Here are my reviews and scores for November 2017 albums that I did not feature earlier.
Phases – Angel Olsen
I won’t normally review works like this that are compilations of previously released material, since it somewhat takes away from the mystique and presentation that a normal album provides. However, since November has turned out to be a rather scant month for new music and this has gotten a considerable amount of attention, I thought I might as well. These songs can indeed be experienced as presented on their own here without the feeling that they are tied to any original recordings, which was very nice. Dissecting them as individual songs alone, I find that Olsen struck some real gold in her melodies at times, with most of them giving a great nuanced shape and strong pacing that moved the rhythmically basic music along. The songs “All Right Now” and “Sans” were especially good at this. However, some didn’t have the same interesting shape and melodic repetitions certainly weren’t as strong, as in “California”. The harmony had one basic approach, which was to provide individuality and familiarity at the same time using a simplistic harmonic palette. It was successful at times with neat patterns of basic I, IV, V, and bVII chords, as in the song “Special”. The harmony also had its moments of drudgery when the pattern wasn’t quite unique or uplifting, and the lack of overall rhythmic engagement didn’t help. Still, there were a few strong standouts that were thoroughly enjoyable when the melody and harmony locked in together. The main downfall of the album was the rather lackadaisical timbre that relied too heavily on a rather plain, non-emotive guitar that gave the entire harmonic layer. That can be appreciated to a degree, actually, and I did enjoy the consistency and easiness in the overall down-to-earth presentation. It probably didn’t help that most of these songs were already recorded and released, with the timbral decisions really just being secondary ideas that were once just afterthoughts. The album as a whole has some strength coming from a few particularly enjoyable songs and renditions, but you’d probably get more out listening to these songs from a non-compilation album.
Final Score: 128/180
Rest – Charlotte Gainsbourg
There were very consistent and similar songwriting tactics used from song to song that made the album an easy, well-connected listen. The actual results from these techniques, though, varied quite a bit to the point where it wasn’t all pleasantries and admiration of uniqueness. Gainsbourg displayed a true willingness to trust her gut and go the extra mile when delivering songs that, as barebones structures, are rather simple. She dealt with musical form very well, making sure the important moments were clear and memorable all while leading into them with regards to completing a musical thought over the amount of time it took, giving extra surprise and nuance to most every song. There was a distinctive carefree air to the composition, doing very little overthinking despite the end result coming off as quite a complex work. Trusting her gut worked well to create a more unique, personable presentation, however it didn’t work so well when trying to rein the listener in through linear motion. While the twists and turns were abundant, there was never anything too exciting or compelling around the corner. This was mostly due to the dragging, underwhelming melodic layer that couldn’t quite string together a likeable shaped phrase aside from a couple choruses. The melodies were mostly too weak in their absence of rhythmic drive and boring pitch collection. They were given the room to dominate the energy and direction of each song but shied away from being as daring of a force as the rest of the music. The overall sound went through hits and misses of purpose, going from truly enhancing the mood through neat textural additions and dynamic change in the song “Sylvia Says” but staying very static and unenthusiastic with a basic electronic wash in the song “I’m a Lie”. Overall, the synthesizers did provide a well recognizable tone with a positive enough feel to justify being the dominant sonic layer. The aspect of the music that was the most worthwhile and gave the most weight was the harmonic progressions. They showed Gainsbourg’s true strength of finding consistently strong harmonic foundations with minimal material. This allowed the other more far-fetched musical decisions to come across as accessible. I enjoyed a few songs at best, and the overall experience was fine, but there’s better musical experimentations out there for you to lose your mind over.
Final Score: 124/180
The Dusk in Us – Converge
This work uses certain prescribed tactics – screaming, intense tremolo picking, one-dimensional dynamics – that I am still coming to terms with as a listener. I am not pretending to understand their reasons for existence better than a more indoctrinated listener of these styles, however as a music lover I can be curious and skeptical. I hardly see a positive rationale as to why these musicians have tried to communicate power and emotion through such rudimentary directness. To me, this album exists mainly to further specific emotional attachment to life for those who can only get their “fix” on pure intensity. Within that bubble, this album is quite nuanced, giving multiple takes on intensity from passages of complex percussion, guitar virtuosity, complete vocal manipulation, and sharp texture variance. Indeed, they seem to achieve their goal well. The problem is that this goal isn’t worthwhile to begin with. Intensity through intensity makes logical sense, but music does not run on logic. We’re taught as humans to equate power with gaudiness and visible strength, as well as the amount of pain felt in its result. Yes, this music is overall painful, and it’s meant to be on many levels due to the amount of power it tries to give off. That is simply too elementary. Power in music is something much different and beyond what we normally define and experience as power, not only because it’s such a distinctive art form but also because it has been historically proven to garner certain emotional responses that nothing else in existence can give. That makes the supposed power from this album come off as incredibly cheap, insignificant, and just too easy. The musical elements were both careful and careless in all the wrong places. In trying to effectively give off important emotion, the band reverted to instinctive abrasiveness in sound that wasn’t well shaped or multi-faceted, with its only purpose to simply live in technical thresholds and do nothing further. In trying to come across as being unrestricted and out of control, the band used very basic and conventional tactics within their songwriting, having obvious melodic patterns, lots of harmonic pedal tones, and expected builds in sound from loud to louder. Aside from the awesome metric variation in the instrumental passages, which gave this work some good musical weight, this was not boundary breaking at all. In fact, it was rather backwards. Simply being this intense and living in these thresholds gave the music its only all around worth, which shouldn’t be overlooked, but it certainly doesn’t go far enough to be noteworthy at all. Maybe try for some reliance on pitch and color next time.
Final Score: 85/180
Plunge – Fever Ray
Even with an overall distinctive and cool use of synthetic sound, this work had little in the way of strength. An obvious timbral experiment above all else, it was nice to see the greatest success of the work come from the layer that was most differentiated and focused on. The worth that this album has stems from the distinguishable textures that always provided the beat and the countermelodies in interesting ways. Although there were sparks of amazing sonic spaces in a few songs, nothing ever sounded remarkably moving or gorgeous from start to finish. That never seemed to be the main goal of the music, though, but I wish it had been. The timbre had its moments but also gave way to melodies that were meant to drive each song. This was unfortunate because the melodic layer was quite weak. The melodies did have strong separation from the texture and came across quite clear, which is important when trying to be the focus. As a concept, it’s rather nice to have that separation in such a timbrally dense work, but the execution needed to be stronger. In fact, hardly anything pitch-related on this album was a well-developed musical idea. The pitch collection was very dull, not using any strong harmonic tendencies and being quite flimsy in shape. The reason why the second half of the album was noticeably better than the first half was because the music stopped relying so heavily on vocals and the melodic layer became more of a dessert than a main course. When the voice was present, every aspect of the music dragged its feet due to the showcased melody that simply wasn’t good enough to pull its own weight. That happened less in the last five songs, and overall this work came to be a tolerable experience with recognizable quality. The timbre should have dictated the work all the way through, but due to the big hiccups in presentation this album is rather forgettable.
Final Score: 117/180
SYRE – Jaden Smith
There is a lot to talk about here, but I’ll do my best to be concise, unlike what Jaden Smith did on this debut album of his. I will start with the obvious: the lengthy, drawn-out forms of these songs came off as stupid, pretentious, and boring. This work goes on way too long, and that’s coming from an opera lover. The purpose of all the extended addendums to each song was obvious: Smith was telling an outright story and decided that traditional song form conventions would have held back his artistic delivery. So instead, everything was very fluid, having an absence of structure that was meant to be experienced as a multi-layered performance of music and drama. It’s a great concept in theory, but this was very poor execution of it, to the point where I felt a little bad for him by the end. This is an example of imagination going well above substance; something Kanye West has made a living off doing. In the art of music, imagination comes after the framework. Once the musician has solid foundations and thoughtful musical ideas, then the framework can be twisted and turned into something expressive and experiential. This album was like Smith twisting and turning a dollar store slinky into some moody, heavily filtered Instagram post. Another analogy would be like high school freshmen putting on the entirety of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The talent has to be there before the massive creative ideas for presentation can be taken on. The main reason why this album failed was because Smith is a bad rapper; or at least he imitates very poorly. You can’t base an entire 70-minute work of music off of speaking in triplets, and that’s what happened here. I hate to compare, but you can’t try to imitate the immense expressionism and dramatic presentation of Kendrick Lamar while using the idiotic musical techniques of Future. The result is one big gas bubble that can get popped in a second. With regards to the musical substance, it wasn’t all awful, but a sheer lack of songwriting strength was shone throughout. The choruses were terrible; when Smith relied on elements other then his repeated spoken rhythm, such as pitch and dynamics, the music really suffered from blandness on an even greater level. 2 or 3 out of the 17 songs had an engaging percussive beat, while the rest of them had very weak and complacent underlying structures that were obviously meant to be subordinate to Smith’s storytelling, which I’ve already said didn’t end well. The bulk of the substance came from several unique basslines or harmonic loops that had a good dose of movement and direction to them. However, nothing came to be surprising, which was most likely the main reaction Smith was trying to get. This was simply too big of a project for the little guy.
Final Score: 77/180
Polygondwanaland – King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard
It’s always quality over quantity in music, but when you can have both, why not have both? The band’s fourth studio album of the year is filled with excitement, energy, good organization, and tasteful surprise. These all revolved around the band’s exquisite use of polymeters, giving the music a consistent and joyous unrest. The harmonic layer was delightful in its rhythmic drive, maintaining groove and energy throughout all of the change in textures. The progressions sometimes stalled a bit too much on single sonorities, but there were ultimately secondary reasons behind them that were due to creating contrast or emphasizing new entrances of material. The guitar technicality was also delightful, constantly delivering the musical foundation in unique ways and emphasizing the rhythmic brilliance, only sounding a bit thin at times when textures had periods of leisure that may not have been needed. The strong addition of the flute was a total home run, giving a new distinctive and recognizable layer to the sound that warmed everything around it. These ten songs are not incredibly individualistic, but their collective organization and flow from one strong idea to the next created a very entertaining experience and demonstrated the strong musicality of the musicians. The only thing this album lacked overall were strong, succinct motives in the melodic layer. The melodies often found themselves accentuating the rhythmic feel or harmonic motion, which were ultimately the meat and bones of the music, but the melodies could have had more life of their own to provide a more profuse, multi-faceted musical delivery. There is not a whole lot to complain about, though, since everything really jells and there’s hardly a dull moment from start to finish. Speaking of the band alone, these guys are on a complete tear. No one is having a better year than them, and there isn’t a foreseeable end in sight to their immense creativity. They even released this album for free. This is a call for everyone else recording albums today to step it up. They are currently on their own level.
Final Score: 143/180
Low in High School – Morrissey
It was obvious that Morrissey put his delivery of intent over everything, with his passionate political messages coming across loud and clear. It was also obvious that he was only using music as nothing but a platform rather than a craft. In trying to put all of the focus on the lyrics, and subsequently relying heavily on organic songwriting intuition, the album became a flat, one dimensional, and boring experience. Melodic lines followed very awkward shapes and lacked strong tendencies in its motion, with its inflection based rhythms coming off as too forward and unpolished. The melodies were the biggest downfall of the work, as they dragged the mood and direction of each song down to a level of blandness. At least they weren’t disgusting or annoying; they still served a collective purpose. The one small infusion of musical personality came from the heavy influence of Middle Eastern instruments and techniques in a few songs. However, this was really only jumping from one boring ship to another boring ship across the world; there wasn’t much manipulation being done to the basic, ground level textures from either culture. It was Morrissey’s harmonic language that provided the only real drama and active evolution from song to song. It went from unenthusiastic at worst (as in “I Wish You Lonely”) to interesting at best (as in “All the Young People Must Fall In Love”), and it separated the lame songs from the decent ones. This was the one aspect that Morrissey was okay at with relying on his intuition. It’s a strong-willed work and has a few nice moments, but it’s tough to get through and nothing I would recommend.
Final Score: 103/180
Stranger – Yung Lean
Well, this guy can’t rap, that’s for sure. That wasn’t enough to warrant calling this a complete disaster, though, until his grasp on unique experimental timbres began to fade and the rest of the song structure became unbearably plain. The beginning of the work hinted at a distinctive electronic timbre that had a chance to be the foundation and deliver some promising energy or engagement to the music that was sorely needed. After three songs, though, that went away, and what little experiments there were in the backing sound were nothing more than weak placeholders that couldn’t replicate or develop any energy that previously existed. That’s all that the album had going for it and it disappeared rather quickly. At least we got one or two tolerable songs, like “Red Bottom Sky”, from the timbre actually being an engaging force. Another big letdown of the work was the harmonic layer that, like the timbre, started out as being rather nuanced and significant. What started as sloppy but interesting progressions turned into sloppy and boring progressions, heavily using the same annoying loops without doing anything to change up the rhythm, accents, or tempo. This led to such flimsy, irritating songs that became a completely unneeded experience. And like I said, he really can’t rap, not giving any life to his delivery and using lame, rudimentary rhythmic repetitions. That obviously killed the album more than anything, since everything ended up centering around the melodic layer whether he liked it or not. With this total dud, I don’t really see a future for this guy; it’s a clear lack of talent.
Final Score: 67/180