2015 So Far

Sun Mar 29 2015

We're only three months into 2015 and there's a ton of exceptional music out already. It's hard to keep up. It was hard to draw a line on what to include in this piece. Nevertheless, in my continuing odyssey of trying to determine whether or not record reviews still have any value at all, I'm going to post this rundown of albums I've been loving so far this year, brief (in most cases) blurbs with links to listen or download (in most cases), making this whole process as easy and painless for you as possible, in an attempt to get you to pay attention to some things you might not otherwise hear. Yes, you!

Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly


When was the last time a record grabbed you immediately and blew you away by its end and kept you coming back, overcome by the need to penetrate its mysteries, driven by the strangely specific ways it has already captivated you? It's been two weeks of obsessive listening. When I'm not listening to it, I'm thinking about it. I feel like I'm only ankle deep so far.

I still can't shake the feeling I got the first time through To Pimp A Butterfly, when this album version of "i" was spinning. I felt dazed. It was weirdly primal, a quasi-euphoric dizziness, something going on deep in the subconscious that confused my senses. I spent a lot of time after that first listen analyzing that feeling, because in the moment I couldn't think. I had to just absorb and get through it. Some part of me knew there was something momentous occurring and I oughtn't ruin it by thinking.

Part of my reaction may have been that I felt ashamed, because Kendrick was calling me out. When he put out the "i" single I thought it was a complete load of crap, and not even really a disappointment because as much as I loved a few of the songs on good kid, m.A.A.d. city, there were aspects of it that I hated. I wasn't expecting genius from a new Kendrick Lamar album, but I was expecting something better than this.

By the time the album version of "i" rolls around, you've been through an ordeal. The faux-live performance of the track both mocks those who fell for the red herring of the single (i.e., me) and turns its back on those who dismissed it as meaningless fluff (i.e., me). But it goes further than that. It also says 'fuuuck you' to anyone who presumes that Kendrick is somehow obligated to make a grand statement for all of black America. It sticks its tongue out at anyone who thinks Kendrick has a duty to be militant or controversial or anything at all. Most of all, it's a plea to everyone to live in the now, in peace, and to have faith in ourselves.

That's only scratching the surface of the revelations of "i", and "i" is one of the least complex tracks on To Pimp A Butterfly. That's as far as I'm going to go right now in terms of unraveling the meaning of the album for you, though. I'm convinced you'd be better off doing that yourself. This is going to be more of a confession/sermon than a review.

The intoxicating connection I had to Lonerism is still pretty fresh in my memory, and how I figured that would be the last one of those for a while. TPAB has already eclipsed it. Lonerism is a great album, a classic. I still love it, and it was the absolute perfect thing for me at the time that it came out. TPAB is for everyone, for right now and the foreseeable future. This isn't escapist hip-hop, even for a thirtysomething white dude; it's realism, on a social and intellectual level, as well as being cinematic on a musical level. I'm telling you right now if you don't give this album your full attention, you're going to exclude yourself from one of the most rewarding experiences modern life has to offer.

TPAB dwarfs everything that has happened in hip-hop in the past twenty-plus years. Possibly everything that has happened in music since I don't know when. I'd make as grand a statement as possible, but I'm still too far from understanding everything there is to understand about the thing. A few days ago I went to sleep with "King Kunta" stuck in my head and it was there when I woke up and I was stricken with fear that I was getting sick of the album and I should back off for a while. Then I got to work and felt depressed until I put it on, and it was like a drug coursing through me. It's not just a puzzle to be solved. It's a thing of beauty. It's so much realer and more powerful and ambitious and universal than what the rest of the best are doing. What I have to hope is that Kendrick drives the whole field to try and outdo him. Good luck. This isn't just a great album; it's one of the most profound works of art I've come across.

Working out the narrative and sorting out the metaphors is the fun part. The craftsmanship, in terms of the overarching concepts down to the smallest details, musically and lyrically, is so far beyond the scope of most musicians working today it's not even funny. That's what makes TPAB so fascinating to listen to and ponder time after time after time, but not why it's important. There are certain concepts that most people in this country need to get through their heads in order for us to evolve beyond the deplorable condition of social disconnection, misplaced mass resentment, spiritual vacuity and fear that we're currently mired in. TPAB covers a lot of 'em. Kendrick drops wisdom left and right, some of which is between the lines, some of which is plain as day, simple truths stated as if self-evident. He makes most modern songwriters seem like they're not even trying.

I know this sounds ridiculous, but this album is helping me become a better person. I've come to certain realizations that I'd been searching for and I sense more just around the corner—cracks in the cocoon, so to speak. That's just me, but it's not just me. The amount of hype surrounding this album would normally turn me off so hard I might never give it a proper chance. Don't be like that me. Stop multi-tasking for an hour a day and focus. In the immortal words of Frank Zappa: "Listen, be quiet and pay attention to this man's music. Because if you don't, you might miss something important. And we wouldn't want that to happen to you."

Now if you have time in between TPAB spins, check out these other albums, too.

Death Grips, Fashion Week (Instrumentals)


So yeah, nothing against Death Grips though! I still love them and I'm pretty much overjoyed that they were full of shit when they said they were breaking up, and if it weren't for Kendrick I'd say they were still the most radical and exciting thing going on in what could loosely be defined as hip-hop. This particular album, honestly kind of a novelty release, is a gaudy, over-the-top mess, but a highly enjoyable one. In particular the two tracks entitled "Runway H" are amazing pieces of glamtronica. I have yet to actually get sick of a Death Grips album, so keep that in mind I guess.

Death Grips, Jenny Death


Whoops, they just put out another one. Well, it's not out until the 31st, but it's streaming already. Early favorites: "Turned Off" and "Why A Bitch Gotta Lie" are both mind-blowing, as is "On GP". Death Grips are becoming like a hardcore version of Beck. There's no way they could call it quits at this juncture. There are so many directions they could go from here. This second disc of the double album The Powers That B is far more interesting than the first disc, niggas on the moon, which ambushed us last year. Oh wait, I guess I did get kinda sick of that one.

Apollo Vermouth, Don't Forget The People Around You


I think this is my favorite thing she's done so far. Maybe it helps that the sentiment of the title imparts some added depth, particularly when the music contains no words, but the key track here, "April's Gone", is a very dynamic ten minutes of ambient guitar moaning that functions like a string of fond memories slipping away amidst the intrusion of harsh realities in the present. There's hope in there somewhere, though, I swear.

adoptahighway, A Fault


There's a caustic quality to adoptahighway's work that brings the more melodic/ambient aspects sharply into focus. The result is a pretty gothic experience. There are times when you'll be reminded of pre-The Top Cure, except without the physical guitars and drums. I also get a Fuck Buttons vibe, what with the super dirty, sometimes relentlessly driving synth sounds, but instead of euphoria you generally feel extreme isolation, if not impending doom. I suppose it's really a post-punk record when you get down to it; PiL has to be mentioned as an antecedent. Then the title track and "Defiance" make me think more along the lines of industrial. But enough with the attempts to categorize, eh? It's just a really good record. If you like these comparisons I'm doling out, you'll like A Fault.

Tay Butler x Haz Solo, Silkies And House Shoes 2


Some super lo-fi, vintage grooves and the mellow flow of two charismatic MCs. It's nothing groundbreaking, just high-quality, smooth hip-hop. I wish Tay and Haz would be on the mic together more often, though; they seem like they'd be good playing off each other instead of always taking turns. The first verse of "Old Plair" is a real pleasure (just listen to it), and the old-school influence pervades the whole mixtape. Your mission is to keep spinning this all through summer, because it's windows-down city music. It's maybe a little more eclectic than the first installment in this series, but these guys still favor flow over innovation or aggression, which is an attitude that will never become obsolete.

Open Mike Eagle, A Special Episode Of


One thing I failed to articulate in my review of Eagle's Dark Comedy album was that the crux of my (slight!) disappointment stemmed from a perceived lack of ambition. 4nml Hsptl took a leap of faith, while Comedy was ear-candy by comparison. That's not a bad thing, except when I know a guy is liable to get all psychological and weird, this new easy swagger, though earned, isn't as exciting to me. So what, though—Mike keeps cranking out quality music at a crazy pace, and this EP, especially the incredible "Raps For When It's Just You & The Abyss", recaptures some of that serious weirdness.

Midwives, Midwives


Yes, I already wrote about this for Milwaukee Record. I'm still listening to it. It's still rad. It was the record that said 'whoops, 2014 was an amazing year for MKEmusic but whatever'. This town remains seemingly the only place in the world producing any worthwhile rock and roll.

Klassik, Winter , Spring  & Summer EPs


The first one has a couple of Klassik's most overtly noncommercial songs yet, and also "Andromeda", possibly his most perfect pop nugget, a gorgeous and dizzying beat-romance poem (bonus points for suggesting that Sublime and Steely Dan are interchangeable). The Spring EP gets pretty out there, though; tell me where you've heard a beat like "Know It All" before. Okay, time's up. And "Otha Fish" is about the filthiest Klassik groove I've heard yet. Summer is for slow jams: the Altos collaboration "Fucks With Us" sandwiched inside a couple of steamy synth-chillers that are gonna sound sooooo good blasting out of all the windows in Riverwest in a couple months. By then Fall will probably be out but we'll still be cranking these.

Twin Shadow, Eclipse


He's not holding back on this one. After a slight misstep with 2012's Confess (but come on, "Five Seconds" and "Run My Heart" are ridiculously great pop songs) and the ill-conceived "Storyteller" tour or whatever the hell that was, George Lewis, Jr. sheds any semblance of 'indie' and, well, it's kind of like Lenny Kravitz meets Prince while texting with George Michael the whole time. It honestly reminds me of the Ryan Adams principle, that if you need that badly to surrender to cheese in order to stay true to yourself, the music still has a chance to be great. Not that I think that self-titled Ryan Adams album is great, God no. You know what I mean, though, right? Okay, maybe Journey is a better comparison…or Culture Club…yeah, I mean, "To The Top", wow. SHUT UP IT DOES NOT SOUND LIKE fun..

Kiings, WWYDF


Sometimes it's annoying being an album guy. Kiings have been releasing singles and remixes for years and I've basically loved everything I've heard, but it always takes an album before I devote my full attention. In a perfect world I'd have time to sit and chill and listen to this album every evening, because it is so up my alley: moody, hip-hop-infused synthpop, with a killer list of guest vocalists, many of whom I now have to add to my endless list of artists to investigate further the minute I have a spare minute. I'd never heard of Christine Hoberg, Piper Davis, Torrice Albarakat nor Siren before, but they do gorgeous work on their respective tracks. Colin Plant (L&R, The Hollowz, NONOYEAHOKAY) sounds totally at home in his new R&B persona. Getting bliss & alice and Webster X together on a track is never gonna be a bad idea. Teaming Christopher Porterfield up with milo?? Brilliant! And Pizzle's verses on the final track are amazing as well. Thank you for FINALLY putting out a full-length, Kiings; it is killer.

Disappears, Irreal


As the term 'unreal' has evolved into something that no longer suggests unreality, it's comforting to have the word 'irreal' as well. I type it, and my word processor program inserts a red squiggly line underneath it, but I assure you it is a word. Some might say it defines our existence, in reality, but perhaps our goal should be to do away with the sanctity of words altogether rather than try to define everything. Disappears (which I've decided is plural) don't generally use a ton of words; they're more about evoking as much feeling as possible as economically as possible. Irreal strikes me as a little weirder than 2013's Era (which I also loved), but equally exciting on the danceability scale, which bodes well for the upcoming Milwaukee Day show at Cactus Club, my chance at redemption after sitting sheepishly in my seat when they opened for Wilco last November.

DRKWAV, The Purge

(sorry, couldn't find a download or stream of this)

Dear God, if this band (John Medeski, Skerik and some guy named Adam Deitch who has drummed on two DJ Quik albums so that's a good sign) doesn't announce some tour dates in my area of the country soon, I'm gonna lose it. If they conflict with Phish dates it's gonna be a really tough call. (No, that's obviously a lie. I only wish it could be a tough call.) Even based on the album I know this is the shit I've been craving, the shit that's been absent from the music scene since MMW went soft and Phish got happy. So sick of this coasts+Denver bullshit. Come to Milwaukee, DRKWAV, or at least Chicago. Come on.

Until that happens, the album is pretty great, too.

John Zorn, Simulacrum

(crap, yeah, Zorn doesn't really let you hear his stuff without buying it, either)

In the wake of the most recent Milwaukee Secret Chiefs 3 show, I've felt compelled to seek out any and all projects drummer Kenny Grohowski might be involved in. Plus you have John Medeski, again; having a pretty good year so far eh? And you have Mark Hollenberg, the guitarist from Cleric, who opened for Secret Chiefs at the aforementioned show. Again, it's something I've been craving from Zorn; perhaps touring with Dave Lombardo reignited his metal urge? OR IS IT NU JAZZ?? Maybe, if you don't consider Zorn to be a genre, which I do. It certainly scratches the Bungle itch at times. It's heavy, it's psychedelic, it's mathematic, it's mystical. It's peak Zorn.

Björk, Vulnicura

(well shit.)

Is it me, or are critics not happy with Björk unless she's cursing and divulging crushing personal crises? Yet there is something uniquely powerful about this album that goes beyond the lyrical content. She's pretty much lost the sweet melodic gifts of her early work, making each release since Homogenic slightly more challenging than the last in that respect, but Vulnicura finds her sonic ambitions lining up beautifully with her collaborators' strengths as well as the convolutions of her doomed-love narrative. The album is also less showy and aggressive than her last couple of releases. It's somewhat of an analogue to Kate Bush's 50 Words For Snow from a few years ago, showcasing a self-assured artist who isn't afraid to bare her soul but no longer needs to wave her arms frantically. I haven't connected as deeply to this album as I have some other Björk albums, but that could be partially because of the TPAB obsession. It strikes me as great music, though, and I'll keep at it to see if it eventually cuts deeper.

Mount Eerie, Sauna

(spotify) (or you can hear two tracks on bandcamp)

At first I thought this was kind of a lame attempt by Phil Elverum to synthesize all the different feelers he had out over the course of his last two albums, both of which are brilliant. After several listens the 'lame' changed to 'ingenious' (which means that 'a' gets replaced by 'an' also). There's only the one blatant black metal track ("Boat"), but you can hear how that atmosphere has crept into the overall feel of the album; desolation and listlessness infest the entirety of Sauna, tempered only by an undeniable beauty that creeps into all but the most belligerently caustic moments. Elverum has a gift comparable to Mark Kozelek's for evoking profound emotion via mundane imagery, an often anti-poetic style that is nevertheless artful and moving. 

Comments on this article from long ago

2015-09-26 lill umm
Dude, just read your TPAB review. I'm with ya, resonates with how i feel about the album. Spot on.
2015-09-26 lill umm
https://vimeo.com/138847971 Butterfly Medley. Amaaazeballs. Two bassists! Thundercat just ain't enough.

Dear god i hope he does a tour with this. and not festivals. I want to see this whole show at the Warfield or the Fox or something.

2015-09-26 cal
Oh man, me too. Saw him at Summerfest and it was...good, but so not ambitious.
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