Album Art, Visual Translation, and A Pride Week Collage

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Album art is sacred. It is the physical embodiment of a record’s soul, a manifestation of the thoughts, strife, and emotion that went into its creation. Album art is often the one chance an artist has to distill their work into something visual; into one composition that translates the art they’ve made into an entirely different medium. An album’s cover is both the face and synopsis of the music that lies directly behind it.

Even outside of vinyl, the artwork of an album is a vital piece of the overall music experience. As we cram albums onto our phones by the hundreds and platforms like Spotify continue to shrink artwork down to hundred-pixel squares, it’s more important than ever to appreciate the work and artistry that goes into a cover. 

In 2018 it’s less important to have a cover that “sells” a potential listener simply because there’s rarely ever a sale in the traditional sense anymore. When everything is one click away, the listener has nothing to lose aside from the three-minute commitment it takes to listen to a song. Sure artists can still use sex or controversy to court discussion and clicks, but now more than ever the cover’s primary job is to translate the senses of the record into something outside of itself. Something recognizable, something beautiful, something with heart. 

I’ve long been fascinated with album art, and more recently I’ve found myself looking at my music library abstractly, organizing albums and playlists not by artist, alphabet, or genre, but by color. If records are the physical embodiment of the artist's music, then the color can tell us a lot about the mood and texture of their songs at a glance. 

Earlier this year I found myself face to face with a playlist of all pink albums and enjoyed the experience of interacting it so much that I figured why not do that for every color? I sat down, scrolled through my library, and after collecting all of these lovely records into one mood-board-like word document, it only made sense to talk about them here. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed apropos to have this multi-color collage coincide with Pride Week, the most colorful time of the year. So here are 60 (mostly single-color) albums that are largely well-regarded, but also definitively “Taylor-core.” 

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And In addition to the six-row “Pride Flag” layout above, I’ve also created a “Full Spectrum” rainbow version, since white pink and black were three of the easiest colors to fill out. You can find the full-resolution versions of these collages here and here. I dare your ass to name all 90 albums.

 

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But wait, that's not all! In addition to these images, I’ve plucked one album from each color and given it a short mini-review. Most of the covers above fall under "classic" territory, but there are also some deeper cuts that I've always wanted to write about on here, even if it's just for a short paragraph.


Owen - I Do Perceive

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Husband, father, and noted sad man Mike Kinsella has been making music for a majority of his life. From his work as a teenager in the late-90’s under Cap'n Jazz and American Football to his current solo work as Owen, Kinsella is a prolific artist who seems to be continually overflowing with both good music and raw emotion. While American Football’s self-titled debut is now viewed as an all-time classic in the emo/indie/underground circuit, I posit that I Do Perceive should be brought up with the same level of reverence. Offering a slightly more “adult” counterpoint to his younger self, Perceive is an early-morning exploration of Kinsella’s headspace and the inner-workings of his most intimate relationships. Packed with smart observations, clever topics, and lush instrumentation, this album aches with beauty and honesty. 

 

John Frusciante - PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone

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Perhaps best-known for his work with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers during some of their most successful releases, anyone who dives into John Frusciante’s solo records will quickly come to realize what an essential (and artistic) role he played in the group. From his early drugged-out acoustic albums to later-career dissonant electronic phases, Frusciante is a complicated musician with a vast body of intricate work. PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone is a 2012 experimental album that blends electronic, indie, and hip-hop into one schizophrenic explosion of songs that shift rapidly and without warning. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard in my life and concrete evidence that Frusciante is a genius with a mind and vision all his own. 

 

The White Stripes - The White Stripes

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While they achieved greater success and recognition with later records, The White Stripes’ self-titled debut remains a fantastic release that marks the beginning of an incredibly strong discography. Featuring punchy, thrashy, and messy garage rock, The White Stripes shows us a band in its charming infancy. There are well-crafted choruses and catchy melodies, but at the same time everything is so ragged and distorted that the entire record sounds as if it was recorded in one take. There’s something pure about pre-fame Jack White, and the band’s rough-around-the-edges debut is eternal proof that everyone must start somewhere. 

 

Sharks Keep Moving - Pause and Clause

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While it’s only three songs long, Pause and Clause stretches out over a luxurious and lavish 21 minutes. Technically only an EP, this shorter format allowed the band to embrace some semblance of punctuality while simultaneously giving the songs proper time to breathe. Fronted by Minus The Bear’s Jake Snider, Sharks Keep Moving is a reverse-super group whose members went on to form Pretty Girls Make Graves, The Blood Brothers, and These Arms Are Snakes. Pause and Clause, the group's final release, features long-winding and arid songs of love, heartbreak, and disappointment, the centerpiece of which is the 11-minute “Like A River.” One of my favorite songs of all time, “Like A River” tells a tale as old as time of a man, a woman, and a bar. It’s a song that’s not afraid to writhe in its emotions and say exactly what it’s thinking. The lyrics are few and far between, but each line hangs in the air as a poetic observation of the simple beauties in life. The song’s instrumental outro is thrilling and gorgeous, allowing the listener’s mind to reel in their own experiences and project themselves onto the multi-colored soundscape of love and affection.

 

Sorority Noise - Joy, Departed

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After gaining a cult following with 2014’s Forgettable, Sorority Noise returned one year later with their landmark Joy, Departed. Decidedly more serious, mature, and musical, the group’s sophomore effort sees a shift from half-goofy pop-punk into full-blown heart-on-sleeve emo. In retrospect, this release does a fantastic job of acclimating the listener into the band’s more-grounded later work, but still manages to strike a balance between sing-along pop-punk and moody emo that I find enchanting. With poetic lyrics tackling depression, self-harm, and drug addiction, Joy, Departed is far from a “fun” listen, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable or important.

 

Band of Horses - Everything All the Time

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Assisted by Seattle’s own Sub-Pop, Everything All The Time was Band of Horses grand unveiling to the world. While “The Funeral” will probably always be their best-known and most widely-recognized song, Everything All The Time is an incredibly-well put-together album featuring personable and charming songs of lackadaisical indie rock with just a tinge of country. Tracks like “The First Song” and “I Go To The Barn Because I Like The” offer laid-back earthy slice of life vignettes that all add up to one of the better debuts of the 2000’s. 

 

Explosions in the Sky - How Strange, Innocence

For an album that was recorded in only four days, How Strange, Innocence is absolutely immaculate. Even when taken in nearly two decades later, Innocence fits squarely into the Explosions In The Sky’s discography and feels like a group that already knew exactly what they wanted. While the band’s later work gradually became quieter and more subtle, their debut is the loudest, most distorted, and most singular thing they’ve ever recorded. Each song explodes with a wall of guitar, drums, and bass that all chug forward relentlessly until crescendoing into sparks of violent beauty. It’s an absolute wonder. 

 

Tame Impala - Currents

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After achieving commercial success and near-universal acclaim on his first two records, Tame Impala’s third album found Kevin Parker moving away from Beatles-esque psychedelia and further into electronic progginess. Much like Joy Departed, Currents does a fantastic job of segueing long-time fans into the band’s new sound. Opening track “Let It Happen” begins as a classic Tame Impala psychedelic rock song before glitching out into a prolonged electronic section marked by a dancey explosion of sound and light. Mid-album cuts like “Eventually” all bear the same clean production and showcase the specific type of beauty to be found at the intersection between these two seemingly-disparate genres. 

 

Japandroids - Post-Nothing

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Comprised of only two Canadian men, a guitar, and a drum set, Japandroids pack a gigantic, anthemic, and cathartic punch into a small package. While 2012’s Celebration Rock is arguably the rock album of the decade, Post-Nothing will always hold a special place in my heart as that record’s fuzzier, more nostalgic older brother. Beginning with the Thin Lizzy-referencing “The Boys Are Leaving TownPost-Nothing immediately casts a late-summer spell upon its listener, hurling them into a suspended animation of their own memories. Mid-album cuts like “Heart Sweats” and “Crazy/Forever” find the duo settling into well-crafted melodies and lulling the listener into a sense of trust and inner-peace. Finally, album closer “I Quit Girls” is a soul-rending adult lullaby that builds to a climactic groove which eventually ferries the listener off to the end of the record.

Welcome to the Ministry of Interior Spaces: An Interview With James Li

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One of the most common words that people use when discussing instrumental music is that it’s “cinematic.” While this is often meant as an endorsement, I’ve always read this descriptor as a bit of a back-handed compliment. 

On one hand, this (hypothetical) person is saying ‘this so good it could be in a movie,’ but they’re also saying ‘I view it as background music’ in the same breath. They recognize it as music on a technical level, but the only reference point they have for this type of sound is when it’s pushed to the back of a movie with sound effects and dialogue placed over it. Almost as if it’s not musical enough to stand on its own due to the lack of vocals. 

I’ve written previously about my complicated relationship with post-rock and instrumental music, even (lovingly) using the phrase “background music” to describe it. While I stand by that term, the more vital piece of this equation is the listener’s role in the genre’s consumption. Instrumental music rewards its listener regardless of how carefully they’re paying attention. Sure, you can leave instrumental music on in the background, but something wonderful happens when you listen to it actively. 

When you put an instrumental record on with the music as your sole focus, the songs gain abilities that they wouldn’t otherwise have. In many people’s minds, this is the “ideal” way to interact with music of any genre, but I recognize it’s not always practical given how much commitment it requires. But when you sit. And kill your senses. And listen. The music can envelop you. It can access forgotten parts of your brain. It can retrieve long-lost memories. It can re-establish broken connections. It can help you feel. 

Music serves a purpose for everyone, and each genre possesses different abilities. Instrumental music allows the listener expression, projection, and reconciliation on a level unparalleled by any other genre. It’s the soundtrack to our own thoughts and senses, the backdrop to a mind running wild. 

On his newest release as Ministry of Interior Spaces, James Li takes the listener on a “mystical road trip through a magic-realist American West.” It’s a long-winding, heartfelt, and compelling release that means as much to its creator as it can for the listener. With each track named after real-world locations, Li takes inspiration from events in his life and weaves a narrative of recovery in the face of obliteration. While his story remains unspoken, the music acts as both his voice and emotion, carrying the listener from one happening to the next with ethereal grace. It’s a canvas that listeners can engage with, project their own experiences onto, and enclose themselves in. 


With (nearly) all of the song titles referencing real-life locations, how do you go about translating the feeling of a place into a song?

James Li: We all experience nature in a way that is subjective and relative to our own selves. There is no truly neutral way of experiencing nature - a family road trip to the Grand Canyon eating from Wendy’s drive-throughs isn’t neutral, but neither is solo backpacking in the Cascades.

As humans we can’t help but experience nature through our own individual-shaped lens. We’re always bringing our personalities, our anxieties, our philosophies, our memories, and emotions to the table. In my case, my worldview was seriously muddied with depression and anxiety. I was dragging a lot of ugliness to these places of often incomprehensible beauty.

There was a definite, discernible conflict whenever this happened. I’d find myself humbled and confused by the natural beauty in front of me - how could so much goodness and pain exist at the same time? So each track isn’t as much of a description of a place as it is a description of that event, that meeting. They’re not describing how the place objectively is but rather how they made me feel at that moment.

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On the Bandcamp page you’ve highlighted the fact that this album is two years in the making and recorded across three different continents. What led to such a long incubation period?

James Li: The two years I spent making this album were full of bruising seismic life changes. This included graduating college, leaving Michigan for good, taking an office job in Hong Kong, going through a bad long distance break up, spending some time in the hospital, a confusing visit to the States, then moving to England where I live now. I don’t want to talk about everything because it’d involve people who wouldn’t want to be involved, but it was definitely the most painful and truly nihilistic time of my life. Completing this project was the last thread pulling me through. I wanted to create an album that could justify getting through all of this loss, a reminder to myself that real objective beauty exists.

I had a clear idea of what I wanted Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound (LDATPW) to be early on, taking the atypical move of writing a thesis and track listing before starting recording. Because of that specific vision, I was merciless with what didn’t fit. I cut at least thirty tracks in the making of this album - some turning up on Sister in the Snow, an EP about Michigan I released in the interim.

Writing LDATPW was a huge learning process as well. Through trial and error I learned new methods such as screwing and granular synthesis, which made me constantly retread my steps and revise earlier tracks. For two years my life basically revolved around finishing this album, and at times I wasn’t sure if it’d ever be completed. I only allowed myself to put it out when I was certain it’d been fully realised.

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Your other band Liance seems to be a much more “traditional” project with a full band, vocals, etc. What spurred the need for you to create Ministry, and what drew you to the ambient genre?

James Li: Liance is an intensely personal project with little space between what I write and myself. It’s very literal. After releasing Bronze Age of the Nineties I wanted a musical outlet that didn’t have my personhood at the forefront, something completely untied to my ego.

Ministry of Interior Spaces started in January 2016 after playing the indie game Kentucky Route Zero. There’s this one scene where you visit a government agency called the Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces. Inspired by the game’s ambient synth score and magic-realist American setting, I wanted to create my own Bureau of Reclaimed Spaces, a “Ministry of Interior Spaces” so to speak. Dying Towns of the Midwest was to be an ambient album from that Ministry’s perspective, a government survey of post-financial crash towns I was familiar with in Michigan.

This was during J-term in the middle of a particularly cold Michigan winter. I’d just bought an OP-1 and slept in a sleeping bag as there wasn’t any heating in my room. I was experiencing serious anxiety about my post-college future and the upcoming presidential election. I was also reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and watching the movie Her to sleep every night, all-in-all a strange headspace to be in.

These different factors somehow came together as the perfect catalyst and I found myself churning out tracks on bus rides and 15-minute class breaks. I made friends at an antique store so I could use their Wurlitzer and recorded a borrowed cello in the kitchen. Dying Towns of the Midwest took just four weeks from conception to publishing, which is quick for any album. Unlike writing under Liance, none of it felt vulnerable even though it was still a deeply emotional process. It felt liberating to create something so completely for myself without the expectation of explaining my lyrics or performing live.

I still consider Liance and Ministry just as important as each other though. They simply occupy different parts of my mind, with the added benefit of being able to jump project-to-project whenever I have a creative block on the other. There’s a lot of narrative overlap as well, although Liance focuses more on memory while Ministry focuses on the spaces they occur in. In fact, the next Liance album covers events described in LDATPW.

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On the Bandcamp page you also give credit to all of the various musicians who have contributed to the album, even going as far as to call them ‘collaborators.’ How did you connect with all these people, and what was the collaboration process like?

James Li: I’ve been very lucky to have the musicians I’ve had on this album. All of these connections have been completely serendipitous. Katie Kuffel, who sings on the opening track, used to date my old high school friend during college which is how we know each other. I stayed at her apartment for a week when I started writing this album. It just so happens that she’s also an incredible musician and someone whose work ethic I look up to.

John Denno, who recorded all the brass on the album, reached out to me online after listening to the Liance albums. He teaches at an Indian boarding school which one of my best friends coincidentally went to. I met Josh Frenier, the high schooler who plays drums on the last track, while waiting in line for Pitchfork 2016 with his dad. Those are only just some examples of the many crazy connections on this record. The universe is abundant and I continue to meet exceptional human beings without ever planning to.

I think it goes to show that most people are inherently giving and just want to be part of something beautiful. It’s also a testament to the new possibilities technology has opened. Borders and regional scenes simply don’t matter as much as they used to. There’re stems on this album recorded all around the world, including India, Seattle, Liverpool, New Mexico, Brighton, and Hong Kong. All you need today are good strangers, a decent microphone, and a Google Drive account.

 

The title of the new LP is Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound. Without giving away too much, what inspired the name of this album?

James Li: Depression, and also just that life itself is inherently painful. The Perpetual Wound is also a theme carried over from the first album, which ends with “The Wounded King.”

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The idea of the “journey” seems to be a central concept to both the album and your life. Where did the “concept” of this album come from?

James Li: On Dying Towns of the Midwest I named some tracks after places in Michigan like Holland or Marquette. This was inspired by Bon Iver’s self-titled album, with titles like “Lisbon, OH” and “Hinnom, TX.” On LDATPW I wanted to take this concept one step further and turn a series of imagined spaces into a full narrative.

Worldbuilding and storytelling is inherently fun. It’s in our very blood to mythologise. I’ve always enjoyed science fiction and concept albums, or really just concepts in general, and wanted to try creating a self-contained universe in an ambient album.

The American West is perhaps the most sublime and unknowable place in the world. Its landscapes genuinely changed my life during a period of serious desperation. There’s something truly transformative in the West’s sheer scale of wonder - something spiritual, for lack of a better word. It felt like my duty to pay tribute to its beauty and document what I’d seen.

The idea of a journey came naturally as that was how I’d experienced the American West. Traveling is probably my favourite thing in the world - the notion of free movement and perpetual discovery. It’s something that I’ve been fixated on since a very early age, perhaps because Hong Kong is a small place surrounded by water and borders.

The events covered in LDATPW come from four separate trips to the American West during and just after college. In 2014 I followed some guys on my floor and drove 22 hours straight to Canyonlands for some backpacking, which was my first real encounter with the West. Then in 2016 I headed out to the West three more times - to Seattle over Spring Break after going cold turkey on my SSRIs, to Montana and Wyoming just two days after graduating for a geology course, and New Mexico via Amtrak a few weeks before my visa expired. Each journey was unique, challenging, and utterly transformative.

While designing the album I stitched these separate journeys together as one epic continuous pilgrimage, an album you could draw on a map. It’s a simple way of framing that helps give it a larger sense of progression and meaning, while staying true to the actual personal journeys I’d experienced.

A really fantastic book on the American West and all of its paradoxes is Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. If you’re able to look past his macho abrasiveness, it’s a perfect summary of this album’s core themes. It also informed some of the poetry on the album’s zine and the lyrics of the last track.

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Many people ascribe the “cinematic” label to instrumental music without thinking about the creator behind the art. While you obviously have a deep personal connection to each of these songs, what’s more important to you: the idea that your story is captured on these tracks, or the process of the listener imprinting their own emotions onto them?

James Li: The listener’s experience should always take precedent. It’s my hope that people continue to project their experiences onto my music. My favourite aspect of working on this project are the completely different takeaways people get from the same tracks. “This reminds me of an aquarium I went to when I was five,” or “This track totally brings back college summers in Lake Michigan.” Hearing memories like these gets me super excited. It means more than any good review could.

And that’s the beauty of ambient music I think. You get to choose your level of engagement, and however you interpret it is yours to own.

While some musicians may disagree, I see making music as essentially creating a tool. It’s a noble and necessary thing to do, but you’re still ultimately creating something that exists outside of yourself for others to use. When someone likes your music, they like the tool that you’ve created, not you. Your relationship to what you’ve created shouldn’t matter as it exists independently on its own. And that’s kind of freeing, you know? You get to contribute back to the world without forcing your ego onto it, and the people who need to find your music will find it eventually.

 

Stream Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound here, or pick up a copy on Bandcamp.

May 2018: Album Review Roundup

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June is almost upon us, and that can only mean one thing… it’s time for another roundup of the month’s best new music! May was a stellar month with some big names dropping long-awaited records, and as usual, there were some surprises along the way. Let’s waste no time and jump straight into it.


Parquet Courts - Wide Awake! 

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The lead-up to Parquet Courts’ sixth album appeared to be a series of increasingly-questionable decisions, each of which seemed more worrisome than the last. The first strike came when the band announced that production on their new record was to be helmed entirely by Danger Mouse, a known-homogenizer of rock music. By the time the band made a daytime appearance on Ellen, most fans cautiously waded into Wide Awake! with tempered expectations. While I’ll admit I’m a relatively new fan of Parquet Courts, Wide Awake! seems to be the most thoughtful, polished, and complete offering the band has put out to date. Perhaps thanks to that unified sound brought to the table by Danger Mouse, it feels like the band was finally unencumbered enough to get as freaky, groovy, and political as they have always wanted to, all while sounding as clear and raw as they ever have. Still oscillating between thrashy punk and long-winded indie, after hearing the record it now feels silly that we ever doubted them in the first place. 

 

Rae Sremmurd - SR3MM

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By now everyone knows the story of Rae Sremmurd. Two brothers from Mississippi who broke their way onto the scene with “No Flex Zone” in 2014 and continued to solidify their place in hip-hop with a stream of undeniable singles, killer features, and inescapable cultural moments. For their third record, the duo decided to embrace the theme of threes and release a triple album; one traditional Rae Sremmurd release, plus one solo record from each of the two brothers. I ended up enjoying SR3MM far more than I ever expected (in fact, I wrote a full review for it here) but aside from exceeding my expectations, I think the Brothers Sremm handled every facet impeccably. Triple albums are rare, but when we do get them they’re notoriously bloated, overly-long, and just plain bad, but here the two approached it with a unique perspective and were able to deliver the exact level of fun that fans have come to expect from them. Plus watching Swae Lee and Slimm Jximmi flourish in their respective styles is wonderful to see. From bangers to ballads, SR3MM has it all and excels on every front. 

 

Beach House - 7

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I’ve always been a pretty passive fan of Beach House. I like what they do, but rarely ever seek it out on my own. When the group released Depression Cherry in 2015 something finally clicked for me, and I fell in love. Wonderfully-dark, beautifully-pensive, and just the right amount of distorted, Depression Cherry was the record I’d always wanted the band to make. Despite turning me into a fan with that record, the duo squandered that goodwill almost immediately when they released Thank Your Lucky Stars the very same year and gave us a second album that sounded exactly like everything else they’ve ever done. Now in 2018, the group seems to have stared down these two divergent paths and leaned even harder into that darker side that I enjoyed so much on Depression Cherry. Forecasted by a plethora of increasingly-dark singles and a detailed public announcement/explanation of their sonic change-up, 7 represents the fulfillment and embrace of the band’s darker side. The full evolution of this distorted, borderline-shoegazey sound, which (from the outside) sounds like quite the pivot for a dream pop act, yet Beach House manage to make it look effortless. 7 finds the band plunging headfirst into midnight and emerging with some of their best work to date. 

 

Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino 

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For their sixth album as a band, the Arctic Monkeys decided to curve every sonic, historical, and fan expectation in favor of something completely left field. A far pivot from the dark deserty sounds of their last album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino sees Alex Turner taking center stage (quite literally) as a sort of smoky lounge-singer in search of the soul. On some level, this record is just as “dark” as AM, but ends up being much more laid-back, conversational, and perhaps most importantly: funny. Tranquility Base a Hotel & Casino takes a similar approach to all of its songs, embracing a dynamic of hyper-verbose lyricism sung over subdued instrumentals. It’s a far cry from any of their previous work, but it’s a combination that works for me. There are still enough musical moments for the other band members to show their chops, but as a whole Tranquility Base reads like a late-night exploration of Turner’s brain over the course of one dark night of the soul. A lounge album recorded in the void of space. A stream-of-consciousness outpouring in the aftermath of a post-Bowie world. A near-future disaster recorded directly to music. A wonder. 

 

Pusha T - Daytona

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Ever since releasing one of the best records of his career in 2015, the hip-hop public has long-anticipated Pusha T’s next move, waiting with bated breath to see how he could possibly follow it up. On his first full-length in three years, he reveals the answer was to make things shorter, tighter, and even more cohesive. The first of four Kanye-produced albums we’re receiving over the next 30 days, Daytona is the best non-poop-related indicator of what to expect from these upcoming projects. Bearing Ye’s classic chopped-up soul-sampled beats, an intentionally-short tracklist, and songs that bleed into one other flawlessly, Pusha’s latest output is a sharp, soulful, and compact update on the rapper’s mindstate. “Santeria” is a slowly-mounting guitar-based track that climaxes in an explosion of organ and a moody Spanish refrain. Oppositely, “Infrared” is a barebones track that finds Pusha T spitting realness on everything from politics to race relation and ends on a few subliminal shots at Drake… Speaking of which, the benefit of writing these at the end of the month is that we now seem to find ourselves in the midst of a beef between the two. On the 25th Drake dropped “Duppy Freestyle” to which Push responded with “The Story of Adidon.” While Drake’s freestyle centers around Pusha’s credibility in the drug game, Pusha T went straight for the jugular attacking Drake, his family, and his best friend, all within three minutes. The story is still developing, but as a fan of each artist, it’s exciting to hear new, sharp, and mean music from each as they go back and forth in what may be the defining hip-hop beef of the decade. 

 

Courtney Barnett - Tell Me How You Really Feel

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For someone whose music typically gets placed under the “Slacker” sub-genre of indie, Courtney Barnett seems to work really fucking hard. I know that name is just a silly label meant to describe her music, but I can’t help but feel like that title is a disservice to her art. There are certainly still moments of slack-fueled hopelessness throughout Barnett’s sophomore effort (most notably “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence”), but there are moments of strength too. Perhaps spiritually-bolstered by last year’s collaboration with Kurt Vile, Barnett seems more pointed, bombastic, and personable than ever before. Opting for less-narrative songs than her breakthrough record, Tell Me How You Really Feel finds Barnett shredding, grooving, and narrating her way through ten stories of personal growth. Sometimes psychological, sometimes agonizingly-real, this album feels like Courtney Barnett engraved a piece of herself onto each record and passed them out to people on the street. A wondrous (and sometimes rambling) journey of the self. 

 

Ministry of Interior Spaces - Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound

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I’m not a sad person. I don’t have many regrets in life, nor a wealth of personal tragedies to draw from. Earlier this year I attended a This Will Destroy You concert, and it was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in recent memory. I knew their songs like the back of my hand and midway through the instrumental set, my mind began to wander into long-forgotten thoughts. It was meditative. I began thinking about people, places, and events I hadn’t considered in years, as if the music was helping my brain re-establish these broken connections in order to feel these things I hadn’t in decades. At its best, I feel music offers listeners a canvas on which to project their own feelings and anxieties. An avenue to interact with deep-seated traumas and unheard thoughts, and that’s exactly what Ministry of Interior Spaces offers on Life, Death and the Perpetual Wound. Half concept album, half whatever you want it to be, Perpetual Wound is an ambient release that recounts the tale of a “mystical road trip through a magic-realist American West.” It’s a document of its creator’s struggle with drugs, depression and, friendship in the face of natural beauty. The record tells a timeless tale that simultaneously acts as a canvas for the listener to venture through and draw upon. A beautiful self-exploration. 

We interviewed Ministry of Interior Spaces here.

 

Illuminati Hotties - Kiss Your Frenemies

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When I first discovered The Wonder Years the band felt like a revelation to me. The group’s hyper-realist approach to lyricism was something I’d never heard before in my life, and something I desperately needed at that time. When I first discovered Illuminati Hotties, their single “(You’re Better) Than Ever” immediately evoked the same feeling I first got when I discovered The Wonder Years so long ago. Punchy, powerful, and disarmingly self-aware, Illuminati Hotties is a “tenderpunk” group fronted by Sarah Tudzin that finds the band grasping at the straws of adulthood. It’s both heartbreaking and reassuring to hear music from someone in such a similar situation as myself. It’s an album about fucking up, growing up, and moving on. Tudzin takes a similar approach to The Wonder Years using specific vignettes and imagery from her own life to let the listener into her existence on a level that’s almost too close for comfort. From working three jobs to pay off college debt to doughnut dates and ceilings covered in glow in the dark stars, everything connects in a way that’s just eerily real. Filled with cute lines, catchy choruses, and poetic barbs, Kiss Your Frenemies fumbles its way through adulthood in an intimate, anthemic, and beautiful way.

 

Quick Hits

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  • BlocBoy JB - Simi: After making waves with the Drake-assisted “Look Alive” in February, Memphis rapper BlocBoy JB funneled his newfound-attention into a well-polished and banger-filled mixtape. Additional fun fact: I crunched the numbers and Mr. JB ad libs “that’s on my mama” a total of 32 times throughout. 
  • Royce 5'9" - Book of Ryan: Hyper-lyrical, incredibly-dense, and heartbreakingly-personal hip-hop that demystifies the history of Ryan Daniel Montgomery. Told from a first-person perspective, Royce remains as technical as ever while also taking an incredibly-compelling storytelling approach. 
  • Desiigner - L.O.D.: A perfectly-punctual and wonderfully-ad libbed EP from the goofy dude that brought us “Panda.”
  • Iceage - Beyondless: Moody and anxiety-riddled post-rock from Copenhagen.
  • Parkway Drive - Reverence: Well-crafted metalcore that bubbles up from the diaphragm and explodes into a perfectly-honed point. Chuggy, angry, and filled with growls, Parkway Drive continues to kill it. 
  • DJ Koze - Knock Knock: Natural electronic music that’s been warped, shifted, and delivered it to us from another universe. Simply Transportive. 
  • Shakey Graves - Can’t Wake Up: Slow-moving psychedelic Americana that twists and writhes in the evening light.
  • Cut Worms - Hollow Ground: Jangly throwback rock with just enough personality and weirdness to be a pleasant oddity. 
  • The Word Alive - Violent Noise: Sinewy and mostly-generic metalcore with an electronic tinge. 
  • Jon Hopkins - Singularity: (Mostly-)electronic music that crests with emotion and pulsates with mood until eventually frittering out into slowly-unwinding heartbreak.
  • Mark Kozelek - Mark Kozelek: Long-winded as ever, Mark Kozelek gets personable and folksy for 90 minutes as he expels every verbose thought in his head. 
  • Ty Dolla $ign - Beach House 3 Deluxe Edition: Noted crooner/rapper hybrid Ty Dolla $ign tops off last year’s installment of the acclaimed Beach House Series with an additional six summery songs.
  • Lady Legs - Holy Heatwave: Celebratory indie rock with a ceaseless groove and unkillable joy.
  • Playboi Carti - Die Lit: 19 smoky bangers filled with incredulous ad-libs and not a lot else. 
  • La Luz - Floating Features: Dreamy, sun-kissed surf rock that reverberates with passion and strength.
  • Wajatta - Casual High Technology: Reggie Watts and John Tejada combine forces to form a delightful portmanteau and equally-delightful electro-pop.
  • NAV - Reckless: I don’t understand Nav.
  • James Bay - Electric Light: Pop music that’s simultaneously soulful and sterile. 
  • KYLE - Light of Mine: 2017 XXL Freshman, joyous rapper, and possible industry plant KYLE returns with a 15-track tape of feel-good hip-hop.
  • Now, Now - Saved: Polished and simplistic indie pop that mixes heartfelt emo with electronic sensibilities.
  • Remember Sports - Slow Buzz: After changing their name, the vivacious pop-punk band is back proving (once again) that Philly is the eternal hotbed of upcoming emo rock.  
  • Lil Baby - Harder Than Ever: Street rap assisted by a high-profile Drake feature.
  • Clairo - diary 001: Since half the tracklist consists of revisiting the viral hits that have brought her thus far, diary 001 ends up being a scattershot history of Clairo’s rapidly-ascending career and musical phases up to this point.
  • A$AP Rocky - Testing: Immaculate flows, booming bass, and dark production. A million drugged-out lines spit in zero gravity while coming down from acid.
  • Hatchie - Sugar & Spice: Lovelorn dream pop that captures relationship dynamics with as much color as a middle school trapper keeper. 
  • Chvrches - Love is Dead: Glossy and bright indie pop that practices what its title preaches.
  • Shawn Mendes - Shawn Mendes: Pretty-boy pop music that I wouldn’t know about if it weren’t for Kevin Abstract.
  • American Pleasure Club - Tour Tape: Following-up their fantastic a whole fucking lifetime of this, Sam Ray offers up a free download of twelve tracks that were previously exclusive to the band’s merch booth.
  • Lil Aaron - ROCK$TAR FAMOU$: After discovering his jaw-dropping emo remixes last summer, Aaron is back with a sophomore album that continues to blend his unique combination of hip-hop, rock, and humor.

We also saw singles from Travis Scott, Snail Mail, Childish Gambino, Sufjan Stevens, Dance Gavin Dance, Andre 3000, Future Islands, Jimmy Eat World, Dirty Projectors, Protomartyr, The Flaming Lips, Sia, Attila, White Denim, Brian Jonestown Massacre, Lil Uzi Vert, Shortly, Denzel Curry, Weezer, Tyler, The Creator, The Devil Wears Prada, Melody’s Echo Chamber, Get Up Kids, Jorja Smith, Drake, Anderson .Paak, Weezer (again), Jay Rock, James Blake, Lil Peep, Fleet Foxes, Idles, Mac Miller, Charli XCX, and Mitski.

 

Rewind

In other news, we’re now far enough into the year that I’m beginning to make discoveries that I wish I had included in previous month’s write-ups. To amend this, I’m adding a new section to these monthly roundups: A “Rewind” section that goes back in time to highlight albums I missed but wish I hadn’t.

  • Bambara - Shadow on Everything: Dark, hard-drinking post-punk with a southern narration-like drawl. Music for a midnight drive through the desert.
  • Nanaki - Decline & Dislocation: Brooding spiritual post-rock that drips with distortion and head-bobbing riffs.
  • The World Extinct - Theodicy: A powerful bite-sized metalcore offering from a (mostly) new lineup of band members. 
  • Bewilder - Everything Up To Now: Heart-rending and soul-binding emo-flavored math rock. An incredibly-apt band name.

Rae Sremmurd: From Novelty to Meme to Something Greater

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When I first heard Rae Sremmurd’s “No Flex Zone” back in 2014, I assumed it was a joke. Decidedly removed from hip-hop both as a genre and a culture, I didn’t understand what the song was about or why people enjoyed it in the first place. In fact, I was so not up on the culture that I interpreted the song literally, viewing it as some sort of anti-workout anthem created by (what appeared to be) two teenagers. I wasn’t a hater. I just didn’t get it.

The duo, composed of brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi, were 19 and 23 respectively at the time of the video. Assuming they were the next Soulja Boy-esque novelty act (or at the very least the next Soulja Boy-esque one-hit wonder), I wrote the group off until years later. Of course, now that we live in a post-Lil Pump, post-Lil Tay world, I know there are no age restrictions on clout, but at the time I was as confused as I was fascinated. The music video left me with so many lingering questions, chief amongst them ‘why do people like this?’

Needless to say, I eventually saw the light of Rae Sremmurd as I embarked on my own personal journey with hip-hop and came to enjoy their music for what it is. Now that we’re four years removed from their anti-flex unveiling to the world, I’m a much more open-minded music fan with a deeper understanding of both hip-hop and Rae Sremmurd’s place within it. 

Aside from my personal genre-specific journey, it’s also safe to say that Rae Sremmurd are far from a one-hit wonder. Apart from a couple of tracks that are overtly-misogynous and now unfortunately-political, their debut record is practically inches away from classic territory. The wide range of slow jams, turn-up shit, and practical advice still make the album a fun listen and worth revisiting all these years later. 

Two years after their debut, following dozens of features, a few worldwide tours, and constant social media solidification, Rae Sremmurd’s sophomore effort proved they were here for the long-haul. Just as forceful and fun as their debut, Sremmlife 2 cemented their place in the scene and secured their spot in history thanks to the ever-powerful help of a meme. While the Mannequin Challenge may have overshadowed some of Sremmlife 2’s deeper cuts, the sequel stood just as tall as the original while also showing off how far the brothers had evolved in only two years.

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Now in 2018, we find ourselves faced with SR3MM, the group’s cleverly-titled third record which is a triple album of feel-good hip-hop. As with most three-disc albums, there were many things that could have gone wrong with this third entry in the SremmLife series, but impressively, young and brash as they are, the duo fell prey to almost none of them. 

In an era where hip-hop seems to be openly exploiting streaming, we’ve seen an absolute deluge of bloated, overly-long, 20-plus track albums in recent months. From Migos and Post Malone to Drake and Lil Yachty, the past calendar year has been marred by a glut of albums containing music whose sole purpose seems to be racking up streaming numbers. While the music on these (extra)long-players are often decent to good, it feels like some musicians are content to forgo artistry in favor of chasing the numbers game. 

What makes SR3MM so refreshing is that not only is it a great album, but the duo decided to take an interesting slant on it. On paper, it’s the same as those albums cited above with 27 tracks clocking in at a collective hour and forty-one minutes. However, instead of inundating the listener with song after song of the same, the duo decided to chop their offering up into three even pieces, each with a different flavor. 

The first third, created by the same minds we know and love, gives listeners nine tracks of a “traditional” Rae Sremmurd album. That is followed by Swaecation, a Swae Lee solo album, and then Jxmtro, a Slim Jxmmi solo album. It’s an interesting way to silo off the tracklist, and a slightly more artistic framing device than dumping two dozen tracks on Spotify in the hopes of tricking the RIAA. 

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I was inspired to write about this album (or these albums) because this release took me by surprise. This post started as a paragraph review for Swim Into The Sound’s May new music roundup, but (obviously) spiraled into something more significant than that. SR3MM wasn’t a record I was particularly anticipating. I like the group as much as the next guy, but I listened to each single maybe once and went in with almost nonexistent expectations. Perhaps because of this noncommittal starting point, I came out of my first listen absolutely floored. 

One thing that’s always been refreshing about Rae Sremmurd is that, despite their well-covered (some may say trite) lyricism, they always choose interesting beats. While this can likely be chalked up to honorary third member Mike Will Made-It, that doesn’t change the fact that the group’s instrumentals are a breath of fresh air. Throughout SR3MM there are guitar-laden bangers, slow-moving crooners, hyper-technical rap tracks, and everything in between. When everything sounds “trappy” in 2018, it’s cool to have an album that breaks that trend entirely. 

On top of the refreshing take on instrumentation, it’s fantastic to watch each artist explore their own sound so fully and lean even harder into their respective musical influences without feeling “tied” to the Rae Sremmurd name. Throughout Swaecation, Swae Lee slows things down, takes his time, and builds a warm, summery soundscape of love and affection. Meanwhile on Jxmtro, Jxmmi embraces his more aggressive rapping style to show off his technical chops, lyrical proficiency, and ear for beats. 

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Both as a whole and when taken piece by piece, SR3MM is a vibrant and opulent feel-good hip-hop record. Early single “Powerglide” features Juicy J and sees each rapper spitting immaculate bars over a propulsive beat that jostles the listener around like a reckless Uber ride. “T’d Up” and “CLOSE” are additional highlights from the joint album that find each member executing their respective duties flawlessly. Throughout the entire release, Swae and Jxmmi seem more sure of their voices (both separately and collectively) than ever before.

There are lots of comparisons you can use to contextualize Rae Sremmurd. Most easily, you could draw parallels between SR3MM and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below given how “segmented” each artist’s contribution feels (though they would disagree with you). Alternatively, you could make comparisons to current trap superstars Migos with Swae Lee as the heartthrob, melody-first, feature-rich Quavo, Slim as the hyper-technical rapping Takeoff, (and I guess Mike Will as the foundational wildcard Offset). But the truth is any comparison is inherently flawed because Rae Sremmurd are in their own class.

On paper, Rae Sremmurd is “just” two rappers writing songs about women, drugs, and money, but the hook is that their personality and love for each other bleeds through their songs so fully that none of that matters. Even when covering well-trodden territory, that genericism never drags you down for long because it’s more about the two of them than anything else. On SR3MM it feels like both Swae and Jxmmi have more to say, and not just because they have more room to say it. The record is personable, vast, and joyous, the rare case of a triple album that feels earned, planned-out, and deserved. You can tell they care, you can tell they’re good at what they do, and perhaps most importantly, you can tell they’re having a great time doing it. Sometimes there’s nothing more to it than that.

JD & The Straight Shot Concert Review

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There’s something eternally-charming about Americana. The genre embodies the idea that in the face of an ever-changing world, somewhere out there a smaller, simpler, more quaint version of our country still exists. That may not be the reality, but it’s a comforting escapist reassurance to say the least. 

JD & The Straight Shot are a six-piece Americana band fronted by Jim Dolan and backed by an impressive roster of musicians with credits ranging from B.B. King to Robert Plant. Rescheduled after an illness, the band’s Portland stop on May 22nd marked the penultimate show of their current tour opening for the Eagles. 

The evening began with a triplet of subdued drum taps, a call-and-response that select members of the audience quickly joined in on. Soon lead singer Jim Dolan and guitarist Carolyn Dawn Johnson began to harmonize, and just like that, the band was off. As the audience continued to filter in for the main act, JD & The Straight Shot gradually picked up steam eventually hitting their stride by the time the chorus hit. 

As soon as the first song ended, drummer Shawn Pelton began playing in earnest and the group was firing on all cylinders. The guitar, bass, and mandolin all fell into perfect sync. The violin, played by Erin Slaver cut through the mix and shredded its way through the melody while Dolan took center stage belting out his tunes to the 20k-capacity venue.

By far the most enchanting element were the vocal harmonies that seemingly came to the group second-nature. Every band member had a mic in front of them, resulting in a wonderful choral effect of swirling melodies. Sometimes pairing off for alternating rhythms, other times joining together to form a singular voice, the group’s vocals were both effective and powerful. Similarly endearing was the chemistry between the band members. Laughing, smiling, and interacting with each other throughout the set, it was clear that they had as much fun playing the music as the audience was having listening to it

For the fourth song, the group played their song “Perdition” from the 2015 Western Jane Got a Gun. Reminiscent of the western soundtracks of old, the bass rumbled, the guitar jangled, and the drums thunderously kept time as the riff propelled the track forward. Adding a dash of somberness to the proceedings, “Perdition” offered a single moment of reflection before launching into the back half of the band’s feel-good setlist. 

The fifth song “Run For Me” was a jaunty outing set to the horse-like gallop of Shawn Pelton’s drums. A vibrant highlight of their setlist, the song’s best moment came when all of the members paused for Erin Slaver to interject a vivacious violin solo before the chorus kicked back in. Eventually ending with Slaver and guitarist Marc Copely playing dueling melodies. The two got face-to-face while simultaneously bopping up and down in-time with the beat, bouncing lower and lower with each measure. The two got as low as they could without falling on the ground, eventually pulling apart from each other while holding back laughter. It was one of many playful moments throughout the night sparked by Slaver, an obviously-valuable asset to the group’s on-stage chemistry.

Aside from contributing vocal melodies to select songs, it was clear that each member was talented and well-versed in instrumentation, swapping instruments, multitasking, and collaborating throughout the set. At one point, drummer Shawn Pelton picked up a mandolin while also keeping time with his drum kit’s tambourine mount. At the same time, Byron House traded in his bass for a banjo, playing it just as effortlessly as his primary instrument. The concert was a sight to behold, a multi-instrumental, massively-harmonized, and constantly fun bout of country music.

Closing with an excellent cover of Three Dog Night’s “Shamballa,” the group sent the audience off to The Eagles nicely with good vibes and a warm summery feeling. It was a fun 45-minute set that warmed the audience up for the main act and transported us to that America of old, even if it was just for an evening.