Drake has gone from sensitive Canadian kid actor to the most popular MC in hip-hop. The worst you can say about him is that he’s not the best pure rapper out there and lacks street cred; that’s still true. But as songwriters go, they don’t get much better. Drake is a new kind of hip-hop star, one less concerned with a hard image than he is with making interesting music. Barring the debatable “Wu-Tang Forever,” this is some of his best material yet. “Started From the Bottom” take a cue from his bud The Weeknd with a relentlessly bleak backdrop and a weary tale of success, like he’s reached the top of the mountain barely breathing—it’s a hell of a way to start a blockbuster album. “Hold On We’re Going Home” has been all over radio, with good reason, like a hip-hop version of Daft Punk’s latest album, all throwback funk and good time vibes, with Drake’s typically lovelorn lyrics. Despite the flak Drake gets for his rapping, Nothing Was the Same features some of Drake’s best rhymes yet, only including a handful of guest spots (2 Chainz and Big Sean add some welcome outside voices on “All Me”) and instead delving deep into Aubrey Drake Graham’s psyche and insecurities. “I hate that mom’s cooped up in her apartment, tellin’ herself that she’s too sick to get dressed up and go do shit” he says on the wrenching “Too Much.” Drake breathlessly delivers “The Language” in triplet cadence and lightens the mood (“She just wanna smoke ‘n’ f*ck, I said, ‘girl that’s all that we do’”). By the time he delivers the line “just give it time, we’ll see who’s still around a decade from now” on epic closer “Tuscan Leather,” Drake’s got little left to prove. If the haters provide fuel for his fire, haters keep hatin’ cause Nothing Was the Same is a beautiful smackdown.
Valerie June started her Sept. 19 set at Amoeba Hollywood with little fanfare, playing guitar steadily and humming hypnotically to a stripped-down version of the title track to Pushin' Against a Stone (on CD or LP), the title track to her fourth and breakthrough album. On record, it's a fuzz-guitar laden soul number; live, June appeared solo, strumming her guitar and allowing her voice to grow slowly over time, moving from low and earthy to high and keening like Joanna Newsom's. "I ain't fit to be no mother" she sang on "Workin' Woman Blues," the album's awesome opener. Though her playing style was rudimentary, she got her point across, playing rough blues riffs and strumming open notes for a droning effect.
Even with a big name producer on her album like The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, Valerie June isn't an artist who's been polished to a professional sheen. She still came off as an eccentric, saying little and hiding behind sunglasses. While she sometimes played furiously and sang her heart out, it seemed as though she was playing to herself, alone in a room—something that didn't hurt her performance, but rather made it all the more curious.
Actress Karen Black died from cancer last month. Before she passed, she recorded this great song with singer Cass McCombs, who also dueted with Black on the memorable “Dreams-Come-True-Girl,” the opener to 2009’s Catacombs. In this song from the upcoming Big Wheel and Others, Black takes the lead, her voice sounding lively and wild. For fans of Black, this posthumous release is a beautiful gift. The 22-song Big Wheel and Others is due Oct. 15 on Domino, listen to “Brighter” below and “There Can Only Be One” here. McCombs will be at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown Nov. 12, L.A.’s The Echo Nov. 14 and S.F.’s Great American Music Hall Nov. 15.
Glasser – “Design” video
The video for the second single from L.A.-based Glasser’s upcoming Interiors album (preorder on CD or LP) features Glasser’s Cameron Mesirow in a futuristic Mad Men dress dancing with an animated sculpture. It reinforces the message: This is electro-pop fit for a museum, not just the dancefloor. Interiors is due Oct. 8 on True Panther/Matador.
Islands took the stage at Ameoba Hollywood Sept. 17, the day they released their fifth album, Ski Mask (on CD, LP or download). The band mostly played songs from that album, portraying a more mature, subdued version of Islands than we've previously seen. However, Nick Thorburn is still a beast and a ham onstage—"We're Islands, it's true—oh shit," he said, distracted by something, then went to start a song on keys before returning to holding the mic and strutting through "Wave Forms," Ski Mask's buoyant opener. "Death Drive" introduced cool analog keyboard sounds and a subtle hip-hop feel to the set. For Ski Mask's best song, "Becoming the Gunship," Thorburn took to playing a beautiul white guitar—he and his band all looked pretty dapper, btw, but that's neither here nor there—and his bandmates offered solid harmonies. They reached back to 2008's Arm's Way for the discoy "Creeper" before returning to the newer material, proclaiming "Contractually, I'm obligated to ask you to buy [Ski Mask]" before launching into that album's “Winged Beat Drums,” a funkier song akin to Spoon with nice dynamics and sunny lines like "life's not a gas, it's a gas chamber." Thorburn picked his guitar alone in the opening of the sad-sounding "Here Here," while "Hushed Tones" saw bigger, Who-style ringing chords, with a soft underbelly of watery synths. Thorburn appeared to get annoyed with someone in the audience and invited the guy onstage to air his complaints—that guy ended up being rapper Subtitle, who joined the band to deliver his rap on Return to the Sea's "Where there's a will, There's a whalebone." Even as they've mellowed out, Islands couldn't resist throwing a bit of mayhem into the mix. The band stuck around for a signing session that included all members of the band biting into one of their records—perhaps to authenticate it as real, like people did in the olden days with gold coins.
Amid the countless recent reunions of '90s bands, the timing seems perfect for the return of Sebadoh. While he's been toiling beneath the din of J Mascis' guitar heroics in the reunited Dinosaur Jr. for years, Lou Barlow's second-fiddle position in that band hasn't given enough of an outlet for Barlow's own songwriting. Thus Barlow sounds hungry on Defend Yourself, the first Sebadoh album since 1999. "Can you tell that I'm about to lose control?" he asks on the outset of the album on "I Will," over a serviceable melodic jangle. That statement proves true, as things get more interesting as Defend Yourself progresses. The stuttering "Beat" provides ample room for Barlow to shred both his guitars and vocals. It sounds as though Barlow's world is coming apart in the rumbling "Defend Yr Self"—an understandable position, given the end of his marriage, which provides bitter fuel for Barlow's fire on this album. Songs like "Oxygen," an upbeat indie pop-rocker, and "Once," a tentative instrumental, provide respite (though "Oxygen's" typically caustic lyrics remind us that even the shiniest apples from Barlow are laced with arsenic). But Barlow's at his manic best in songs like "Inquiries," which heaves into a nauseating (in a thrilling way) final portion, or "Final Days," which pairs headlong, full-band rush with world-doubting lyrics ("it's all made up and a waste of time" Barlow sings under his breath). With a mouthful of bile, Barlow spits out the songs of Defend Yourself. The resulting record feels as crucial and relevant as anything he's been a part of.