Category Archives: Review

On ‘Anti,’ Rihanna finally slows down and finds her center

Listening to Rihanna’s new album, Anti, it’s obvious there’s no mega-hit — there’s no eletcro-pop gem like “Diamonds,” no “Umbrella”-like anthem.

After her frantic run of albums over several years, Rihanna, paused, tweaked and molded, ripped down and rebuilt Anti. Anti is not a particularly happy or uplifting album either. Rihanna’s emotions shift constantly, from loneliness to lust, vulnerability to indecision.

But there’s still plenty about Anti to love. The depth and darkness she’s uncovered here is the farthest she’s come personally in her music, and it makes for a compelling and captivating album.

Her decision to drop the singles “BBHMM,” “American Oxygen” and “FourFiveSeconds” from Anti was the right one — and whether Anti yields an R&B hit doesn’t seem to concern her right now.

She begins by reclaiming her Barbadian accent on “Consideration,” forgoing her earlier Americanized vocals. “I got to do things my own way darling / “Will you ever let me?” she chants defiantly.

The interlude “James Joint” boils down her love life to smoking weed, making out and not giving a damn about anything else. Although it’s the briefest song, the swirl of soft electro-pop notes is the sexiest on the entire album. Another slow jam, “Kiss It Better,” features an‘80s-era guitar hook that could just as easily be a Prince write-off.

She can play the good girl just as easily as the bad, and it’s her prerogative which character she chooses to embody. She doesn’t need to waste time with emotional baggage on “Needed Me” (“But baby, don’t get it twisted/You was just another n—- on the hit list/Trying to fix your issues with a bad b*tch.”)  Later on the album she plays the vulnerable woman who’s uncertain how to feel when she finds herself in the pangs of new love on the docile acoustic pop of “Never Ending.”

But her best work comes toward the end.

She lets loose on the doo-wop tune “Higher,” accentuating its distorted, wobbly strings, and on its sister tune — the slow, retro 1-2-3 beat of “Love on the Brain” – she’s never been more daring. “I’m tired of being played like a violin,” she says. When her voice is stripped of electronic assets and allowed to become grainy and raw, it shines.

By the time Rihanna closes Anti with a tender piano ballad, it’s clear she’s evolved; you get the sense that she’s come to terms with or is at peace with whatever demons she was fighting. Those annual album drops may now be a thing of the past.

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Filed under Doo Wop, Electro-pop, Pop, Review, Uncategorized

Joanna Newsom’s “Divers” a breathtaking journey through time

Harpist, singer and composer Joanna Newsom is not everyone’s cup of tea. On much of her catalog, you may have to pause and look up a word just to glimpse her plane of thought.

But that’s just part of what Newsom is so good at: She transports you to another time, puts you in a breathless reverie and sweeps you up into her stories of lost love and vast, desolate landscapes.

There are layers of meaning packed tightly within each song on her new album, “Divers,” and when you think you’ve figured it out, further research will only unravel more secrets.

But deciphering the whole of “Divers” is an endeavor far greater than can be squeezed into a review; suffice to say, “Divers” is an emotional celebration of the sanctity of life and death and all of its regrets, described through shockingly vibrant imagery Newsom’s created amid often-delicate pastoral scenes. It’s an incredible album.

newsom landscape

Those who are already fans of Newsom’s complex work are familiar with her use of polyrhythms and classical instruments – she knew she wanted to learn the harp when she was 4 and hasn’t looked back.

Newsom often changes tempo and time signatures within lengthy songs, and her use of traditional instruments — pedal harp, harpsichord and flute — all lend to her classical style. She never sticks with that genre though, and is most well known as an indie/folk artist.

“Divers,” her fourth album, sees Newsom adding physical drums to her repertoire, along with violins, fiddles, electric guitar and flute. She also blends soulful blues notes, psychedelic pop, Appalachian and country, classical, ephemeral, and period-piece music into “Divers,” sometimes all in one song, but she’s just as comfortable letting her solitary voice and a bare piano or pedal harp do the work.

Although her songs are deeply woven, it’s still easy to fall into the album’s natural pace and its trance.

Songs like “Goose Eggs” and “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne” have a country bent to them, whether it’s slide guitar, or a slow rolling melody, or hints of fiddle.

joanna newsom_leaving_city pic

On “Goose Eggs” in particular, Newsom delves into more conventional pop/country/ chamber-pop music, even mixing in ‘60s psychedelic organ, displaying her broad musical agility.

Throughout “Divers,” Newsom weeps for the loss of time, and of mortality, then in the next measure will sing joyfully of transient life and its delicate beauty.

On “The Things I Say,” she laments how people keep their life “like a deck of cards,” keeping it safely packed away to use for a day that never actually comes.

On “Time, As a Symptom,” Newsom continues to speak of those “bleeding out their days in the river of time,” but through the chorus, reinforces the “nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life.”

Joanna Newsom harp

“Why is the pain of birth lighter borne than the pain of death?” Newsom asks on the title track, a heartbreaking ancient sea tale of a woman waiting for true love and knowing she might die without fulfilling that need. “I’ll hunt the pearl of death to the bottom of my life,” she sings resignedly.

On “A Pin-Light Bent,” Newsom romanticizes the story of a flight attendant’s fall from the sky, and the beauty she would have seen as she fell to earth. With the song composing only her voice and the tense, repeating notes of her harp, deeply personal lyrics of the briefness and fragility of life are revealed.

“My life came and went/My life came and went /Short flight, free descent,” she sings sadly. Comparing tiny, lit homes seen from high above to a mass of honeycomb is somehow gorgeous to imagine.

There are so many things about “Divers” that’s open to personal interpretation. Much of the time, it’s well enough to just let Newsom’s elegant language, the slow pace of each song, and her wondering voice wash over you.

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Filed under Classical, Indie folk, Indie pop, Psychedelic folk, Psychedelic rock, Review

Cold Beat’s sophomore album “Into the Air” shows a band in sync

After a strong showing with their debut LP “Over Me” just last year, punk and electro-pop band Cold Beat is back with “Into the Air.”

Already, the band seems deeply in sync, a feat that could take more than a few albums for a new band to master before they can focus on pushing personal boundaries.

Bassist, vocalist and primary songwriter Hannah Lew, previously with the San Francisco surf-rock trio Grass Widow, easily carries the weight of Cold Beat’s vocals. Her strong yet angelic sound acts as a guiding light for the album’s dark points. Add the rest of the band’s playful pop/synth style, and Cold Beat can embody the punk-crossover rebellion of Blondie or the bleeding-heart shoegaze of Dum Dum Girls.

Lew’s lush voice soars throughout the album — it radiates romantic warmth, mirroring Debbie Harry’s opulent style.

Haunting, isolating melodies and moody soundscapes are what Cold Beat does best, evident in the synthwave wanderings of the instrumental “Clouds” and the drum-machine and space-rock album closer “Ashes.”

But the band can also change its attitude within a song. They build tension with a guitar clang and propulsive drumming on the protopunk “Sisters,” a song that later finds solace in a flowing melody, which was somehow there all along. Compare those textures with the brisk guitar strumming of the straightforward “Am I Dust,” or Lew’s heartbreaking indecision on “Broken Lines,” and Cold Beat’s broad versatility on “Into the Air” becomes even clearer.

The new album, “Into the Air” was on Lew’s label Crime On the Moon on Sept. 4.

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Filed under Dream pop, Electro-pop, Indie Rock, New Wave, Post-punk, Punk, Review, Space rock, Synth pop

Half Japanese’ EP “Bingo Ringo” spits in the eye of song conformity

When noise-punk, lo-fi grunge band Half Japanese formed in a Maryland bedroom in 1975, Kurt Cobain was only a kid. But by Nirvana’s In Utero tour in 1993, Cobain had sought Half Japanese as openers. And when Cobain died, he was also reportedly wearing a T-shirt with Half Japanese’ name emblazoned on it.

Since its early days, Half Japanese’s influence has spread far, to 90s groups like Sonic Youth and Teenage Fanclub, Neutral Milk Hotel and Daniel Johnston.

Mark Jickling, some guy from Nirvana, John Sluggett, Gilles Rieder photo by Mike Galinski

Mark Jickling, some guy from Nirvana, John Sluggett, Gilles Rieder
photo by Mike Galinski

Brothers Jad and David Fair have always kept the band’s DIY roots over the years. Jad Fair continues to prefer untuned guitars, famously saying, “The only chord I know is the one that connects the guitar to the amp.”

Half Japanese’ irreverence, paired with Jad Fair’s half-singing, half-talking off-beats, leads to freeform lo-fi punk songs that revolve around creature-feature monsters and sci-fi freaks, as well as more standard song fodder such as young love.

With its latest six-song EP, “Bingo Ringo,” Half Japanese continue to upend any conventionalities they happen to run into.

In the fruit-infatuated “Stuck On You,” Fair sings of blueberries, lemon-limes and strawberries — the garden that feeds his puppy-love crush.

“Me and you, and you and me are like peaches in an apple tree…… The pot of gold is ours/bless our f*ing lucky stars,” sings Fair. Slashes of noise-punk guitar bitterness slice through the lyric sweetness.

“I feel his fangs in my neck, there ain’t no way out,” he drones and sputters in “Dracula’s Casket.”

And during the country swagger of the uplifting “New Awakening,” Fair forcefully spits out, “Put more pep into your step,” parodying that overused anthem.

Initially, the EP’s title track might seem bred from cookie-cutter pop blandness, but Jad Fair’s comical spoken-word, grit-your-teeth vocals carry it safely away from Top 40 conformity.

fairjad_large half japanese

With “Bingo Ringo,” Half Japanese sticks to what it does best — playing benign melodies that quickly degenerate into rabid vocals and electric guitar recklessness, the conduit through which funky hooks and infectious melodies are found.

Released July 31 on Joyful Noise Recordings, only 173 lathe-cut records have been made of “Bingo Ringo.”

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Filed under artpunk, EPs, Lo-Fi, Noise rock, Post-punk, Punk, Review

Pins bears the scars of falling in love with “Wild Nights”

The British all-girl band Pins works the smooth and jagged angles that intersect dream-pop, shoegaze and garage punk to create a highly stylized second album with “Wild Nights.”

The album glorifies those universal moments of lust and danger; later, when they try to clean up the shards of their painful breakups, they wise up and realize love, at least as they’d like to imagine it, is never a sure bet.

The group comes out, guns blazing, on the punk-rock “Baby Bhangs,” and shocked at how good being bad can actually be.

The bright guitar jangle of “Young Girls” embodies what most disheartened teens are going through, living in blank and bleak cement suburbs. Instead of sitting around waiting for their big break to come, Pins suggest breaking out.

Pins-Young Girls vid

By the time you hit the confident ease of the shoegaze sound on Song 3, “Curse These Dreams,” the band establishes itself as heartbroken dreamlovers, moving confidently through “Wild Nights.”

On the more retro biker-chic songs like “If Only,” they storm the genre full-tilt, and singer Faith Holgate declares her loneliness in love.

Holgate can confidently pull off lines like, “I don’t know what to do with myself” and “I tell myself I’m OK, but honestly, I don’t believe me,” and sounds sure of, and resigned in, her femininity.

Pins has shown way more dimension than what can be expressed through anger and straight punk chords.

Through Sophie Galpin’s pounding drums that richly and glumly sound the beat, Holgate’s richly romantic voice, and solid talent from bassist Anna Donigan and guitarist Lois McDonald, the band lets songs breathe and flow, and then slowly build momentum, until you feel their loss too.

Pins’ “Wild Nights” is out on Bella Union.

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Filed under Dream pop, Punk, Punk-rock, Review, Shoegaze

Django Django are master experimenters on “Born Under Saturn”

Django Djano’s “Born Under Saturn” revels in the beauty of tranquil harmonies as much as it envelopes itself in new territory.

The British art-rock quartet’s sound lands squarely in the realm of synth-dance music, but the difference lays in their cool harmonies – think of the Beach Boys under a psychedelic black light.

Vincent Neff’s smooth, layered vocal workings remind us that while life is homogenized and often oblivious to negativity, human emotions are messy, and that’s to be celebrated.

The band wraps in ‘80s progressive-tech influences, adding Jamaican and African rhythms, forming a hybridization of sonic layers that Django Django handles with ease.

Django video 2The vintage progressive-synth notes of “Shot Down” are further cultivated on the electric-dance notes of “First Light.” The sultry sax on “Reflections” brings in a jazzy art-rock feel that warms up its chilled space-rock synthesizer.

Vegas kitsch kick-starts the percussion sound in “Found You,” while “4000 Years” is straight biker-chic comic-book rock. Traditional slow piano and swooning drums color the hometown sound of “Beginning to Fade.”

The astral “High Moon” gives space to that place between darkness and dawn, creating a digital landscape of satellites, blazing sun and shades of night.

On “Break the Glass,” xylophone surprisingly follows an upbeat guitar strum, creating one of the album’s strongest electro-dance numbers.

The scorching, slow build of “Born Under Saturn” establishes Django Django as funk-synth grand experimenters, and is as an example of how to blaze new territory while in a landscape of indecisive subgenres.

The album is out now on Ribbon Music.

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Filed under Art rock, Dance-Synth, New Music, Review, Synth pop

Lady Lamb visits all dimensions in existential “After”


Lady Lamb: “After”

With “After,” indie-folk singer-songwriter Lady Lamb has crossed that perilous chasm of the sophomore album in beautiful fashion.

“After” is more polished than “Ripely Pine,” Aly Spaltro’s 2013 debut shorn from a cache of hundreds of recordings she spilled out into the night while working at a movie-rental store in Maine in 2007.

The album explores human mortality, its before and after and all the mess in between, citing the Big Bang, the age of the dinosaurs and alien sitings as bizarre precursors to humankind’s evolving identity. She uses laser-focused lyrics and dark visuals to hook the listener.

“Dear Arkansas Daughter,” with beating drums, spews angry indie-rock. Spaltro sings of a “dying” love “as sharp and serious as a pistol in the eye,” displays softened emotions mid-song, and then reignites into hardened bitterness.

Spaltro also reminds us that mundane things can still hold the answer to ancient secrets. In “Spat Out Spit, ” the mention of a peeled orange becomes her springboard to another dimension.

“We’re just made of flecks of the heavens, spat-out spit/We are filled with the gore, from long before” she quietly reasons.

“After” is full of lighter moments as well.

In the bright pop of “Billions of Eyes,” Spaltro expresses her ambivalence with traveling and touring.

“Some days I can only see into my suitcase/I just want to fall into a pile of warm laundry/ I just wanna keep very, very quiet,” she sings.


Lady Lamb: “After”

“Batter” creates another of Spaltro’s apocalyptic scenes, breaking the sparse song wide open right over a plane crash.

“Don’t let your demons take you to the cleaners,” she warns in the punk/folk rant, calling up the heavy subjects of Catholicism and virginity.

But after each honest, existential wondering on “After,” Spaltro returns the listener safely home, while she continues on her personal journey to hell and back.

“After” is out on the Mom+Pop label.

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Filed under Indie folk, Indie Rock, Punk, Review

Arthur Fowler’s struggles abound in “What’s Keeping Me Going”

Arthur Fowler: What's Keeping Me Going

Arthur Fowler: What’s Keeping Me Going

Singer-songwriter, Milwaukee native and Tokyo transplant Arthur Fowler has culled influences from Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens and Carlos Santana to create his own fusion of acid-folk on his debut, “What’s Keeping Me Going.”

Fowler uses other instruments such as harmonica, accordion and fiddle to express his lounge-jazz style and to incorporate flecks of flamenco and psychedelic folk. And sometimes what is revealed is a success.

On the title track, the sound of running water, birds and calm harmonies melt with acoustic finger work and gentle bongo drums to create a sweet and tender love song, while the Caribbean motion of “Love The Music” is delicately played and stays light on its feet — indicative of the overall melodic sway of “What’s Keeping Me Going.”

But his contemporary retelling of Jimi Hendrix’ “Room Full Of Mirrors,” while honest, leaves only the lyrics as a reminder of that cutting song, replacing anguish and lust with busy zydeco and jazz notes. On Neil Young’s “For the Turnstiles,” Fowler stays more faithful to that country-folk classic, but it’s far less memorable. Fowler’s preference for a slower tempo drags things down a bit too much.

The despair in the guitar notes of “Splash” are touching, but when he switches tracks and deadpans “I can’t live without your loving, I can’t live at all,” it clumsily misses the mark. The blues-tinged harmonica and obvious lyrics are misguided, though it’s clear Fowler is trying to express ambivalence and struggle.

Despite a few missteps, at least one shade of Fowler’s eclectic style on “What’s Keeping Me Going” should appeal to those seeking a new take on folk.

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Filed under Acid Folk, Folk, Jazz, Review

Nots have punk locked up with “We Are Nots”



Slow songs are overrated. Any band that says they’re punk but then tries to sneak in a “slow” song — imposters. Stick with the real thing.

If you’re looking for that authenticity, that brazen punk, Nots have it.

There’s a bold intensity to the quartet’s latest, “We Are Nots,” — a passion fueled by youth’s abandon and bravery. That lack of fear is what drives young music and ideas, and what keeps real punk music alive.

If you listen to “Dust Red” from the band’s earlier 7”— their sound was even more garage and muffled in its darkness and desolateness. It’s good to hear that with this full-length debut, they’ve been polished up a bit from that extreme lo-fi scuzz-dust.

we are nots

With the blazing opener, “Insect Eyes,” they’ve already announced their signature sound, although they sometimes veer off with indie-rock bass melodies as on “Strange Rage.”

Besides strong showings by bassist Madison Farmer and guitarist Natalie Hoffmann, Charlotte Watson’s drumming is delivered machine-gun style, and Alexandra Eastburn’s synth keeps up that creature-feature blackness that gets stuffed into your head with a pneumatic drill.

The bonus on “We Are Nots” is that they’re mostly full-length songs– most are more than 2 minutes. “Reactor” is nearly 4 minutes—eons for a punk song, but no worries—it’s not overdone, just damn fun.

It’s so refreshing to hear four Memphis women blasting up such a hardcore sound from the underground. It’s like a breath of fresh air— heavy, strong, rank air, laden with sex and sweat, that you just can’t get enough of.


“We Are Nots” was out Nov. 11 on Goner Records.

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Filed under Garage Punk, Garage rock, Hardcore punk, New Music, Noise Punk, Post-punk, Protopunk, Punk, Review

Fall into the spectre of autumn with Comet Gain’s “Paperback Ghosts”


With Comet Gain’s seventh album, “Paperback Ghosts,” the British indie pop band stays true to its soaring folk and soul melodies with honest, straightforward lyrics.
The band’s instant resemblance to The Replacements, Velvet Underground and Big Star is striking, but Comet Gain easily pulls away from those distinctions while keeping its own fire alive.
The album was inspired by the changes of autumn through walks around North London woods. The album is also about ghosts, the band says; the gauzy, haunting spectres of past loves.
The easygoing “Long After Tonite’s Candles Are Blown” sets the tone for “Paperback Ghosts,” with David Charlie Feck praising the wonderful things in life, although he soon segues into the realization that “heaven is a lie.”
His youthful vocals are delicate and pleading but also show a vivid level of sadness. Lines like “My map of the universe is your haunted heart” is the band’s personal style of rock poetry.
By the time you hear “Wait ‘til December,” with its soft, country touch and frosty edge conveyed by Rachel Evans’ gentle vocals, you’re blissfully aware that time moves more slowly here.
The gorgeous melody of the homegrown and organic “Sad Love And Other Short Stories” plays with emotional heartstrings that add a gentle drama. “The Last Love Letter” nurtures a pretty duet and heartfelt harmonies, and “Behind the House She Lived In” hearkens memories of childhood and first love.
The upbeat “Breaking Open the Head Part 1” shows the band’s rebellious punk side, while “All the Avenue Girls” channels the “Fables of the Reconstruction” age of early REM.
With additional influences like the Byrds, the Dexys and French New Wave, Comet Gain deftly combines these softer touches with Riot Grrrl and lo-fi styles, lacing those emotions throughout the album and exposing the gray areas between love and hate.
Paperback Ghosts is out on Fortuna Pop! Records.

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Filed under Folk, Indie, New Music, Review