8Tracks Review: ‘Love Yourself: Answer’ by BTS

Love Yourself: Answer by BTS
Big Hit Entertainment 2018

The new BTS compilation album (with 7 new tracks!) dropped August 24, and if you know even one person who’s a BTS fan, you knew about it probably a couple of weeks in advance because BTSers could not shut up.  I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty sure anticipation of the new album even brought one of my friends out of Twitter hibernation.

Fake love

Until a few years ago, I was a high-school teacher, so I’ve seen boy-band crazes come and go, but there has never been anything like this BTS thing.  Among those in my life who can’t stop are a retired middle-school teacher, the esteemed restaurant critic of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, and one of my college friends who took her daughter (or daughters? I’m a bad friend) to Los Angeles to see the group in concert.  I’m in my late 40s, and each of these women is in that neighborhood, something I only mention to highlight the fact that something very unusual is going on here.  This did not happen with N*Sync.

I’ve heard snippets, you know?  Never a whole song, but little bits of music in people’s Instagram stories, and nothing stood out for me.  It was K-pop and it sounded like K-pop and it didn’t sound to me any better or worse than any other K-pop.

I get it.  For those unfamiliar with a genre, it all sounds the same.  I’m a metalhead and I realize that to casual observers, all my favorite metal bands sound the same (that is, mostly terrible) when nothing could be further from the truth.

These are people whose opinions I value on wide ranges of topics including music and art.  One early-30s blogger I’ve become online acquaintances with turned me on to emo-screamo band Thursday, and I dig a lot of the music she likes, but now she’s all about BTS.

(l to r) the cute one, the smart one, the quiet one, the rambunctious one, the ladies’ man, the kind one, the animal lover, the future televangelist

Two weekends ago I made a commitment to give it the fairest shot I could.  I was going to listen to Love Yourself: Answer all weekend long, and only this album.

And I didn’t care for it, but by the end of the weekend, I could name (and even sing along with) a couple of tracks I actually like, and most of the time the rest of the songs weren’t bad.

Continue reading “8Tracks Review: ‘Love Yourself: Answer’ by BTS”

8Tracks Review: ‘Six Evolutions — Bach: Cello Suites’ by Yo-Yo Ma

Six Evolutions — Bach: Cello Suites by Yo-Yo Ma
Sony Classical, 2018

And cello to you, too

Yo-Yo Ma’s latest album dropped August 17, and it would have been great to review it then, but you know.  Crazy Rich Asians.  And then Mitski.

The master cellist writes on his website:

Bach’s Cello Suites have been my constant musical companions. For almost six decades, they have given me sustenance, comfort, and joy during times of stress, celebration, and loss. What power does this music possess that even today, after three hundred years, it continues to help us navigate through troubled times? Now that I’m in my sixties, I realize that my sense of time has changed, both in life and in music, at once expanded and compressed. Music, like all of culture, helps us to understand our environment, each other, and ourselves. Culture helps us to imagine a better future. Culture helps turn ‘them’ into ‘us.’ And these things have never been more important.

Suite!

Rather than list the tracks, I’ll quickly explain what this is, in case it’s confusing.  I just learned some of this stuff this past week in preparation to write this review, so please, if I get any of it wrong, let me know in the comments!

There are six Bach cello suites:
Suite no. 1 in G Major
Suite no. 2 in D Minor
Suite no. 3 in C Major
Suite no. 4 in E-Flat Major
Suite no. 5 in C Minor
Suite no. 6 in D Major.

The tracklists include the Bach catalogue number for each suite, abbreviated BWV 107 through BWV 112.  BWV stands for Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or “Bach works catalogue.”

Each suite is made of six movements: a prelude, and then five movements based on types of baroque dances.  So all six suites go prelude, allemande, courante, sarabande, two minuets, gigue.

This all makes for suuuuuuper long and confusing track titles.  Track 5, for example, is “Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007: V. Menuets I & II.”  For some reason the tracks on Amazon music are nearly twice as long, repeating the “Unaccomanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, BWV 1007” part!  Still despite this crazy nomenclature, with the info here, everything makes a lot more sense!

Major!

I’m not smart enough about this music to say much more than that it’s just beautiful.  My record library includes music featuring a lot of cello, including the neo-bluegrass group Crooked Still, the Scottish dance music of Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, and the heavy metal of Apocalyptica.  But as much as that music makes my heart swoon, none of it makes it want to leap up and explode like the playing of Yo-Yo Ma.  I cannot tell you why.  His Japanese Melodies album was in constant rotation in my red pickup truck when I was in college, and his Hush album with Bobby McFerrin can sometimes make me cry.

This album is better than those.  No, I can’t explain it.  And I can’t recognize any of the individual movements without looking at the tracklist.  And I can’t tell you anything about why these are masterworks other than they are Bach compositions.  I can just say it’s beautiful.

9/10

Coda

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Here’s Yo-Yo Ma on The Late Show with David Letterman in 1994.  The first part of this is the gigue from Bach Cello Suite No. 3 (track 18 on disc one of this album!).  I had this on VHS and watched it like a million times.  This video is my upload.

 

8Tracks Review: ‘Be the Cowboy’ by Mitski

Be the Cowboy by Mitski
Dead Oceans, 2018

I haven’t told anyone

Mitzki (Miyawaki)’s new album dropped August 17 and I planned to review it last week, but you know.  Crazy Rich Asians.  This one got a ton of advance buzz, partly because of a couple of advance singles but also because it feels like it’s time for everyone who doesn’t know Mitski to get on.

That pretty friend is finally yours

    1. Geyser (2:23)
    2. Why Didn’t You Stop Me? (2:21)
    3. Old Friend (1:52)
    4. A Pearl (2:36)
    5. Lonesome Love (1:50)
    6. Remember My Name (2:15)
    7. Me and My Husband (2:17)
    8. Come into the Water (1:32)
    9. Nobody (3:13)
    10. Pink in the Night (2:16)
    11. A Horse Named Cold Air (2:03)
    12. Washing Machine Heart (2:08)
    13. Blue Light (1:43)
    14. Two Slow Dancers (3:59)

Someone who loves me now

The songs are short: at 3:59, “Two Slow Dancers” is the longest by far, and most songs stay around the two-minute mark.  This makes the album move quickly, almost frantically, yet they’re varied enough that each song sticks out in a way I wouldn’t have predicted.  I want to drive around the entire island of Oahu with the top down and this album on repeat.

Be the Cowboy‘s sound is indie as heck.  It’s going to remind you a bit of the Duke Spirit, a bit of the Raveonettes, and in the less rocking songs, a lot of Zooey Deschanel in She & Him.  There’s a lot of great retro rock organ with distant, singing in a shower, reverberating vocal production with a lot of muted drumming on what sounds sometimes like a three-piece kit.

I imagine many will disagree with me, but Mitski’s at her best when she’s rocking out.  “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” and “A Pearl” stand out this way.

Although it’s probably not for everyone, this is some good stuff, and it would be a shame to let it fly under the radar, which it could easily do.

I’ll take anything you want to give me

Best song: “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”
Second-best song: “Remember My Name”
Fourteenth-best song: “Two Slow Dancers”
Best moment: Oh man, I love the electric guitar on “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” which has a really cool downward bend that sounds like a spaceship giving up.  This is tied with the sigh Mitski opens “Me and My Husband” with.
Best lyric: It seems like too easy a choice, but I keep going back to “Nobody butters me up like you / and nobody f*cks me like me,” in “Lonesome Love,” one of the Zooey-sounding songs.  The repeated “Why am I lonely for lonesome love?” to end the song may be in a twelve-way tie for second.
Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!):  “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?”
Song to make you write song lyrics out of something you put in your Xanga when you were 16 (do it!):  “Lonesome Love.”

Rating: 8/10

 

The city where you’re from

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8Tracks Review: ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Crazy Rich Asians (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
WaterTower Music, 2018

(no movie spoilers)

Look how they shine for you

Almost nobody discusses Crazy Rich Asians (the film) without mentioning the movie’s soundtrack, which is pretty cool, because how often does this happen anymore?  Soundtrack albums used to be huge marketing tools for films, but unless the film is a musical, nowadays you seldom hear people talk about soundtracks.  I suspect the persistent conversation means the soundtrack in CRA is especially effective. Its first few spins took me immediately to specific places they appear in the movie, which may also be a sign of its effectiveness.

I wrote a song for you

  1. Waiting for Your Return (Jasmine Chen) (2:58)
  2. Money (That’s What I Want) (Cheryl K) (3:12)
  3. Wo Yao Ni De Ai (I Want Your Love — I Want You  to Be My Baby) (Grace Chang) (2:41)
  4. My New Swag (VaVa featuring Ty and Nina Wang) (4:05)
  5. Give Me a Kiss (Jasmine Chen) (3:01)
  6. Ren Sheng Jiu Shi Xi (Yao Lee) (3:02)
  7. Ni Dong Bu Dong (Do You Understand) (Lilian Chen) (2:32)
  8. Wo Yao Fei Shang Qing Tian (Grace Chang) (3:17)
  9. Material Girl (200 Du) (4:25)
  10. Can’t Help Falling in Love (Kina Grannis) (3:21)
  11. Wo Yao Ne De Ai (I Want Y our Love — I Want You to Be My Baby (Jasmine Chen) (2:04)
  12. Yellow (Katherine Ho) (4:08)
  13. Vote (Miguel) (3:22)
  14. Money (That’s What I Want) (Cheryl K featuring Awkwafina) (3:12)

Turn into something beautiful

I’m pretty sensitive to the way music is used in film, and I dislike most soundtracks and most movie scores.  This one impressed me beginning with the opening swing of “Waiting for Your Return,” then it surprised me with interesting Chinese-language covers of familiar songs.  I didn’t know anything about the soundtrack before going in, so covers of “Material Girl,” and “Yellow” caught me off guard and really work with the moods of their scenes and the context of the film’s plot.

I had one moment where the song choice took me out of the movie for about nine seconds, when I recognized Kina Grannis’s cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and couldn’t understand how it existed in the film right when it did, but then it all made sense.  You’ll see what I mean either when you see the movie or when you look at the acting credits.

That’s really about the movie, not about this album, and this is what I’m talking about. Listening to the soundtrack is remembering the movie, which perhaps makes it a great soundtrack, but I wonder if it makes it not as good an album. Because Crazy Rich Asians is a good movie, I’m going to dismiss this possibility; yet if it had been a terrible movie, and if the soundtrack album kept reminding you of scenes in this terrible movie, would it be a terrible soundtrack, no matter how good the songs?

A moot consideration in this case.

It seems a sequel film is in the works, and I have to say I’m here for it and really interested in what’ll be on the soundtrack.

Your skin and bones

Best song: Yeah, I’m going with the crowd on this.  “Yellow.”
Second best song: The closing credits version of “Money,” the one with Awkwafina’s raps.
Surprise: “Vote” by Miguel. It’s the first interesting thing I’ve ever heard from him. I really like this.
Song to make you want to call your mom (do it!): “Yellow.”
Song to make you want to text your ex (don’t do it!): “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
Song to make you go “Wha?”: “Material Girl.”

And all the things you do

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also this video of Katherine Ho singing her “PB&J”

8Tracks Review: ‘Expectations’ by Hayley Kiyoko

Expectations by Hayley Kiyoko
Atlantic Records, 2018

Breathe her in

Hayley Kiyoko’s debut album dropped March 30.  I’ve been vaguely aware of her for a long time, knew she was an actress but haven’t seen her work, knew she was a singer but haven’t heard her music.  It’s mostly because my tastes just don’t lean this way, so please keep this in mind here.

She said on Facebook:

MY DEBUT ALBUM. OUT NOW EVERYWHERE.
Promise me you will listen to it in order, from beginning to end, like it was intended. I set the setting and tone, but this is your personal journey to take what you will.
BUY IT. DOWNLOAD IT. STREAM IT. SHARE IT. I couldn’t be prouder of this album….BLAST THAT BABY 😭😭😭😭😭😭💿💿💿💿💿💿💿

If you’re ’round come get it

  1. Expectations (Overture) (1:52)
  2. Feelings (3:36)
  3. What I Need (featuring Kehlani) (3:39)
  4. Sleepover (3:53)
  5. Mercy / Gatekeeper (5:44)
  6. Under the Blue / Take Me In (5:37)
  7. Curious (3:03)
  8. xx (:51)
  9. Wanna Be Missed (3:15)
  10. He’ll Never Love You (HNLY) (3:51)
  11. Palm Dreams (5:14)
  12. Molecules (4:10)
  13. Let It Be (3:41)

Never felt nothing like that

I gave Expectations a few spins because her Wikipedia article tags her as dream pop and synth pop, and I do enjoy some pretty dream pop.  The album’s opening got me excited: “Expectations (Overture)” does have a nice dream-poppy vibe.  However, it becomes clear very quickly that this is a much dancier album, heavily synth pop with a hundred dance and R&B intentions.  Honestly, it’s the same music I mostly steer clear of, not because it isn’t any good but because it doesn’t engage me.

I wanted to be engaged because Hayley makes it clear that this is a very personal album, and a flight through the lyrics attests to it.  I appreciate that a gay songwriter is singing intimately about the longing these personae feel for the the women they’re missing.  I just can’t connect to the music, and I really tried.

Every style can’t be for every listener, and this style’s not for me.  I share my thoughts here because I suspect that the album is rather well done for its format.  The production is very clean, almost shimmery in its presentation, and Hayley does have a pretty voice.  The lyrics are interesting (I especially like “Sleepover,” about a woman who can’t be with the person she desires, so she’s left with only her imagining of this person).  The beats feel standard at best, which might be okay with me if they just didn’t dominate the entire sound.

If your pop sensibilities lean toward good club vibes and heavy beats, you may find this an outstanding album.  My barbaric ears find it to be very, very long.  I give it a one-point bump for interesting lyrics, but that still puts it around 5/10 for me: not bad but not good.

Got all these hearts in line

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8Tracks Review: ‘5OKI’ EP by Steve Aoki

Steve Aoki’s new EP 5OKI dropped April 27.  I’m only getting to it now because I’m pretty clueless about EDM.

Tracks

  1. Anthem (featuring Kriss Kiss); Hardwell and Steve Aoki (2:43)
  2. Mayhem; Steve Aoki & Quintino (2:37)
  3. It’s Time (featuring Bruce Buffer); Steve Aoki & Laidback Luke (3:18)
  4. Pika Pika; Steve Aoki & LOOPERS (2:24)
  5. Moshi Moshi (featuring Mama Aoki); Steve Aoki & Vini Vici (4:17)

Thoughts

If my look-back at the Jets last week didn’t convict me as being too old to talk about current music, this confession probably will: I don’t get electronic dance music.  It pains me to say it, too, because I taught high-schoolers for sixteen years, and could usually find some musical connection with my students, some common ground on which we could establish good, casual communication.  Even if I didn’t like what they liked, I got it well enough to talk about it with them.  I remember what it was like to be fifteen and to be obsessed with the music in my Walkman earbuds.

I don’t dislike most of the EDM I’ve listened to.  As a tech-head (and tech teacher), the computer aspects of the music’s creation intrigue me, but beyond cool beats and interesting mixes, I don’t find much to latch onto.  Which is weird because I once listened to a lengthy radio interview with Aoki on a sports talk radio show and he was engaging and funny and fascinating.

I’ve spun 5OKI seven times and I like it.  I can even identify each track by its opening beats without looking at the tracklist.  The opening track, “Anthem,” sounds like the music they play when they introduce the starting lineups at NBA games: “Aaaaaaaaand now, yooooooooooooooour Miami Heeeeeeeeeeeeat!” There’s a nice little bit of dubstep wobble in this track too.

“It’s Time” has a similar feel; it even has voice samples (or vocal tracks; I can’t tell!) clearly meant to mimic the hype music before a boxing match or basketball game.

“Pika Pika” is my favorite because it has interesting sounds I don’t often hear in dance music, including something sounding like bamboo being hit with other bamboo, then run through a couple of effects.  It also has a moment where the groove reminds me of 80s Genesis (the band).

I’m utterly unequipped to give this any kind of rating, but I like it even if I don’t think I get it.  Check out the “Pika Pika” video here and let me know what you think.

Links

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8Tracks Rewind: Remembering the Jets

I was a junior in high school when the Jets hit the pop FM stations in my town.  Pop radio was different in the mid 1980s.  Pop was still pop—generally speaking, music aimed at mass (typically young) audiences, usually less challenging versions of various genres whose goal was accessibility more than artistry—but on a good top 40 station, you were likely to hear Def Leppard (pop metal), the Fat Boys (pop rap), Kenny Rogers (pop country), REO Speedwagon (pop rock, at least by 1986), Michael Jackson (pop R&B), and all forms of pop dance, which may sound like a redundancy but really isn’t because they weren’t playing any New Order.

At first, the Jets’ “Crush on You” sounded like every other pop dance song on top 40.  It was cute and bouncy, with a breathy female lead vocal and a keyboard-driven rhythm designed to get stuck in your head all day.  Mostly something I didn’t pay much attention to but tolerated because there would probably be a Pat Benatar song next.

This was the height of the MTV era (he wrote, wistfully), and when many of us saw the “Crush on You” video, something seemed strange.  These musicians might have been black, but darn it if they didn’t look like they might be Polynesian.

The thought of finding out whether they were or not was an alien concept.  Without the resources we have today, it never occurred to us to track down the Jets’ ethnicity, but eventually it trickled down to our lonely rock in the Pacific that the Jets were Tongan.  Eight Tongan siblings playing their own instruments, with 13-year-old Elizabeth on most of the lead vocals.

Most of the students in my school weren’t at all Polynesian, and the Jets were from Minnesota, but dang.  These videos featured young musicians who looked like our friends and neighbors, and there they were, all over MTV.  On the Billboard Hot 100 on June 28, 1986, the Jets looked up and all they saw above them were “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” by Billy Ocean and “On My Own” by Patti LaBelle with Michael McDonald.  Most of us were really in no position to say it, but “we” had our own Jackson 5.  We had our own Osmond Brothers.

Note to self: edit this later when you think of a better example than the freaking Osmonds.

Through pretty much all of high school, I had an if-it-doesn’t-rock-it-sucks attitude about most music, but when the Jets came on MTV or 93FM Q (when I wasn’t in control of the car stereo), I paid attention and even sang along. Because Polynesian.

The Jets hit the Billboard Hot 100 ten times before they were through, including “You Got It All” (peaking at number 3), “Cross My Broken Heart” (number 7), “Rocket 2 U” (number 6), and “Make it Real” (number 4). I was honestly never a fan, but I rooted for them. They played a reunion show in Honolulu in 2009, a retro festival with the likes of En Vogue, the Cover Girls, and Ready for the World (how long was that set, I wonder), and I didn’t go.  Friends who did, though, were most amped to see the Jets.

Interesting stuff I couldn’t find a place for in this stroll down Memory Highway:

  • The Jets’ family name is Wolfgramm, and they are cousins of reggae singer Leilani Wofgramm, and if you haven’t heard of her you are probably old.  I think she sold out when she performed here last May.
  • Elizabeth married Mark Atuaia, a BYU running back from Hawaii.
  • “Crush on You” was written by Rupert Holmes, the guy who sang “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” and the almost-as-good “Him.”
  • Aaron Carter, among others, covered “Crush on You.”
  • Brittany Spears covered “You Got It All”
  • The siblings who performed as the Jets were eight of fifteen brothers and sisters.

 

8Tracks Review: ‘Melding’ by Marika Takeuchi

Melding by Marika Takeuchi
Bigo and Twigetti, 2018

Dawning

Marika Takeuchi’s new album Melding dropped July 19.  I first discovered her three years ago when she crowdfunded her fourth studio album, Colors in the Diary, while I looked for something interesting on PledgeMusic.  I love how that sometimes happens; the crowdfunding platforms are such a great way to get into something new.

“This is a mixture of classical and electronic music, eastern and western influences,” she says in the teaser video for the album, “and everything else that contrasts but coexists.  This is really about mixing up everything.

“I was told that my music is good, but I’m not going to be internationally successful because I’m a female and Asian.  I wanted to prove them wrong.  Music is a universal language, and what you look like, where you are from, and what gender you are don’t affect your abilities and passions to make good music.  Music has the power to unite people.”

Melding

  1. Melding (4:53)
  2. Night Time (4:06)
  3. Found (5:13)
  4. Roots (5:03)
  5. Dawning (3:39)
  6. Thoughts (5:10)
  7. Evolve (4:06)
  8. Breakdown (3:27)
  9. Found (Jim Perkins Re-Work) (4:00)
  10. Motion (5:09)
  11. Torn (4:45)
  12. Breeze (3:04)

I haven’t received my physical CD yet, so no album credits until later.

Thoughts

If you ever put together a playlist beginning with the X-Files theme and ending with Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” with Clannad’s “Theme from Harry’s Game” somewhere in the middle, you’ve got to get this album.  Takeuchi’s neo-classical sensibilities combine for the first time with just a bit of electronica to make Melding both meditative and dramatic.  If you prefer your genres unmelded, start with “Found,” a lovely, cascading theme progression that will bring tears to your eyes if you stare into it too closely.

For new additions to the X-Files playlist, jump to “Roots,” a sweeping construction of sounds not going where you think it’s going, or “Night Time,” probably the best example of the east-west thing the artist mentions in her teaser video.  The Japanese melody on violin and a pretty, plucked instrument (harp, perhaps) are a nice, new-agey example of Takeuchi’s interest in combining influences.  “Evolve” provides a similar experience, probably the most cinematic song on the album.

My favorite thing about this album is Takeuchi’s continued emphasis on building and exploring themes.  I don’t know whether this electronic-flavored neo-classical is a diversion or a new path, but I’m along for the ride because she’s still solidly a classical composer.  Listen to the build-up in the first two minutes of “Thoughts” and tell me you don’t want to rent a tux or put on your nicest gown and see this musician in live performance with your city’s orchestra.

A gorgeous. layered album.  I hear new things with each spin, and I’ve listened all the way through eight or nine times so far.

Breakdown

Best song: “Night Time”
Second-best song: It keeps changing, but right now it’s “Evolve.”
Best moment: The Enya-like vocals on “Found,” and the weird, almost weapon-sounding clicking in the same track.
Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!): “Breeze”
Song to make you get on a horse, strap on your sword, and seek adventure: “Breakdown”
Song to make you question why we’re here and what it’s all about: “Thoughts”

Rating: 8/10

Found

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also this lovely 2016 performance of “Koyo” especially for those whose tastes lean contemporary classical.

8Tracks Review: ‘Strawberry Moon’ by Amy Vachal

Strawberry Moon by Amy Vachal
(Independent, 2018)

I’ve waited too long, baby

Until a few weeks ago, the only thing I knew about Amy Vachal was that she was a contestant on The Voice, a show I hate.  Don’t be mad.  I just think these singer contest shows on network television seek musicians who appeal to very large audiences, and if something appeals to the masses, it is most likely bland, unoriginal, boring, or crap.  Am I wrong?  It’s always struck me as ironic that judges on The Voice, like Adam Levine, Pharrell Williams, and Cee-Lo Green, would probably have bombed on shows like this.  They made their splash by being different from everyone else.

Geez.  What an idiot I am.  Vachal’s first full-length album, Strawberry Moon, dropped January 31, and it’s freaking terrific.

Putting down pictures when we were together

  1. Golden Boy (3:49)
  2. Taken (4:03)
  3. Honey (3:19)
  4. Strawberry Moon (3:14)
  5. Wait (4:28)
  6. Darling You (3:35)
  7. Lightning (4:36)
  8. You Can Have Me (3:48)
  9. Cashmere (3:52)
  10. Below My Feet (4:06)
  11. Stones (2:38)

I’m falling like seasons

While Strawberry Moon is pop-flavored, this is no mainstream pop album.  From the light, airy, lilting notes of opening track “Golden Boy,” you’re reminded of that girl who sat in the back row of your 11th grade history class, drawing all over her binder, her forearm, the desk, and her Chuck Taylors.  You thought she was pretty in a trying-hard-not-to-look-pretty way that didn’t fool anyone, and you admired her but were afraid to talk to her because she seemed like she Knew Things.

My idiotic anti-The Voice bias had me expecting completely the wrong thing.  It’s like when Lisa Germano, John Mellencamp’s violin player and always the most intriguing musician in his band, released her first solo album and it was creative, angsty, whispery, and potentially psycho and you were like holy cow where did that come from?

That was a long time ago.  I’m old.

I am not too old, however, to be really taken by this album, mostly a blend of folk, alterna-pop, gospel, and something like clove cigarettes or lapsang souchong.  The tunes are unique, not only in a gigantic field of solo singer-songwriters, but each among the ten others on the album.

Vachal apparently writes her own lyrics (it’s impossible anymore to find album credits if you don’t buy the physical CD, which I have done but it’s not here yet), and they’re the best thing about an album with no weaknesses.

Best album of the year so far.

Words in my skin and lips on a letter

Best song: “Taken”
Second-best songs: “Stones” and “Golden Boy”
Best lyric: “September took a turn on a highway west / whiskey and pie / held up a telephone to our lips / we’d kiss we’d fight / I was taken.” (“Taken”)
Second-best lyric: “I have seen gold / I have seen silver / I’ve been in love / I felt its fever / but give me the words / the ones that matter / I’m tearing out pages / I’m saying goodbye.” (“Stones”)
Best moment: Whatever that plucked string instrument is in the intro to “Honey” and throughout the song.
Second-best momentThe sound of a door, suitcase, or guitar case closing at the very end of “Stones.”
Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!): “Strawberry Moon”

Rating: 9/10

I can’t change where you are

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8Tracks Review: ‘Mangoes’ EP by Amy Ahn

Before we knew it, we were flying

Amy Ahn’s three-song EP dropped June 1.  The classical harpist with harp performance degrees from UCLA and the Boston Conservatory at Berklee blends genres in a poppy-jazzy-r&b style.   In an interview with & Strings, she says,

If I’m going through something and feel like there are truths that need to be heard in this world, I like putting it in the form of a song. I put together a three song EP, very very small but quality wise very very big and put a lot of heart and effort into it.

Every song is really different. So if I were to describe it sonically, the groove is like Emily King, the soul is like Corrine Bailey Rae, my voice wilts a lot, and my classical background comes out with a string quartet that plays in one of the songs, which I’m super excited about.

 


What’s a girl got to do?

  1. Never Thought I’d Be (5:03)
  2. Bird’s Eye View (2:58)
  3. Mangoes (3:50)

An ocean full of ideas unheard

Most immediately notable is Amy’s voice, which reminds me most of Karen Peris’s sweetness combined with Norah Jones’s sultriness.  It’s very breathy, sometimes distractingly so, in the way that many contemporary folk-influenced singer-songwriters are breathy, only breathier.  What sets Amy apart is her vocal style, which leans heavily on r&b sensibilities but with an admirable jazz vocal attack.  I imagine her laying down vocal melodies and deciding they weren’t challenging enough, because she seldom takes the easy vocal path getting from here to there.  It’s pretty refreshing, and it’s refreshingly pretty.

“Bird’s Eye View” opens with just vocals and a harp, something else you don’t hear much of in pop-inflected music, and it compares nicely with the intros to the other tracks, which open with just vocals and acoustic guitar, the much more common approach.  All three songs develop into rather complex multi-instrumental arrangements.  The layering is really nice; I especially appreciated some nice piano coloring in “Mangoes,” and a weird, fascinating, oscillating industrial sound I can’t identify at about the :55 mark in “Bird’s Eye View.”

If there’s a lyrical theme, it’s “I used to be that, but now I’m this.”  If I have one complaint, it’s that the mix doesn’t leave enough room for Amy’s lyrics, making them difficult to understand in places, especially “Bird’s Eye View.”  I’m not sure, but I think she actually uses the lyric, “never thought I’d be in like with you” in “Never Thought I’d Be,” a phrase I’ve always favored but don’t remember hearing in a song.

“Mangoes” is the best song, musically and lyrically, so if you’re in a hurry start there.  Otherwise, put the whole EP in your earbuds on repeat for a few spins or a few days.

Rating: 7/10

I really do like you

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8Tracks Review: ‘In the Waiting’ by Kina Grannis

 

In the Waiting by Kina Grannis
KG Records (2018)

There was a time when there seemed to be something new to talk about from Kina Grannis just about every week.  While she has remained engaged with her rabid fanbase on seemingly a daily basis, these last few years have seemed pretty close to event-free.  So it was something of a surprise when her new album, In the Waiting, was finally available for preorders, despite regular tweets about personal songwriting retreats and informal surveys about where she should take her next tour.  A whole studio album for the first time in four years.

You know how much stuff happens in four years?  A lot, including a hundred days’ detainment by the Indonesian government during which Kina and three tour companions were forbidden from publicly communicating their situation.  Stuck in a hotel where she didn’t know their status on any given day, she wrote two songs appearing on this album, “California” and “For Now.”  If you’re a fan and you haven’t read her story, you really must.  It’s pretty horrible.

You calling me back to your side


I listen again for your song

  1. When Will I Learn (3:13)
  2. History (3:44)
  3. In the Waiting (4:12)
  4. Birdsong (4:36)
  5. For Now (3:18)
  6. Lonesome (4:27)
  7. Beth (3:51)
  8. Souvenirs (3:10)
  9. All Along (2:01)

There was a delay with physical CD shipments (this has been happening to me a lot lately), so I’ll add album credits later.

I am open, I am ready

There’s no question that Kina has purposely reframed herself for her audience over the years, and while I’m here for that, I admit it’s been an adjustment for me.  The Kina you and I fell in love with isn’t musically the Kina we get on this album.  She long ago shed any hint of coyness, and while she can certainly still present as sweet and sincere, her childlike playfulness is gone, quite possibly for good.  It’s okay.  It makes sense.  It happens to us all, as I suppose it must.

So what we have here is undoubtedly the same musician, just in a different place and time.  And this Kina is mellow.  Wistful.  Pensive.  Cautious, almost, stepping softly but determinedly through some tricky emotional ground.  Seriously, every track feels like a meditation on some daily, heart-squeezing near-paralysis.  “Beth,” my favorite song on the album, starts like this:

Beth, rest, you are on top of the world
Yet you disagree
And it’s too long, longing for something to give
When the taking is free
And it’s not in the way that you said your goodbye
Not in the way that you laughed
And it’s not in the way that you started to cry
When you heard that the worst part had passed

and it doesn’t get any easier to deal with.  Kina’s bravery as a lyricist is admirable, and I imagine I’m not the only one wishing I could reach out to the personae in these songs and buy them some ice cream.  Between tracks, my heart still begs her to jump up and sing “Message from Your Heart” next, but this album’s not the place for that kind exuberance.

This is not to say the album lacks lightness.  “California” is waltz-like and dreamy, while “For You” is driven mostly by quick fingerpicking on an acoustic guitar, the most reminiscent of earlier Kina songs.  You could almost float away on it, if it weren’t so sad!

It’s a solid album, but not everything is a viral video made with a hundred thousand jellybeans in stop-motion animation, and the songs here probably don’t quite have this kind of holy-molyness.  On each of her previous albums and EPs, I texted friends to say hey you gotta hear this song from the new Kina album and oh yeah hear this one too.  That may not happen for many of us on this one, and that feels appropriate.  It’s so darn personal.

I know nothing but the meaning

  • Best song: “Beth”
  • Second-best song: “For Now”
  • Meh: “All Along” is growing slowly on me, but very slowly.
  • Best lyric: “It’s too long, longing for something to give when the giving is free”
  • Best moment: Birdcalls and piano intro to “Birdsong”
  • Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!): “Birdsong”
  • Song to make you whip out your old guitar and write your own song (do it!): “Lonesome”

Rating: 8/10

The ones that I am missing

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If you somehow have never seen Kina’s “In Your Arms” video, you need to see it now.  And if you have, you know you want to see it again.  Third-best video of all time behind A-Ha’s “Take on Me” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

 

8Tracks Review: ‘Pop Covers’ by Marié Digby

It’s amazing how you can speak right to my heart

Marié Digby released an album of  pop covers this week.  I’m pretty sure these were all recorded before and are only collected and put into sequence here for the first time.

I love Marié.  You love Marié.  There’s no need to sell anyone on checking this out, and you pretty much know what to expect, although the Soundgarden cover might be a nice surprise!

You drown out the crowd

  1. Hold On, We’re Going Home (Drake) (2:05)
  2. Diamonds (Rihanna) (2:48)
  3. New Rules (Dua Lipa) (2:57)
  4. Too Good at Goodbyes (Sam Smith) (3:03)
  5. Let it Go (James Bay) (3:41)
  6. Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden) (2:49)
  7. Ordinary World (Duran Duran) (3:16)
  8. Enjoy the Silence (Depeche Mode) (2:55)
  9. When You Say Nothing at All (Alison Krauss) (2:45)
  10. Empire (Shakira) (3:13)

What’s being said between your heart and mine

I do not like the original recordings of any of the first five songs, so I am quite possibly the wrong person to evaluate these as covers.  I do very much like the originals of tracks 6 through 9, and Shakira’s always been semi-interesting.  Context for deciding on my cred.

Marié gives even the songs I don’t care much for her usual sweet, breathy treatment and I don’t have a single complaint.  Reinterpreted as mostly acoustic, stripped-down songs, everything here works.  I was surprised to find myself really liking the Sam Smith cover, “Too Good at Goodbyes.”

The real highlight is Alison Krauss’s “When You Say Nothing at All,” which is itself a cover of a Keith Whitley recording.  I’ve heard (and seen) Marié play a bunch of songs on her guitar, but she gets a really clear, ringing tone on this one, something a little different sounding from what I’m used to from her.  It sounds like she recorded the vocal live, as she accompanied herself, and rather than cheap or hurried, it sounds spontaneous.  It’s also one of the few tracks here where she doesn’t do the moaning-into-the-notes singing and it just sounds freaking pretty.

Although I’ve heard many of these recordings already, putting them together this way makes them more interesting.  Whether you’re a casual fan or hardcore, you’ll probably want to put this in heavy rotation for the rest of the summer.

Now you say it best

  • Best song: “When You Say Nothing at All”
  • Second-best song: “Ordinary World”
  • Meh: “Enjoy the Silence”
  • Songs I didn’t know before I spun this album: “Let it Go” and “New Rules”
  • Not an improvement on original: “Enjoy the Silence”
  • Huge improvement on original: “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and “Diamonds”
  • Best moment: The piano intro on “Let it Go”
  • Second-best moment: The almost yodel-like melody in the chorus of “Empire,” minus the hooing, which is better than in the original recording but still doesn’t do anything for me
  • Song to make you text your ex (don’t do it!): “Let it Go”
  • Song to make you whip out your old guitar and try to write a song (do it!): “When You Say Nothing at All”

Rating: 7/10

Old Mr. Webster could never define

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