Every Friday, ‘The Album Cycle’ reviews a handful of new releases.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK
Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
Giddens’ second solo album comprises of a moving 12 tracks that travel through 200 years of black American history, using traditional folk rhythms and powerful storytelling as a means to cover slavery, the civil rights movement, the role of black women, sexual violence, and contemporary police violence. Giddens is near unparalleled in her ability to use the personal to tell of experiences shared by many, a skill supported on this album by the presence of long-standing collaborators and close family members. Opening track, ‘At the Purchaser’s Option’, sets the tone for the album, telling a bone-chilling tale of slavery, with lyrics like “My fingers bleed to make you rich.” Then there’s the cover of ‘Birmingham Sunday’ where, supported by a choir, she sings of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. By the end of the album, Giddens reaches a place of hope that draws comparisons to the full-circle nature of Beyonce’s LEMONADE. At a time when rap and hip-hop are representing the bulk of modern protest music, Freedom Highway tells these stories in a way that’s beautiful, reflective, haunting and hopeful all at once. It’s an album that will likely fail to find the wide-reaching audience it deserves, but one that is critically, culturally and musically so very important and deserving of people’s time. – Kate Robertson
Rhiannon Giddens had been working away in the American folk scene as a member of well regarded collective the Carolina Chocolate Drops for over a decade before releasing her solo debut, Tomorrow is My Turn in 2015. That album comprised almost entirely of covers of songs popularised by female artists through the course of history, which Giddens and producer T-Bone Burnett took and moulded into a subtly political album which garnered significant acclaim. On her follow up Freedom Highway Giddens’ approach is similar, though the bulk of the record comprises originals this time. If anything her message is more overtly political, as she skillfully ties a thread between historical narratives of slavery such as ‘At the Purchaser’s Option’ and ‘Julie’, through to the thoroughly modern ‘Better Get it Right This Time’, which addresses police violence and even features a rapped verse by band member Justin Harrington. This is no sombre neo folk treatise, as Giddens masterfully broadens her sound over the course of the album, augmenting her distinctive vocals and banjo playing with a wide palette of sounds, be it the New Orleans-style brass of ‘Hey Bebe’ or even the churning ‘I’m Waiting for the Man’-style guitars of the title track. The result is a thoroughly contemporary take on folk that betters its predecessor, and offers a vital voice of hope in the face of difficulty. – Pete Douglas
Kehlani – SweetSexySavage
When you’re dealing with revivalism in music, how much of the spirit of the era that you’re sonically communing with via Ouija board belongs to the art, or the artefacts? The message or the medium? Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage doesn’t just tip the hat to TLC’s CrazySexyCool, but at 17 tracks (nineteen if you could the auto-appended bonus/”deluxe” tracks), also evokes the CD-era sprawl of pre-crash record industry largesse. Like many R&B singers in the past five years, Kehlani genuflects before Saint Aaliyah, but she has the songwriting chops to match the buzzy vibes and demonstrative vulnerability: ‘Too Much’, for example, wrestles with ‘More Than A Woman’ rather than the more common approach of using the deceased singer as a moodboard.
On SweetSexySavage, Kehlani has excellent collaborators in songwriting/production duo Pop & Oak, who are best known known for Usher’s ‘Good Kisser’, Nicki Minaj’s ‘Your Love’ and Rihanna’s ‘Numb’, but I’d put them in the pantheon for slept-on touchstones like Elle Varner’s ‘Refill’, Tamia’s ‘Sandwich and a Soda’ and K. Michelle’s ‘V.S.O.P.’. On ‘Not Used To It’ they sample, of all people, early aughts Wellingtonian Rhian Sheehan’s ‘Waiting’, while on ‘Everything Is Yours’ they punctuate Kehlani’s brooding ruminations and shaded self-loathing with crisp percussion splitting the difference between Oakland and London. What makes Kehlani’s songwriting so strong is her deftness at switching between sleek choruses and disarming conversational forthrightness. While she shares some common ground with other practitioners of “probably not the best person to date” R&B, she shows a lot more empathy than certain brooding fuckboys seemingly trapped overnight in a wax museum of exes – “Anything you’re saying to me right now / You probably have the right to say.” – Stevie Kaye
Sun Kil Moon – Common As Light And Love Are Valleys of Red Blood
February 24, 2017. It’s a beautiful day. I went to Burger Fuel for lunch and ordered an American Muscle burger and fries. While I waited for them to bring my order I played FIFA Mobile on my phone and got an 86 OVR Anthony Modeste. When I got back to the office I had one new email in my inbox. It was a Slack notification from my colleague Henry. It said: “heard any albums?” I’ve heard a lot of albums. One of the first albums I remember hearing was The Proclaimers Sunshine on Leith on my dad’s record player back in 1989. I was four years old and loved the way Charlie and Craig Reid sang in heavy Scottish accents like my mum had. I replied to Henry saying I heard one new song off the new Sun Kil Moon album this week. It was a 10-minute dirge called ‘Sarah Lawrence College Song’ in which Mark Kozelek talks about playing a show at Sarah Lawrence College in New York City and sings the contents of the thank-you note someone wrote him. I saw the song on Spotify on Monday on a playlist I follow called ‘Independent Music Monday’. I clicked play on the Sun Kil Moon song immediately because I enjoyed the previous album Benji even though Mark Kozelek is meant to be a bad guy. On ‘Sarah Lawrence College Song’ he was still doing the same kind of rambling stream-of-consciousness speak-singing mundanely profound vocals like he did on Benji but the music was different, it seemed more blunt and angular. I wondered if he hired the guys from Slint as his rhythm section for this album. When I was a teenager growing up in Dunedin I liked the Slint song ‘Good Morning Captain’ but back then music was harder to come by, you couldn’t just go on YouTube and listen to anything you wanted like the hipsters these days, so I never heard the rest of the Spiderland album and by the time it became accessible to me I had lost interest in that kind of music. When I told Henry I had listened to one song and had a gutsful he replied “can you write that up?” I thought in the interests of writing a fair and considered review I should listen to at least some of the other songs but when I clicked on the album I saw that it was 16 songs and over two hours long with no song shorter than 6 minutes in length. I thought about how when I was a kid one of my favourite bands in the world was Queen. Back then it felt like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was the longest song in the world but it was only 5 minutes 54 seconds long. If it was on the new Sun Kil Moon album it would be the shortest song. I looked out the window and it was getting cloudy, like it might rain. I thought if it rains I won’t be able to walk home from work today. This morning on my walk to work I saw out the corner of my eye something fall out of a tree as I was walking past. I flinched because I thought it might be a dead bird but when I looked down it was a cute black kitten which had jumped out of the tree and was now sitting under a hedge. I crouched down and clicked my fingers and slowly it came over and let me pat it. It reminded me how earlier this week one of the cats I follow on Instagram died and the owner posted a photo of the body laid in a box of flower petals and their other cat was sitting beside it. The caption was in Japanese, I clicked translate and it said: “RIP Milk-san. Thank you for 16 years. I love you.” I thought about my own cat and how she is going to die one day and how I don’t know if I’ll be able to cope with the sadness of packing up her food bowl and all her toys. I listened to a couple of the other songs on the Sun Kil Moon album but they sounded like a parody of Sun Kil Moon to me, and how last year some guy in America recorded a whole parody Sun Kil Moon EP, so I googled that and started listening to it instead. It sounded better to me than the new album. It’s 2:10 pm. Henry just Slacked me a screenshot of Mark Kozelek in the movie Almost Famous. I didn’t know he was in that movie. Maybe I’ll watch it this weekend. – Calum Henderson
Dirty Projectors – Dirty Projectors
If you’ve recently gone through a break-up, want to relive a break-up, or just want to peer into someone else’s break-up, Dirty Projectors’ self-titled album is a blunt, bare-soul analysis of David Longstreth’s break-up from former-Dirty Projector Amber Coffman (whose first solo album is out later this year). Longstreth is, understandably, pretty cut-up about it all, and lays his still-bleeding heart on the table, while singing things that sometimes make you feel sorry for him and sometimes make you think that super-literal break-up albums might be a bit of a dick move (Longstreth tells us he makes music in search of truth, she makes it in search of fame), even though they often are profound works of music. And while Dirty Projectors may not join, say, Blood on the Tracks or Rumours or 808s & Heartbreak in the pantheon of break-up albums, it’s an album that is both emotionally and musically brave, combining emotional transparency with art pop and twisted R&B. Now I feel like I need to be listening to her album to hear her side of the story. – Henry Oliver
Jasmine Lovell-Smith’s Towering Poppies – Yellow Red Blue
The world needs more soprano sax-wielding bandleaders. Jasmine Lovell-Smith, originally hailing from Christchurch, has assembled a strange but highly effective band to interpret and perform her compositions, which bridge the gap between modern jazz and chamber music. The Towering Poppies are a quintet with the usual backline of drums, piano and bass, and the less usual combination of soprano sax and bass clarinet in the front. Their sound is delicate for the most part, but as the improvisations unfold, it’s obvious that they have a rock solid foundation. On ‘The Pillow Book’ and many of the other tracks, Josh Sinton on bass clarinet is the most impressive soloist, but all the players here bring a lot to their roles. I particularly appreciated the decidedly non-traditional drumming, courtesy of Kate Gentile, throughout. Although this is way down the other end of the scale to the toe-tapping, funky jazz that instantly converts non-believers, it still hits a magical sweet spot where it would sound just as entrancing on the street as it would in a concert hall. Jasmine’s memorable compositions and leadership of her deeply talented band have resulted in an album to be proud of. – Mitchell Houlbrooke
Bing & Ruth – No Home of the Mind
Mix one part Philip Glass, one part Erased Tapes compilation and one part Oscar-nominated film score. Serve chilled. (Sorry. So sorry.) – HO
Little Big Town – The Breaker
By early-2017, Little Big Town were undoubtedly the biggest group in modern country, with their 2014 album Painkiller and the substantial hit ‘Girl Crush’ bringing them their greatest success yet. In response to that increased profile the group released 2016’s Wanderlust, a dance-pop meets yacht-rock record (which at eight tracks and 28 minutes in length played more like an EP than fully fledged album) produced by Pharrell and featuring co-writing with Justin Timberlake. That was a good, weird little album, but one which had no promotion almost at all (the reasons for which are still open to debate), meaning that The Breaker operates as a proper follow up to Painkiller in most country followers minds. Going by the oft-used Little Big Town/Fleetwood Mac comparison The Breaker is the equivalent of the Mac’s Mirage. There are none of the experimental detours that punctuated Painkiller, and which dominated Wanderlust, instead this is the sound of the band sitting back and doing what they do best. That means a soft rock record, with convincing country accents, which embraces the sounds of California in the late 70’s and early 80’s. If no singles quite leap out like they have done on previous efforts (though the sunny pop of ‘We Went to the Beach’ comes pretty close) then that is the price for supreme consistency, and the end result is no masterpiece, but rather simply a good record from a band at something of a peak. – PD
Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now
Advance singles ‘What’s That Perfume That You Wear’ and ‘Evening Prayer’ suggested that this album would be a return to glory for this underappreciated songwriter. Happy to report it’s exactly that. Recommended for fans of crying. – MH
Jidenna – The Chief
Jidenna is one of those Drake-like figures that seems equally at home whether he’s singing or rapping, and unlike Drake, Jidenna’s songs can hardly be accused of sounding all the same. You’d think that would make this debut album a guaranteed slam dunk. Turns out, trying to be good at everything backfires when your failures are more memorable than your successes. Some of the genre experiments on this record will have you reaching for the skip button. Still, at least it has the explosive R&B track ‘Trampoline’ on it, which if it didn’t have such muddy, shitty production, would destroy ‘Hotline Bling’ in all categories. – MH
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The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.