Tough Love finds the singer who made her name in the world of dubstep stretching further into pop environs, with help from the likes of Dev Hynes (Blood Orange), Miguel and Ed Sheeran. The Kate Bush-inspired title track that opens the album is already brighter and warmer than anything she has done before. The radio-ready but cool throbbing beats of “You and I” successfully split the difference between her “indie Sade” past and the pop horizon she now faces. Still, she’s really in her element amid the chilled out synths and digital handclaps of the sumptuous “Cruel.” Ware’s voice is in top form throughout, working wonders on the soulful “Say You Love Me,” amid gospel touches and a skittering beat. Her biggest issue is still somewhat anonymous lyrics, but the music and her voice always seems to make the most of them, driving home lyrics of heartbreak with a nuanced touch, while the tenuously sexy “Kind Of … Sometimes … Maybe” shows off her personality brilliantly, coming off as an update on Janet Jackson’s coy sensuality, filtered through Ware's old soul. Musically, Ware and her collaborators manage to move all over the map and make it seem like they’re travelling a straight line, keeping things rhythmically intriguing on tracks like the sultry “Sweetest Song” and even making room for a throwback disco track like “Want Your Feeling.” If it’s less cohesive than her debut, Devotion, it’s also a lot more fun, and perhaps more consistently rewarding. Tough Love should find Ware expanding her audience beyond the soul, electronica and indie fans who have already discovered her and into the pop realm without losing a shred of her estimable cool.
To listen to Pharmakon is to stare the beast straight in the mouth. Margaret Chardiet’s latest album starts with heavy breathing, panting and a buzzing synth that sounds more like an electroshock therapy machine. “Intent or Instinct” builds deliberately with an atonal loop gathering strength until she unleashes a nasty banshee wail. Free of too much digitized effect, it sounds truly bloodcurdling. It’s also immensely cathartic. And “Body Betrays Itself” feels like it takes over your very being, her most powerful musical statement to date. Not everything in such harsh surroundings works—“Primitive Struggle” is about as inviting as it sounds, full of coughing, spitting and heaving along to a digital heartbeat. But Chardiet can really surprise you, too. “Autoimmune” actually nudges closer to something resembling pop, like the dirtiest Trent Reznor would ever let his hands get. And in the incantation of the title track, Chardiet’s actual, human voice can be heard, albeit echoed out into infinity, and the result is quite affecting, given how she shreds her voice across the rest of the record. So Bestial Burden isn’t for the faint of heart. Dismiss it and you might even get a laugh out of its relentless brutality. But give it your full attention, and it just might change you. So don’t be afraid. Dive in and let Bestial Burden swallow you whole. Note: If you like her records, you should probably see her live.
When it comes to "essential" hip-hop records they don't come much more essential than Nas' 1994 landmark, ten-track debut album Illmatic. The album's 20 year anniversary is being celebrated in grand style this year with a nice vinyl reissue of the album, the recent theatrical release of the award winning documentary about the album, Time Is Illmatic (see trailer below), and an ongoing tour by the famed Queensbridge emcee - fittingly titled the Time Is Illmatic Tour - in which the emcee performs the entire album in track-listing order following a screening of the new documentary. Nas' current California tour dates include two nights at the Fox Theater in Oakland (Oct 19 & 21) and two nights at the Orpheum Theatre in LA (Oct 18 & 22).
Taiga is a pop album, but its creator has made that way intentionally while retaining, and perhaps improving upon, her artistry. Rather than cashing in, the album finds Zola Jesus (aka Nika Rosa Danilova) returning to her roots of sorts, as she largely wrote Taiga on Washington’s Vashon Island, as though returning to the rustic forests where she was raised in Wisconsin, singing “do you wish you could go back to it all?” on the creaking opening title track, which erupts into a jungle beat. From here, we head into powerful pop songs like “Dangerous Days” that find Danilova singing clearly and boldly over dance-pop beats, but with the same paralyzing strength her voice has always commanded. “Go (Blank Sea)” is a little sultrier, built on a slower beat that swells into big, booming pop chorus and disintegrates into fluttering synthesizers, while Nika Roza Danilova’s voice rises and falls with soul and precision. “Hunger’s” hyperkinetic beat and incisive synth riff make for some of the album’s most grabbing moments. And though “Lawless’,” beautiful melodies sound buried under the ice, they’re still firmly pop. Perhaps because of the way in which it was written, the album has a certain isolation to it that comes through on tracks like “Ego,” in which Danilova undergoes thorough self-examination (she pairs similarly painful reflections “I fought against the ego, I know it brought me closer to losin’” and “I fed into the ego, I knew it brought me closer to hubris”), while synthesizers and strings quietly battle around her, sounds creaking cavernously in the background. On Taiga, Danilova sounds as though she’s faced her inner demons and come through on top with an album of powerfully moving pop music.
Electric Youth broke out in a big way with “A Real Hero,” a song that came to define the sound of the film Drive and its corresponding soundtrack. The duo double down on that impossibly romantic synth sound on Innerworld, their long-awaited debut album. That slow-burning pulse is back in songs like “Innocence,” perfectly capturing the romantic ideal of first love with synthesizers that at first sparkle like eyes being rubbed awake and then dazzle with gentle orchestration. Subtly enough referencing the soundtrackers of ’80s proms like Yaz and Alphaville, Bronwynn Griffin’s breathy voice sometimes floats by as a dream and other times catches onto a lighter-waving sentiment, like “we are the youth, we like to sing” (on “WeAreTheYouth”). Though Electric Youth may lack a bit for originality, Innerworld pretty skillfully avoids sameyness by appealing to current Europop-indebted dance music on tracks like “Runaway,” though they’re at their comfortable best on songs like “Without You,” building from their favored digital throb into a lovable freestyle couple. Griffin and her partner, Austin Garrick, have been a couple since the 8th grade, and thus their ability to make every synth stab feel like a dizzying first crush rings authentic. It doesn’t matter if you’ve heard some of the sounds here before, or that they even include the three-year-old “Real Hero”; Innerworld’s swoony romanticism makes you feel like it’s the first time.