The South African family trio of Loyiso, Zwai, and Phelo have been a force against apartheid for years. In 1988 at the age of 12 Zwai became the first black member to join the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir. Since then both of his brothers also became members of the illustrious choir. After years of overcoming poverty, keeping their spirits high and their voices tuned, The Bala Brothers headlined a tribute to Nelson Mandela in December 2013. The trio offer a vocal range spanning from traditional South African to classically trained opera, as well as a hint of modern soul. Their debut release, Bala Brothers , is a spirited live recording from their hometown in Johannesburg. Some highlights include versions of Paul Simons’ “Under African Skies,” the traditional African “Masibuyelane,” and the striking opener Elton Johns’ “Circle of Life.” The feelings that resonate from this live performance are palpable and never more pronounced then on the anti-apartheid anthem “Something Inside So Strong” during which their Drakensberg Boys Choir backs up the extremely talented trio.
Owen writes songs that are emotional and timeless, recalling the golden age of avant-storytellers like Joni Mitchell & Elton John in their heyday, effortlessly combining jazz, folk, and rootsy rock into an exquisite blend of classic songwriting and musicality. The Welsh singer's technically gifted piano playing and strong, smooth, smokey voice ensure a musical experience of exceptional quality and depth as she directs a truly all star band of session players (Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Waddy Wachtel) through her repertoire. Fans of Carole King and Joni Mitchell will find not an imitator but a new and growing voice making good on that legacy.
Lieutenant is the first solo attempt from Bassist Nate Mendel. Mendel, best known for his work with the Foo Fighters, sets aside some of the arena rock edge in favor of his passive angst-ridden days in Sunny Day Real Estate. In those early SDRE recordings Mendel seemed driven to push those tracks with bass work that was intricate and satisfying, and as a songwriter those tendencies remain. One of the highlight tracks, “Sink Sand,” relies on a start and stop rhythm steeped in soaring vocals, horns, and driving percussion. Complex but strong, it is also one of the songs where Mendel seems the most in his element. Having been behind the scenes as a bassist for several heavyweight bands, you occasionally still hear Mendel struggling to steal the spotlight. When he owns that space, as in the pop grunge hit “Rattled,” he makes for a very compelling and utterly likeable frontman. Featuring guests like Joe Plummer (Modest Mouse), Chris Shiflett (Foo Fighters), and Jeremy Enigk (Sunny Day Real Estate) If I Kill This Thing We’re All Going to Eat for a Week is an excellent leap into what will hopefully be a long and fruitful solo career.
It seems that Big Sean has finally arrived in a big way. The Detroit rapper's third and latest album, Dark Sky Paradise , went straight to the number one slot on the Billboard 200 chart following its release. That chart coup, for which he said he felt "blessed," was most deserved since Dark Sky is a much stronger release than its predecessor (2013's comparatively lackluster and poorly received Hall Of Fame ) and is more in line with his 2011 hit-driven debut, Finally Famous , and the mixtapes for which he became famous. In fact Dark Sky Paradise even surpasses Finally Famous since the rapper, born Sean Michael Leonard Anderson, displays obvious growth, both as a person and an artist. This he ably achieves while delivering his beloved bad boy trademark rap style, and being joined by a star-studded guest list who, for the most part, perfectly compliment Big Sean's rap persona. Dark Sky Paradise 's impressive studio collaborators includes none other than John Legend fresh off his Selma GRAMMY win, mentor Kanye West who has believed in the artist since 2007 when he signed him to his G.O.O.D. Music, plus Lil Wayne, Drake, Ariana Grande, Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign, Jhené Aiko, and the Bay Area's legendary longtime slanguage spitting rap star, E-40.
Recorded mostly in Big Sean's new home studio, Dark Sky Paradise was executive produced by Kanye West and features the production assistance of such studio manipulators as DJ Mustard, Travi$ Scott, Key Wane, Boi-1da, and Mike WiLL Made-It. Described by the rapper as a "time capsule of my whole life in the last year," Dark Sky Paradise is the artist lyrically sharing with the world the trials and tribulations of his life, including loss of love as evident in the songs "Win Some, Lose Some" and "IDFWU" (aka "I Don't F**k With You" or "I Don't Mess With You") which was inspired by his last (pre Ariana Grande) relationship (Naya Rivera) that ended in a well-publicized broken engagement. "IDFWU" was pre-released five months ahead of the album as part of the four-song Untitled EP . Other highlights from Dark Sky Paradis e's 12 tracks (15 tracks on the deluxe version) include the opening track, "Dark Sky (Skyscrapers)," the hit "Blessings," "One Man Can Change the World" which addresses the death of his grandmother, and the excellent Kanye West collaboration "All Your Fault." Dark Star Paradise is Big Sean's best album and biggest hit to date but it is not his greatest, yet. That will come, assuming the 27-year old rapper continues his growth as an artist tapping into his real life feelings and emotions as witnessed on this album's standout tracks.
Canadian electronic duo Purity Ring push their dreamy sound outward on their second album, dialing up the hooks and production value for a more straightforward pop release. Songs like “push pull” sound cleaner than the booming tracks of their debut, Shrines , yet they’re still percussively fascinating, possessing the same kind of odd time meters, space, and layered percussive noise that make FKA Twigs such a hit. Megan James’ vocals move further from ethereal to real, particularly on “begin again,” a bass-heavy ode to breaking up and making up. James' lyrics aren’t the kind you parse for concrete detail—dream-R&B ballad “repetition” has lines that make your head spin, like “watchin’ me is like watching a fire take your eyes from you.” But it’s all part of the mesmerizing spell Purity Ring are so adept at casting, utilizing Cocteau Twins-style wordplay and vocal manipulation to seemingly set off digital sirens and synths that shoot like fireworks on “heartsight.” Other than the goth-tinged “dust hymn,” they’ve mostly ditched the witch house thing to dig into a more all-embracing sound. Despite its title, another eternity almost ends too soon, proving that adage that it’s better to leave fans wanting more. It’s a confident sophomore effort that plays up to the band’s melodic and percussive strengths while remaining just elusive enough to keep us as intrigued as ever.
Fantasy Empire is the sonic manifestation of a noise duo capturing the hearts and souls of millions. Not tyrannically, but democratically nominated to lead the masses into a new age. Never has the assault from Gibson and Chippendale been more satisfying. Fantasy Empire riffs, attacks, and grooves unlike any other Load release. Albums like Hypermagic Mountain and Earthy Delights summarized the Lightning Bolt experience without ever capturing it. They had previously forced the racket around the listener instead of engaging them with it. Fantasy Empire does exactly that. Whether this is due to the new digs at Thrill Jockey or a just a wavelength that these two exquisite musicians have hit for this recording, Fantasy Empire is an exciting release for anybody who might be afraid of a little noise.
Since their inception, Liturgy has cast aside the typical to embrace a higher form of black metal. Once named “Transcendental Black Metal,” Hunter Hunt-Hendrix and company have reconvened to transcend even that. “Fanfare,” the lead off track on Ark Work , is a slow crescendo of horns (synth and otherwise) which builds to a fever pitch until glitch and madness have taken hold. The build, reminiscent to the choral opening of The Body’s 2010 All the Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood , replaces human vocals with synthesizers. This is the new transcendence. Ark Work ’s ten tracks hit hard, filled with blast beats and fierce tremolo guitar to beat the band. With it are Glockenspiels, sampled crowd chants, bells, harpsichords, the aforementioned synth horns, Bagpipes, and nearly everything else atypical of a black metal release. It’s a new form of IDM-ish black metal with a melodic industrial edge. For those who are not convinced of its black metal prowess please refer to the savage eleven minute opus “Reign Array.”
Electro-rockers AWOLnation are back with a second album that sounds absolutely huge. Frontman and singer Aaron Bruno, who wrote, performed and produced Run on his own, crafts songs that seem to lurch forward on their own. Tracks like “Run” pulse robotically and move precariously forward with the frontman as Bruno repeats “I am a human being, capable of doing terrible things” before unleashing a nasty, metallic guitar blast. “Hollow Moon (Bad Wolf)’s” synths and guitars move in lockstep while Bruno’s voice soars overheard and raps over the breakdown. “Windows” manages to groove while sounding ferocious at the same time, Bruno’s voice growling through a synthy beat and building into a lush chorus. It describes the genius of AWOLnation—they’ll get you to a big beat or cool riff, but rarely through traditional means. Savoring uniqueness without sacrificing an ounce of hookiness, Run digs deep.
Chicago-based folkster Ryley Walker has taken a leap from the primitive to the profound in his sophomore album. Primrose Green weighs in with less hero worship homage to the likes of Fahey, Basho, and Jansch in favor of a more spontaneous original flighty groove anchored by a truly savvy and tight band. The playful finger picking of the titular track, “Primrose Green,” bounces along piano keys as Walker’s soulful vocals corral the melodies into an elaborate '60s folk garden. Much of the work of the record is left to the seemingly reborn vocal style of the 25-year old singer/songwriter. When infused with the fuzzed guitar of Brian Sulpizio on “Sweet Satisfaction” Walker ably wails like a man experiencing a pain way beyond his years. On “All Kinds of You” drummer Frank Rosaly leads the band in a jazzy jam session where the poetry of Walker’s words remain hidden in the crests and valleys of every beat. The only place on the record where Ryley’s voice may have to take the backseat is the elegant piano work of Ben Boye. That being said the interplay of Walker’s guitar and Boye’s keys on “Love Can Be Cruel” is a showstopper. Walker’s band sound rounds out with some heartbreaking string work led by Fred Lonberg-Holm and Whitney Johnson. Primrose Green is a lush charming '60s folk record made by excited musicians in 2015. Ryley Walker, being the most excited and exciting of the bunch.
After a four year hiatus The Go! Team is back! Specifically principal songwriter Ian Parton is back with a foray into melodic pop that sounds similar to a science experiment. Parton has composed roughly forty minutes of charming glittering jittering pop and has hired no less than a half dozen female crooners to bring it to life. A more serene Go! Team if you will. And although the trademark chants and raps of records past are lacking on this recording, The Scene Between comes alive in bursts and waves. The songwriting is undeniable, and each of the female artists takes the opportunity to awaken the melodies. Each unknown to Parton before the recordings he has obviously uncovered some real talent. Doreen Kirchner is sublime fronting the jangly “Blowtorch.” French songstress Glockabelle is also a highlight with “Catch Me On The Rebound.” It may not be what Go! Team fans were expecting but Parton and newly found company have made one sweet record.
Oudist Anour Brahem’s 2015 release, Souvenance , is inspired by the socio-political climate in his native Tunisia. It's a darker outing than we have experienced from him in the past, due in part to his addition of the Orchestra delia Svizzera Italiana conducted by Pietro Miantini to his oft hypnotic sound. The drone that would flit and flutter now seems to have gained a weightiness that represents a profound sadness. The orchestra, though used sparingly, adds that same weight, providing an intimate hopeful texture to Souvenance . Francois Couturier’s piano serve the pieces quite well, giving the listener a melodic solid foothold throughout. Along with Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet and Bjorn Meyer on bass, Anouar Brahem has assembled a nuanced and effective group of musicians that intermingle and weave through the rhythmic sounds of his Oud.
“Death With Dignity” opens Carrie & Lowell as a touching elegy to Sufjan Stevens’ mother, yet it also could describe his relationship to his own music. “I don’t know where to begin,” he sings, and “I’ve got nothing to prove” over a familiar bed of bluegrass-inspired folk. Stevens was like the A-plus student of indie pop, turning out album after album of perfectly manicured orchestral folk-pop, but lost his way a bit with The BQE , an album and project that felt unwieldy, as well the hectic electro-folk of The Age of Adz . Carrie & Lowell , by comparison, is one of his most stripped-down albums to date. That’s not to say it doesn’t have his trademark fixation on detail— songs shift halfway through, like “Should Have Known Better’s” turn into stuttering, laptoppy acoustics and choral touches, or “Drawn to the Blood’s” extended string finale; “you checked your text while I masturbated,” he sings casually, telling a girl she looks like Poseidon in the sexually turbulent “All of Me Wants All of You.” Lyrically and musically, Stevens remains a curious tinkerer, but Carrie & Lowell never feels busy in the slightest. It’s an intensely focused work, one that places Stevens’ voice and songcraft over bells and whistles. Whereas locations and history seemed to hold Stevens’ interest in the past, here he’s death-obsessed (and still spiritual as ever). “Fourth of July” feels romantically morbid and carries the happy refrain “we’re all gonna die,” and on “The Only Thing,” he sounds stricken with grief to the point of barely being able to keep going on. Stevens’ way with language, drawing on mythology and Christian imagery, and ascendant voice keeps the songs from wallowing too deeply, even as they describe an immense sense of loss, allowing those moments when he does break—“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’” “Fuck me, I’m falling apart”—to land all the more effectively. Without the filter of a state’s history or the heavy religiosity of Seven Swans , Carrie & Lowell finds Stevens turning his studious eye inward to fully explore his own grief, and the results are never short of breathtaking.