront of a jazz boom in the mid to late 60’s. Long after the crash of that jazz wave, however, Herb Albert continues to make thoroughly enjoyable records thanks to his tasteful latin flare and genuine skill on the trumpet. Now, at the age of 84, he drops this collection of cover tracks.

The album itself is much more subdued than the 60’s albums that put him on the map. Herb works his way through a collection of covers with one original thrown into the mix, each performed with soul and very creative instrumentation. He also utilizes newer technologies like electronic drums and sound effects remarkably well. There are a few pacing problems and some of the tracks come off a bit corny, but to hear new music from a national treasure like Herb Albert is nothing short of a treat.

5/10

KornThe Nothing

The turn of the century was an odd time for rock music. On the one hand, metal was at, perhaps the most commercially successful period in its history. On the other, the nu-metal wave was fairly controversial for hardcore metal fans and certainly hasn’t aged as well as it’s predecessors in the 80’s and 90’s. Nevertheless, staples of the short-lived genre like Korn and Slipknot are fairly well respected within the community. Korn’s particularly thrashy form of nu-metal and solid ear for melody has led them to a long career, even after the metal boom of the era. Their newest album, The Nothing, is surprisingly lively for a band in their 25th year.

This yet another singable, hook-heavy metal record from the California five-piece. Brian Welch and James Shaffer’s guitars are especially fantastic, adding excellent melody writing to an absolutely brutal tone. Jonathan Davis’ vocals do fall short quite often, particularly in the softer moments, but most importantly, the band is still more than capable of bringing the pain. Tracks like “Cold,” chug along with the same power that brought Korn to the forefront during their heyday. Unfortunately, they do get bogged down far too often in quieter moments that just don’t quite work and the experimental opener and closer are frustrating and unnecessary. Overall, though, this is a solid release that should excite nu-metal fans the world over.

6/10

MudhoneyMorning in America

One of the most under-appreciated bands in music history, Mudhoney was an early pioneer of the grunge rock sound that would launch the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam to superstardom. Their popularity, on the other hand, remained largely underground and still does now, 30 years and ten albums after their 1989 self-titled debut. Over this time, they’ve been quietly plugging away on Sub-Pop records and they returned this year with a quasi-LP followup to last year’s Digital Garbage.

The project is a blast to listen to. Many of the punk influences which have defined Mudhoney’s sound for the past three decades return in a big way with fast, thrashing guitars and a sardonic lyrical and vocal style that brings quite a few laughs and memorable one-liners. That being said, there’s also some significant growth on the LP as the band dives into some of the psychedelic, garage rock elements which have had a recent reemergence thanks to acts like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Overall, it’s yet another fun, raucous release from a hardworking group of rock legends.

7/10

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Anderson .Paak’s Quick Turnaround Yields Fun but Not Quite Stellar Results

Ventura is a flawed but ultimately electrifying piece of modern soul and yet another great addition to the ever growing Anderson .Paak catalog.

Anderson .Paak is a hip-hop/R&B artist from Oxnard, California. He debuted with a few notable underground projects in the early 2010’s, including the Cover Art EP which aimed to reclaim blues and R&B tracks written by black artists which were better known for being covered by white artists in the 1950’s. His breakthrough came first with 2014’s Venice, and then with his 2016 smash hit, Miami. The latter is a far more impressive release and brought to life the grooving, soul-funk style which set .Paak apart from the other members of his 2016 XXL Freshman Class. With his 2018 follow up, Oxnard, Anderson was launched into the stratosphere of modern music with what was largely regarded as one of the best albums of the year. Now, just a year later, he’s returned with Ventura, yet another groovy piece of Neo-soul mastery.

Eagle-eyed music fans will notice before they even hear a sound that the record has a fantastic lineup of features on nearly every track. While the vast majority of these are quite impressive, two stand about above the heap. Namely, the one and only André 3000’s tongue-twisting verse on the opener, “Come Home,” and Smokey Robinson’s silky presence on the follow up, “Make It Better.” In both instances, the features elevate the tracks to incredible heights.

Despite an incredible ensemble, Anderson still commands a leading presence across the project, and carries a few of the tracks alone. “Yada Yada,” is an absolute clinic in soul and funk vocals with .Paak’s rough sweetness burning through every line. “Chosen One,” however, would be entirely forgettable if not for the fantastic rap verse near the end with a few eye popping name drops and a fascinating flow. He’s really come into his own, and his work on this record is extremely exciting for longtime fans.

Beyond vocal performances, Ventura’s instrumentals are electrifying. Each cut features a massive pallet from an interesting mix of organic and electronic sources. “Reachin’ 2 Much” sees a foundation of thick bass guitar and thumping kick drums supporting howling synths and bombastic horn sections. “Winner’s Circle,” on the other hand pulls elements like skat singing and woodwind melodies and a hilarious opening sample.

The record is at it’s best however, when the entire band finds the somewhat intangible groove they seem to be searching for at all times. This happens to great effect on “Jet Black,” a track which is essentially carried by the groove and lacks the bells and whistles of other cuts. The album’s highlight, however, is the lead single “King James,” which is built on an undeniable beat and adorned with thoughtful, politically charged lyrics and a luscious saxophone. It’s here where Anderson is at his best.

I do, however, have a handful of complaints. The most consistent issue throughout is pacing. More than a few tracks drag on far longer than necessary and seem to go nowhere for the last half. “Good Heals,” on the other hand, is criminally short and feels extremely half baked.

The most frustrating shortcoming, though, is the way that Ventura absolutely limps through the finish line. The closing tracks, “Twilight,” and “What Can We Do?” Are both completely lifeless and unnecessary. The Nate Dogg feature on the latter is a nice touch, but the track itself feels like a lost, Nate Dogg B-side and is totally out of step with the rest of the record. It’s a shame, because the rest of the project is quite strong, and could’ve been brought home well.

That being said, Ventura is a success, overall. Once again, Anderson .Paak has come through with a unique brand of Neo-soul and funk that has the ability to excite fans young and old. His respect for the masters like Smokey and James Brown is palpable, but his rap background bring a unique spin.

Ventura is a flawed but ultimately electrifying piece of modern soul and yet another great addition to the ever growing Anderson .Paak catalog.

6/10

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Blackstar: David Bowie’s Under Appreciated Final Masterpiece

David Bowie has been gone for three years now, and as he said so beautifully so many years ago, “the stars look very different today.”

The year was 2015 and David Bowie, at the age of 68. was dying. Few outside of his family and close friends knew this, but he’d been diagnosed with cancer of the liver and the future wasn’t looking bright.

Bowie was as close to God-like status as one can be without being either a Beatle or Elvis. From his time has The Thin White Duke, to iconic tracks like “Space Oddity,” to his many concept albums and rock operas, most of which were written and performed in an array of strange characters, David had pushed the boundaries of rock music and music and general for his entire life and with 25 studio albums, five of them platinum in the US and nine platinum in the UK, he’s one of the most successful artists that ever lived.

On his 69th birthday, just two days before his death, Bowie released what is likely his darkest and most haunting artistic statement of his or any other career, his 25th LP, Blackstar. On it, Bowie deals in topics of death, mysticism, mortality, and the afterlife. The true artist he was, David Bowie had spent his final days writing and recording one last project, which he lived just long enough to see brought into the world. While the main thrust of this piece is to show you why you absolute must hear the record, it’s worth discussing why it hasn’t been as widely discussed as it should be.

The most obvious reason is that the record is far from accessible. Most of the instrumentation is made up a very dense and crushing form of Jazz and Bowie’s vocal melodies and lyrics are experimental to say the least. However, I’d say that there was another cause which weighed much heavier. Namely, Bowie’s death itself.

When a star of that magnitude passes away, fans often go back to classic releases to relive the golden days, and that caused many fans to ignore Blackstar. On top of that, the record itself is so dark and deals so heavily in death and mortality that it doesn’t allow listeners to escape to a time when Bowie was on top of the world again, but instead refuses to turn away from his death. All this being said, it’s long past time that Blackstar gets the respect it deserves.

Firstly, the record is instrumentally fascinating. Partnering with a litany of accomplished jazz artists with a flare for the experimental, Bowie created a project which is equal parts dense and dark. From the circling drums and staccato saxophones to the cacophonous backing vocals and the tasteful but jarring electronic elements, Blackstar rarely touches down on earth. Instead, it’s a orbits about, vaguely recognizable but never predictable.

This is, of course, before we touch on David’s performance itself which is simply breathtaking. His voice finds the perfect mix between power and sincerity and it’s generally our only tether to the real world, sonically. There are more than a few moments which could easily move a longtime fan to tears, even after multiple listens, either in his ability to honestly portray his own frailty or in the moments when everything comes together and just for one short moment, he’s back to his full glory.

The record’s best asset, without a doubt, is Bowie’s lyrics. There is just something indescribable about hearing one of the greatest artists that ever lived so unflinching facing his own demise. On Lazarus, Bowie details his own visualization of his walk into the afterlife beginning with the line, “look up here, I’m in heaven! I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.” And, of course, on the opening, nine minute epic of a title track, he essentially writes a soundtrack to his own funeral.

Beyond all of this, the visuals involved with the record are stunning as well. The video for the title track is a psychedelic funeral for Bowie’s iconic Major Tom character from “Space Oddity” while the bizarre and at times frightening video for “Lazarus,” was packed with clues to his approaching demise long before his disease was known to the public.

Ultimately, the question is this: why should you listen to Blackstar? Why not remember Bowie as the almighty Ziggy Stardust and move on?  There are a few answers to this. The first is that Bowie intended this record to be his swan song and it should be treated as such. He spent his final moments creating this work of art and it should be respected by fans for what it’s meant to be.

That being said, there’s an even more important reason to visit this album which stands beyond just David Bowie himself. The fact is, there’s never been an album like Blackstar and there may never be again. To hear one of our greatest, an icon, and a truly brilliant artist confront death in its most real and inescapable form and he could think only of one thing, his music.

Blackstar is brave not only for the superficial reasons of it’s wide pallet and bizarre structures, but it is brave in the truest sense of staring death itself in the eyes, staring it down, and using your final breath to sing about what you see.

David Bowie has been gone for three years now, and as he said so beautifully so many years ago, “the stars look very different today.”

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