Folk, Reviews

I’m Not Your Man | Marika Hackman

An LGBT indie folk rock singer whose previous touring experience includes opening for Laura Marling? Marika Hackman’s resume is enticing, to say the least, as the combination is incredibly unexpected and I am thoroughly pleased to have the opportunity to dive in and see what she has to offer. Thankfully, her new album I’m Not Your Man, mostly succeeds in matching the expectations made simply by the premise. It’s a fun, incredibly witty expedition into the mindset of Hackman and her unconventional take on life.

Boyfriend” is a frustrating romp through patriarchy and the male gaze. Hackman’s seeing a girl who’s already seeing a man, but the man doesn’t mind because a lesbian relationship “doesn’t count.” At first, it seems that Hackman isn’t concerned about this, because she gets a chance to see the girl with impunity, but the relationship gets serious. It doesn’t matter since “no one takes us seriously just because I wear a dress.” The song intends to wind up the listener, which it should because the circumstance is so frustrating. It’s hard not to recommend for the perspective, alone.

Though it’s easy to focus solely on the lyrics, as their structure and play on words stand on their own. Hackman’s voice and guitar arrangements keep the songs glued to the head. She has a soft voice that drifts, and occasionally stings when she screams in “Good Intentions.” The guitar arrangements, when not strumming to a ballad, bounce to Hackman’s story. The album is very much a lighter version, musically and emotionally, of a Courtney Barnett album.

My Lover Cindy” is a joy to listen to. The guitar chords and light drumming builds a summer afternoon vibe. This all builds a structure for Hackman to talk about her love for a certain Cindy which is described with heavy emphasis on the carnal side. “Cause I’m a greedy pig, I’m gonna get my fill,” pretty much sums up Hackman’s intentions as she lusts after this woman, who she doesn’t know would stay with her for very long (“I can go for a couple of weeks and the feeling’s calcified”). It’s sexual by being critical of one’s own sexual intentions, and it works.

The lyrics and Hackman’s performance provides a perfect backdrop for every scenario. “Violet” is a droning and vividly descriptive love for someone’s mouth, which only really comes out as sexy for Hackman. “Time’s Been Reckless” is a jaunty song about lovers being unnecessarily honest about each other’s flaws in regards to, as the title implies, how age has detracted their looks. The disparity between the music and the lyrics is not always present, as some songs go for the familiar guitar strumming personal reflection. Those particular songs still have their twists.

Listening to this album is a treat for folk enthusiasts. It’s witty, jumpy, and very introspective. It’s not perfect, though. One of the main issues with the album is that it runs a little too long and the latter half gets bogged down by fatigue. It’s not that the songs are bad, but after a while, you realize there isn’t much more to figure out. Thus,  you’re sure to get everything you want out of it if you’re not into the whole album. Marika Hackman is a talented lyricist and some of her instrumentation is quite catchy and, for lack of a better term, really cool. Not every personal dissection needs to be depressing and it’s a treat to see Hackman go that direction. The guitar chords are really awesome, folks. GOOD.

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Strange Words and Weird Wars | Marnie

Helen Marnie purposefully distanced herself from Ladytron with second album Strange Words and Weird Wars, more so than when she debuted her first solo record, Crystal World, in 2013. But it still remains a Ladytron-esque album even though the alternative nature is lost and the electronic pop presence is heightened. Her voice and synth-use is rather reminiscent, but are amped up in such a way that largely dismisses the comparison. There’s a thick layer of echo in her voice, as well as a flood of flowing synth throughout the album. Marnie’s abuse of self-distortion keeps her vocals from drowning underneath the heavy production; instead, it merely melts alongside it–acting like an additional synth property. Even though she has grown past the alternative phase, her intoxication with everything electronic disables each track from being distinctive.

A throbbing synthesizer and urgent vocals in “Alphabet Block” set the 10 track album off on a lavish electronic 80’s dreamscape. Segments of lyrics sound random next to each other; and while we could sit here and try to find the meaning, it really doesn’t matter. It’s the voice and production that carries the punch to propel you to finish the rest of the album. It’s also fun, a feeling you’ll catch quite a bit, especially when it comes to “G.I.R.L.S.

The third track starts a pattern that may not have been intended. “G.I.R.L.S.” revolves around a girl, or possibly herself, and the obsession that comes with it. It’s a cheer for girl power, and the captivation it holds over everyone. With a similar stand, though not as fun, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” takes a haunting view about a girl who’s about to reach “the last day of her life.” Though it might just be as simple as that heartbreaking truth, which in itself is enough to fill your eyes with tears, it also comes off as a cry out for independence. Because even if something might happen, the girl doesn’t need anyone to save her (“I’ll keep the path and take my chance”). “Lost Maps,” which regains the momentum set by the tracks previous to “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” with a production in the vein of Röyksopp, advises a girl, or again herself, to not “believe what they tell you” even when “darkness closes on you.” These three tracks, though incredibly different from one another in terms of tone, conveys the same individualistic spirit, or ode to girls.

Another stand out, “Electric Youth” embeds itself in the middle of the whole girl power line of thought with a throwback to the good ol’ days. It plays up the real purpose of Strange Words and Weird Wars which is to repress worries and figure fun as the only prospect. It plays up the whole nostalgic effect every track seems to have even when they’re not directly recalling the past.

Marnie thrives within a CHVRCHΞS-like atmosphere where electronic ambiance lends most of itself to pop; however, she also carries the same problem that semi-plagues the Scottish band as well–every track sounds the same. Yes there are certain obvious differences. But the overwhelming sonic production and its consistent presence leaves a longing for diversity, something she achieved in her earlier work as a solo artist and as part of Ladytron. And there’s also this feeling like ‘I’ve heard it before’ rushing through the album. Strange Words and Weird Wars has many throwbacks to childhood and sound to back up why; despite that, there’s still a pretty low standard for originality with the subconscious utilization of familiar melodies. OK.

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EP Roundup: Major Lazer’s Know No Better & Krewella’s New World, Pt. 1

DISCLAIMER: It starts with a mild rant.

It’s slightly exasperating to see established producers flood the marketplace with EPs. It distracts listeners from exploring lesser known artists because an EP with a big name attached will immediately overshadow them. There’s only so many EP’s one can listen to and it should be a platform primarily utilized by rising artists to deliver a few soundbites for potential recognition. Of course, the exception would be if an album was already released and the artist wanted to extend it. Hence why it’s called extended play. Or if an artist wanted to test the waters with a completely different sound. Otherwise, Major Lazer and Krewella have no business using such a format. Especially when it’s incredibly self-serving (for the purpose of keeping their names in people’s minds) and does nothing special to evolve their musical inclinations.

Let’s start with Major Lazer, the more accomplished of the two. Currently comprised of DiploJillionaire, and Walshy Fire, Major Lazer is by far one of the greatest musical projects in the industry; even though I would argue that their first few years were more impactful. Regardless, the latest LP release, 2015’s Peace Is The Mission, was entertaining and a quintessential summer banger. But now as a trio, they’ve released, perhaps, their most irrelevant compilation to date. Know No Better is complete with 6 tracks, all without a shred of originality. The title track features Travis Scott, and to put it lightly, it’s one generic and predictable waste of 3 minutes and 46 seconds. Scott couldn’t do much to save it; especially when it took him 5 lines to conclude that a car is too small to fit the whole squad (“Pull up in that foreign, my God|Whole squad get in that, get in that|Please say it ain’t true|I had to go and cop two|Hell nah, we can’t fit in that”).

Diplo is also the sort of guy who’d incorporate a little Spanish at random intervals. He released “Dale Asi” featuring Mr. Fox in a previous EP, Apocalypse Soon, back in 2014. Presently, he showcased not one but two tracks sung in Spanish. One of them, “Buscando Huellas” (translated to mean “looking for footprints”) featuring J Balvin and Sean Paul, actually contains some fraction of fun with light reggaeton and vocal distorted breaks giving off a pleasant summer-y vibe. However, before the second Spanish track would appear, they had to slightly butcher the Spanish language by spreading the word and title name “Particula” as far as it can go: first, it was used as slang for particular; second, it referred to hidden articles of clothing; and third, it opened an opportunity to say a similar looking word in Spanish because they happened to rhyme. If Know No Better wasn’t already deemed a electronic, cross-cultural mess, it became pretty clear by this point. SKIP IT.

Next is Krewella, a sister-duo who had been battling to restore their image after Rain Man’s dramatic departure in 2014 and negative criticism from EDM fans and producers, including deadmau5. Due to a lack of prosperity, Jahan Yousaf and Yasmine Yousaf experienced a lengthy hiatus and have shied away from releasing another studio album since their debut as a threesome on Get Wet back in 2013. However, they weren’t completely quiet–releasing a couple of stand alone singles over the past few years which led up to their comeback EP last year, Ammunition–an angry and dark strike against the hate they’ve endured. Now, with the release of New World, Pt. 1 (oh boy, must there be another part?), the anger hasn’t completely left the building; but it has slightly mellowed. The 7-track EP features three previously released singles, and a collaboration with Diskord, who worked with them on “Beggars” for Ammunition. It’s definitely their most pop-laced efforts. The opener, “Calm Down,” starts the same way “Beggars” did when it kick-started the previous EP, with strong words against skeptics, “Don’t tell me to calm down, I’m about to tear this fuckin’ place down.” The follow-up “Th2c” is a complete rip-off from Charli XCX’s playbook circa Number 1 Angel. They even configure the title like one of XCX’s songs from the mixtape, “Ily2.” Nevertheless, “Fortune” featuring Diskord and “Love Outta Me” is Krewella at their most familiar. Seeing these tracks right next to each other shows a lack of direction and proves how the the sisters are still recovering from industry fallout. They’re incorporating a bit of this and a bit of that, which makes them seem distracted or confused. Yes, EP’s don’t need to be cohesive. But in Krewella’s case, it needed clarity and a sense that they’ve moved on. EH.

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hopeless fountain kingdom | Halsey

It’s been a dramatic couple of years for Halsey. After releasing her debut album Badlands in 2015, she received mild attention that soon skyrocketed alongside her collaboration with The Chainsmokers on the massively successful “Closer.” Now, she makes a return with hopeless fountain kingdom, an album that differs greatly from Badlands in terms of a darker tone and composition, but also feels like a natural evolution. It’s comforting to know that she didn’t take any cues from her fellow collaborator, because Halsey thrives on smart lyrics coming from personal experiences. In fact, Halsey’s album is a lot more interesting than what The Chainsmokers has to offer…sometimes.

The Prologue” is an unnecessary detriment to the entire perception of the album. It’s a mostly spoken word segment that uproots lines from ‘The Prologue’ in Romeo and Juliet, and then ends with Halsey’s interpretation of the story; but to be inherently critical, you can listen to the entire album and not get that impression whatsoever. Prologues prepare listeners for a great epic, but looking at the album that way sets the expectations too high. I highly recommend skipping this song and listening to the rest.

100 Letters” is Halsey at her finest, emphasizing the power of feminism and being your own person. A real or metaphorical King Midas, who turns everything to gold with a single touch, vies for Halsey to be touched by him. King Midas comes off as above her, putting her down by explaining why she doesn’t “have any friends,” but Halsey bites back with “I find myself alone at night unless I’m having sex.” She’s “not something to butter up and taste when you get bored,” fighting back Midas’ touch and accusing him of greed, gluttony, and lust. It’s a really well thought out song.

It’s important to talk about the lyrics because they are what really makes Halsey stand out among all the other semi-pop acts. She can be fairly clever, like in “Eyes Closed.” “Now if I keep my eyes closed, he looks just like you,” should be a really bad line, but it’s a loaded line about Halsey’s character sleeping with different people to get the same thrill as the one that left. When it’s not clever, it’s a subtle introspection into Halsey’s personality, like in “Alone” where her popularity is reaching such a high that she can’t have personal connections with many people. When she says “She asked if I recognized and I told her I might,” it signifies how aware Halsey for how out of control the situation is, even if she’s still letting it all happen.

Devil In Me” doesn’t really work. There is too much of a crutch on metaphor that reaches points of obtuseness. When it’s not obtuse, it’s too simple, with a repetitive chorus and a bare-boned beat in the background that tries to be atmospheric but doesn’t have much emotional weight. In fact, seeing the title basically describes everything that needs to be known about the song.

“Devil In Me” signifies one of the largest issues with the album. When the lyrics aren’t amazing, the album reaches a state of sheer mediocrity. Halsey is not a bad singer, but she’s not a powerhouse and the production doesn’t do much to support her. Songs like “Sorry” are fine, but it’s a simple piano ballad with very little to add other than the occasional fun lyric.

hopeless fountain kingdom would be a good album if it was more consistent. It hits high at the very beginning and then grows tedious over the course. The first set of songs are a joy to listen to, but after a while, the lyrics grow tired, the music grows tired, and then I get tired. She just doesn’t do enough in this album to keep the interest lasting, and there’s enough evidence that she can since Badlands is a joy to listen to from start to finish. It’s such a shame because Halsey has a talent for lyrics that may not be amazing prose, but they capture the quirks of her personality that give her instant appeal. Listen to the first half – sans the prologue – when there’s a good time to be had. OK.

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太鼓 | Danger

It’s never the case, even when an album is brilliant, for me to have any semblance of fun while writing a review. It’s work trying to balance history and opinion when discussing output from musicians. 太鼓, or Taiko, by Danger is different. It’s dope. It’s lit. It’s any other cool yes word one can think of that’s proportional to current millennial chatter. Without even getting to the listening portion of Taiko, the dark cover art, the producer’s name, and the title made up of Japanese symbols, that refer to a large percussion instrument, when the artist is French already sets a high expectation, or hope to hear something truly fantastical. And that’s pretty dangerous when you don’t have production to match the hype. Most good promotional tactics are wasted on generic headbangers. Suffice it to say, I was stoked and semi-ready for disappointment.

Danger, whose real name is Franck Rivoire, embodies a mix of aesthetics, namely deadmau5, Nero, and Daft Punk (which is far from a complaint) in more cinematic terms. He does cite the latter’s secret persona, alongside Final Fantasy video game character Black Mage, for why he wears a black mask during his live sets. He’s also listed as one of the composers for last year’s video game, Furi. Regardless, Rivoire has released a few EPs in the past, stretching all the way back to 2007, all containing numerals as song titles. Apparently they are named after the exact time he finished a track. Taiko’s 15 tracks also follow the same title naming process. But when it came down to tripling the size of an EP for the first time, it was far from a disaster. The album is smartly built by the way it clearly but subtly shows the build-up, the blast-off, and finally the come-down.

By producing softer, more minimalistic, synth notes across three tracks, creating the ultimate build-up, the progression was able to intensify the blast-off found in “22:41.” Usually the build-up and blast-off are forced into one, maybe two, track(s) for immediate satisfaction. However, he purposefully holds back to extend pleasure. “22:41” starts with light surges of bass, clicks, and stomping, picking up the pace as it progresses, before bursting into a screaming, metal-like, synth storm of noise–similar to the urgency that The Chemical Brothers embedded when producing the soundtrack for Hanna.

Immediately afterwards, one of the only two tracks with vocals on Taiko, “19:00” featuring Tasha The Amazon, instructs an ingenious way to include trap when you’re far from a trap producer. Rivoire blends the over-played hip-hop beats with pulses of darkness and free flowing breezy synth for a seamless trap-influenced contraption. Even though the vocals aren’t anything intricate nor are the lyrics, the message of escape fits within the album’s overall context. And the ending ticklishly fools around with the listener by minimizing sound from the right ear and transporting almost all of it to the left ear, playing with your sense of gravity.

About the time of “11:50” featuring Lil’ Brain, my satisfaction was wearing off. The album embodied a transformer-like mechanism but didn’t seem like it was fully utilizing its flexible power. However, Danger seemed to have taken my inner criticism instantly and re-calibrated courses over the following last 4 tracks by exploring new territory and exceeding the sound’s grasp without losing sight of the instrumental narrative. In essence, the come-down was on its way to lull you back down to Earth just like the build-up did in the beginning for the opposite reason.

With incredibly, almost unnecessary, long instrumental electronic albums out there trying to express cohesive story lines, Danger proved it was possible with Taiko to only need a respectable hour of production to form a fulfilling adventure. There was never a story or production drift, even when the two trap-influenced tracks made their rounds. It’s just smart fun, that’s all I can say and all I really want. LOVE IT.

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StéLouse | StéLouse

It’s one of those times when you wish an EP was implemented in LP’s stead. StéLouse has been playing around with electronic mechanics and breaking away from rock culture since 2013–posting remixes, releasing an EP or two, and recently teasing his debut self-titled album with a few singles. While he doesn’t completely fence off instruments, Ross Ryan definitely has his sights specifically set on annexing a thick layer of pop within the future bass genre, which is triumphus in the beginning but loses focus as the album persists.

The two interludes, “Artery” and “Into The Sea,” instill a nice break before and during the 11-track album, respectively. “Artery,” in particular, usefully creates anticipation through marching band drums for single “Been So Long” featuring Nick Leng. The production and melodic vocals, while reminiscent of something Milky Chance might’ve done if they took on electronic, create a whimsical oasis of jaunty “oohs” and instrumental tickles. The immediate follow-up, “Shivers n Gold” featuring Mascolo, utilizes bass guitar, and is really one of the only times where any nod to rock is present. The soulful vocals match well with the dark machine elements; and the lyrics continue to build a story about love’s losers.

Plastic” continues the trend, this time with female vocalist, Madi, who assuages man’s deteriorating romance with kind stupid thoughts in hopes of reaching past their plastic exteriors. While not eloquent–“Your laugh’s so cold, you’re plastic cold, can I reach you inner workings?”–or smart–“The world’s outside and what do we do?” (the world will remain outside no matter what you do Madi)–the point makes its way across, and it’s just a comfort to hear a woman snap back at man’s poetic whining.

A Shock of Heart” is where the album should’ve ended, if every track after “Plastic” was erased. “Dragons” brought nothing new, exercising the same “oohs” from “Been So Long” but sped up. “Lovers,” which embodies a ghostly figure relentlessly inquiring “Tell me what’s been going on” over and over and over again, and “Films,” which takes a page from The Chainsmokers’ worst attributes, were forgettable. The break in “Tangled” has been done way too many times–flowing synth suddenly stopping for a one second experimental jab. And lastly “Coming Home” which challenges nothing and sounds like an amateur recreation of Porter Robinson’s remix for Nero’s “The Thrill.” However, “A Shock of Heart,” which actually does end the album, ties the dark energy with a flurry of optimism, and makes for a great ambient rap-up to a half-baked album.

The times when StéLouse strayed from the pop/future bass experience brought down the album’s consistency and point. It seemed like the Denver-based producer ran out of ideas after a few tracks, and decided to harvest concepts from EDM’s current Marshmello era. He would’ve done his self-titled album a service by digging deeper inside the perpetual love story in realistic, even wider, terms, instead of throwing cringe-worthy lines such as “been acting shady, baby” and “It rains all the day, everyday, at the same place” and especially “Know I’m gon’ be here when you need it” at us. EH.

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Vine | Jen Gloeckner

DISCLAIMER: This album was provided to us for review.

From her own bedroom, Jen Gloeckner brings her fantastical dreams on a boat drifting to the world, at least that’s what is to be suspected from her first album in 7 years. Vine mixes electronic sounds, orchestral instrumentation, and her own sultry yet strong voice. What people get from the album, however, depends on what grabs you, as Vine is about duality: where everything comes together perfectly and when it does not.

The titular song, “Vine,” begins the album with mysticism, playing around with a harp over electronic murmurs. It also brings in a decent collaboration with Gloeckner herself, and a solo piano. This song, however, is not overly interesting for an opening song. In addition, I just wish the lyrics were more interesting to hear, given that most of the song is taken up by them. “I’m alright without your love” is not particularly powerful when spoken about a relationship that is not yet familiar to the listener, and there is not much in the rest of the lyrics to get a clearer picture.

Firefly (War Dance)” annoyed me. The song plays with a lot of different sounds, including Native American chanting echoing in an industrial landscape. It feels like the song was put together to make interesting sounds, but there is a strong lack of emotional significance. There is no indication of danger, confusion, overwhelming tide, or much of anything really.

I find that quite a few of the early songs in Vine have many moments that are a joy to experience, but not always to their entirety. “Ginger Ale” has a chorus that would make every Enya fan cheer with nostalgia, with beautiful hymns surrounded by the sound of serene violins. However, it’s a shame that Gloeckner’s sharp voice doesn’t fit very well with this kind of atmosphere. “The Last Thought” has a positively joyous chorus that sounds like Gloeckner is a child on a swing, but the lyrics around it seem to say otherwise.

Blowing Through” took me by surprise, as it was light on the production and gave more of a folksy vibe than anything else. On top of that, the song focuses on the more traditional Americana take on folk, which is not too often done from indie acts that focus on electronic and dreamlike music. With “Blowing Through,” Gloeckner proves her bravery in jumping into different genres and making the most out of the best aspects of them.

It’s weird, but Vine does get better nearing the latter half of the album. After “Blowing Through,” “Counting Sheep” is a late evening moment of reflection, where Gloeckner’s voice blends perfectly with the music that drags you along with her. “Prayers” takes the apathy that I was critical about earlier with a sense of self-awareness, focusing on unanswered questions coming from the senses of the world. By that point, I was hooked in and ready to see what was next…better late than never, I suppose.

Jen Gloeckner’s quite a talented performer and the amount of instrumentation mixed in with genres of every kind is beyond impressive; but the arrangement of the album has done a great disservice. I don’t think any of the songs in the first half are a great presentation of her overall skills. What’s left is a mixed bag of unfulfilled potential and the moments when the expectations are met. In the end, Gloeckner is an exciting star that I hope we see so much more from. Vine just bursts with talent from an exciting singer, but it takes patience to see the best that is offered. OK.

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