Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

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Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

The front cover of Sufjan Stevens’ seventh album is a fragment out of the deep past, a faded snapshot of the titular couple in days long past.  Carrie, the singer’s mother, smiles with her eyes closed behind oversized glasses.  Lowell, Stevens’ stepfather (and head of his record label, Asthmatic Kitty) stares into the camera in a calm, benevolent fashion.  It’s a moment captured of a couple – and especially a woman – for whom blissful moments could be difficult to come by.

Sufjan Stevens opened up to Pitchfork recently about his family past and the inspirations it gave for this album, the first since 2010’s The Age of Adz.  Carrie originally left the family when Sufjan was only a year old, and his contact with her remained a sporadic map of peaks and valleys for the rest of her life.  The album focuses itself around three summers Sufjan spent with her and his stepfather in Oregon between the ages of 5 and 8.  This is, of course, the sugarcoated version; the interview and the lyrics on Carrie & Lowell hint at much darker circumstances

Sufjan’s mother was an alcoholic, a drug addict, depressed, and diagnosed with schizophrenia.  There are moments on the album that speak to the nature of growing up, if not with her, then near her:  “Head on the floorboards (covered in blood) / Drunk as a horsefly / Climb on the mattress pad / Twist my arm” he sings on the title track, and on “Should Have Known Better” he says “when I was three, three maybe four / She left us at that video store”.  These are nightmare moments studded amongst the memories of Oregon.

Of that state the references abound:  Spencer’s Butte, the sea lion cave, the bright Oregon breeze, the city of Eugene, the Tillamook woods, the covered bridges of Cottage Grove, the Dalles.  The song titles may not be as grandiose as Michigan or Illinois, but there is a case to be made that Carrie & Lowell could be considered the third entry in his “Albums about each of the 50 states” gimmick.  The images of these wind-swept vistas and colourful towns contrasts starkly with the confusion that Sufjan feels – confusion towards his feelings for his mother and his feeling for his faith.

His mother died in 2012, of a stomach cancer that came on quickly and killed just as quickly.  “Eugene”, “Death With Dignity”, and “Fourth of July” all make reference to it, crawling over the confusion and regretful longing of a man reeling from a sudden unexpected vacuum in his life.  By his own admission he spent time after her death attempting to be closer to her by overindulging in drugs and alcohol.  This in turn led to depression:  on “Eugene” he finishes the song “drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away” and asks “what’s the point of singing songs if they’ll never even hear you?”  Later, on “The Only Thing”, this deepens into suicidal thoughts:  “The only thing that keeps me from cutting my arm / Cross hatch, warm bath, Holiday Inn after dark / Signs and wonders: water stain writing the wall / Daniel’s message; blood of the moon on us all”.  Closely following this is the line “Do I care if I despise this? Nothing else matters, I know / In a veil of great disguises; how do I live with your ghost?” which leads into what I feel is possibly the most interesting question raised on the album.  Penultimate track – and single – “No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross” can have two readings that are at odds with each other.  Stevens’ Christian faith has never really been secret; while he prefers to present himself as a more neutral “spiritual” singer (perhaps to avoid the pigeonholing effect of specified religion that befell Cat Stevens), his particular faith is fairly easy to parse.  He calls out Jesus by name on this record, at the end of “John My Beloved”.  Hence, then, the dichotomy:  Does he mean that there is no shade – rest – in the shadow of the cross?  That is, in the face of overwhelming grief. loss, and confusion, has he found that religion holds no comfort or cleanse?  Or does he mean that there is no shade – ghost – in the shadow of the cross, in that the rather toxic legacy of his mother – her “shade”, as it were – cannot continue to exist in the embrace of his faith?  It’s an idea that seems comforting on the face of it, but underneath that lies a real loss, the loss of feeling that memory can evoke, gentle or harsh.  It’s a question that loops around itself without end, fitting given the singer’s proclivity for both mythologizing and obscuring the specifics about himself and his beliefs.

I’ve focused on the lyrics and the concepts behind them largely because that’s exactly where the artist’s focus is.  This is easily the most stripped-down Sufjan Stevens album yet.  It’s a sharp turn away from the orchestral intricacy of Illinois and Age of Adz, and even from the comparatively less ornate Michigan.  In musical terms its closest perhaps to the acoustic Seven Swans, but there is a fragility and a resonance on Carrie & Lowell that sets it apart in his discography.  It’s sparse, simple, and uncomplicated, a beautifully uncluttered arrangement for the raw emotion being poured out.

Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

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Earl Sweatshirt – I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside

Earl Sweatshirt – the son of South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile – has come a fairly long way from when he jerked off to videos of Asher Roth eating apple sauce at the age of 16.  Those were of course the heady days of L.A.’s skater-rap collective Odd Future, when Tyler, the Creator still packed an emotional punch and Frank Ocean was just the group’s hook man.  Since then, he was ushered off to a boarding school halfway across the planet by his worried mother, UC law professor Cheryl Harris, was the subject of a wide-reaching internet meme (“Free Earl!”), came back and released one of the best hip hop albums of 2013, Doris.

Two years later the scene is different.  Tyler fell off, and Frank Ocean has become a breakout star in his own right after channel ORANGE conquered airwaves across the globe.  Earl dropped the fact that he had a new album coming out in our laps about a week and a half before it actually happened, giving up the weird, slow-pitched single “Grief” as a sample.  “Grief” is divisive in its oddity:  down-pitched drums, draggy samples that resemble witch house instrumentals, and lines about drinking and drugs that are more “coping with depression” than they are “partying every night”.

There is a line in “Grief” that I find more interesting than the rest:  “Step into the shadows, we could talk addiction”.  Keorapetse Kgositsile published a poem in 2002 entitled “Random Notes To My Son”, and the first part reads “Beware, my son, words / that carry the loudnesses / of blind desire also carry / the slime of illusion / dripping like pus from the slave’s battered back / e.g. they speak of black power whose eyes / will not threaten the quick whitening of their own intent / What days will you inherit? / What shadows inhabit your silence?”  For Earl, the silence lies between the lurching, chopped-up beats on this album, and the shadows are legion:  the rigours of touring, the rootless, homeless feelings he has now, the steady toll of liquor, drugs, and casual sex, the death of his grandmother in 2013, the feeling of distance he has now from his former Odd Future compatriots.  His verse on “Mantra” says a lot:  “You know you famous when the niggas that surround you switch / And if they hated in a passive tense / And now they hound your dick / And you ain’t ask for this / Now you surrounded with a gaggle of a hundred fucking thousand kids / Who you can’t get mad at when they want to pound a pic / ‘Cause they the reason that the traffic on the browser quick / And they the reason that the paper in your trouser’s thick”.  His lost feeling comes up on “Faucet” when he says “I don’t know whose house to call home lately / I hope my phone breaks, let it ring”.  “Inside” talks about how he missed the first big wave of Odd Future’s popularity:  “Got a tape?  Catch a wave, now you in the industry ocean, missing out on your boat / I been figuring out my own fish, home gets distant”.  It’s a lonely, paranoid sort of existence, although in the end, on the last lines of “Wool”, he talks about the $50 bills falling out of his pocket like baby teeth and makes disparaging comments about not caring about what the “loser niggas” are doing.

Earl handles all the production here as well, aside from some very limited work from fellow OF alum Left Brain.  It’s all very rough and lo-fi, as though the beats were hand-crafted in a dank hotel room somewhere on the road.  This is a compliment, of course; too often people feel that hip hop production has to be slick, and there is a loss of authenticity along that route.  These beats are real – cut-up, stained with whatever drinks were spilled on them, smelling like used latex and day-old ganja.  They’re beats that are lived-in, used and abused, and they fit the shadows that Earl has taken to inhabiting perfectly.

I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside is a grimey, depressive album that sounds like the courtyard of a trashed motel after the lights go out.  After the high-concept jazz-funk of To Pimp A Butterfly and the balls-out maximalist experimentalism of The Powers That B, it’s actually really refreshing.

Liturgy – The Ark Work

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Liturgy – The Ark Work

Hunter Hunt-Hendrix is a Brooklyn musician who has an academic-level philosophy outlining his vision of transcendental black metal, which involves a lot of overthinking that seemed galvanizing when it was paired with an album like Aesthetica and a lot less so when you consider it in context with The Ark Work.  Aesthetica was an album that was as polarizing in the black metal community as Sunbather would be a couple of years after it.  It was stylistically American black metal – the hoar-frost vocals, the blastbeats, the fuzzed-out atmospherics – but it switched out the immature Satanism and borderline-and-beyond anti-Semitism of Norwegian black metal for something more philosophically in line with peace and love, or something to that effect.  While Hunt-Hendrix and Liturgy weren’t the first to mark a change in the narrative of black metal – credit for that goes primarily to the Cascadian scene and the nature-worshipping Wolves In The Throne Room – they were the first to take it so seriously that their ideas were presented at an academic conference.  It was a powerful album that drove a rather punk-inflected, politically reactionary kind of music towards a more progressive, more intelligent end.

The Ark Work doesn’t continue this narrative.  Hunt-Hendrix had professed a desire to move beyond black metal into more electronic areas, but this album is something else entirely.  Just exactly what is unclear.  It’s not quite brutal enough to be black metal, although there are blurred blastbeats throughout the album.  It’s not quite an electronic blend, unless we’re all content with calling cheap, thrift-store MIDI presets “electronic” now.  There’s faded, screamed vocals, but there’s no power in them.  There’s rapped sections, but they come off as uncomfortably cheesy more than anything else.  There’s glitch sections, but they sound half-formed; rather than being a cohesive part of a statement of art, they sound as though the songs were merely rendered on an old refurbished desktop and no one could be bothered to fix them.

What the hell is the point of all of this?  This just feels like a bad joke from a trust-funded musical tourist.  I can’t imagine anyone hearing the master tapes full of synth cheese, lazily shouted vocals, and badly manipulated sections and thinking that it was anything that anyone should seriously release.  “Reign Array” has some old spark of life to it, but the fact that the stinking corpse of “Vitriol” comes right after it outlines almost every problem this album has.  Here’s hoping Deafheaven doesn’t disappoint this badly.

 

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

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Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

“Elevator Operator”, the first track on Melbourne slacker-rock almost-icon Courtney Barnett’s new album, tells the story of a guy who decides to shirk off work and the woman who thinks that he’s planning on killing himself.  It’s a quirky little tale studded with the most shockingly mundane details:  references to a specific tram line, an exact account of our protagonist Oliver Paul’s breakfast, specific buildings, pyramids of Coke cans, and a painting of the woman in the elevator so complete that you can smell the cloying, expensive perfume coming off of her.  The second verse on “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” features the lines “I lay awake at three, staring at the ceiling / It’s a kind of off-white, maybe it’s a cream / There’s oily residue dripping from the kitchen / It’s art-deco necromantic chic, all the dinner plates are kitsch with / Irish wolf hounds, French baguettes wrapped loose around their necks”.  “Kim’s Caravan” finds her “walking down Sunset Strip, Phillip Island, not Los Angeles / Got me some hot chips and a cold drink / Took a sandy seat on the shore / There’s a paper on the ground, makes my headache quite profound”.

I went to see post-modern political philosopher Jacques Ranciere speak in Toronto a couple of years ago, for a lecture entitled “The Politics of Fiction”.  He described the process of writing as (and I’m paraphrasing here) taking the endless mundanity of regular life and forcing it into the tyranny of the plot.  To bring it back to his political works (Disagreement et al.), there exists a vast, unnamed field we can think of as the anonymous textures of everyday life.  The writer’s job is to take those anonymous textures and separate them into an arbitrary pen, which is to say that the writer must create a narrative out of these anonymous textures such that they become a story lifted out of the endless day-to-day.  It’s important because one of the things that well-meaning but clueless writers try to teach new, nervous writers is that adjectives are dubious at best, and descriptions should be avoided in favour of serving the almighty plot.

Courtney Barnett never listened to the latter group; hers is a much more “political” fiction, as it were.   She is an absolute master of the mundane, of the anonymous textures of everyday life.  Her lyrics are clear-eyed, her delivery deadpan.  This is a woman who can find the sadness and frustration in litter, in trying to impress someone and almost drowning, in trying to figure out whether or not to mow the lawn.  She approaches Dylan in her point-of-fact delivery, but her poetry is less surrealist than his ever was.  Musically it’s college indie rock with a touch of drink-numbed country, wavering between the red-herring crunch of “Pedestrian At Best” and the lonesome sigh of “Depreston” and “Boxing Day Blues”.  There’s nothing particularly original about the arrangements on Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, but then again there was nothing particularly original about the arrangements on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – it’s all in the delivery, and the delivery is where Courtney Barnett excels.  She can take an utterly banal sentence like “If you’ve got a spare half a million, you can knock it down and start rebuilding” and have it stand in for all of the bald-faced depression of trying to find a place to live in a troubled, crime-riddled suburb.  It’s what got her first couple of EPs recognized, and it informs her debut with a wisdom completely beyond her years.  The devil is in the details, as they say, but for Courtney Barnett it’s something much more transcendent.

Death Grips – The Powers That B

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Death Grips – The Powers That B

Death Grips are less a musical act and more of an experimental piece of performance art with a noise-hip-hop component.  Having built a rapid and rabid following since their debut mixtape Exmilitary, the group has followed a narrative that seems more punk rock than anything else.  Signed to Epic, they wallowed in major label cash so much they named their debut The Money Store, and proceeded to shop around a wilfully noisy, alienating album whose sole concession to mainstream hooks was the paranoid “I’ve Seen Footage”.  They quit touring abruptly to work on the follow up, No Love Deep Web, which they released to the internet without asking their label for permission first (also, the cover art was the title written on one of the group member’s penis).  After Epic dropped them they released a third album, Government Plates, and managed to wind up on another major label, this time Capitol’s Harvest Records.  After announcing a double album, they self-released the first disc, Niggas On The Moon, and then announced that they would break up after the full release of the second half, Jenny Death.  This spawned the invigorating-and-then-annoying “Jenny Death When?” meme, spurred on by the band itself when it was revealed that the tracks on an instrumental self-release, Fashion Week, spelled out “JENNY DEATH WHEN”.

It’s Jenny Death Now, finally, and the meme can finally die.  The Powers That B is a fitting “end” to the group’s legacy, a double-disc set of the best stuff they’ve ever committed to digital space.  Niggas On The Moon, which has been out since June of 2014, is easily their most experimental work, played entirely on the Roland V-Drum and featuring Bjork vocals as “found sound”.  Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett sounds more lost and paranoid than ever when the layers of heavy noise that characterized their previous work are stripped away.  It may be, as some have opined, “shouting hobocore”, but his drugged-out rantings and fractured, angry, politically-charged viewpoint seem even more on point with the eerie instrumentals present on the first disc.  The second, the long-awaited Jenny Death, brings the group back full circle to the punk rock sampling days of Exmilitary.  Here the guitars are live, churning against the industrial-noise soundscapes and jutting off sparks.  “I Break Mirrors With My Face In The United States” sums up the bands aesthetic in the best way possible; “Inanimate Sensation” and “On GP” bring out a newish direction in their sound, making them seem simultaneously more relatable to more normal metal sounds while showing off their stark divide even more.  “Death Grips 2.0″ ends the album with savage beats that trip over themselves, like drum n bass tracks that have been rammed together and looped.  The title is fitting, since the day Jenny Death leaked the group hinted that they might make some more music after all.  If they continue on with the progression that they have shown here then I’m all for it – Jenny Death shows a band still willing to play games with the major label world and confound expectations.

Action Bronson – Mr. Wonderful

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Action Bronson – Mr. Wonderful

Flushing, Queens native Action Bronson has had a steady rise built upon some really solid mixtapes – the Blue Chips series, SaaaB Stories, et al. – and so the hype for his debut was rather understandable.  I hate being let down like this.  I really wanted to like Mr. Wonderful, because I like Bronson and his wise-guy Ghostface-esque flow.  There just isn’t enough of anything to like here, though.  The beats are anemic, his flow is mostly missing in action, and the production is just off.  The sudden stop on the opening track, “Brand New Car”, is meant to be endearing but just comes off as annoying.  “Thug Love Story 2017: The Musical” is a fun enough skit but it goes on for far too long.  The Party Supplies-produced tracks fall flat – “Only In America” has the makings of an epic track, but the sample is done in such an awful way that it ruins what could have been.  The only really standout tracks here are the ones that were released pre-leak:  “Baby Blue”, with a great verse from Chance The Rapper, and “Easy Rider”, which originally built my expectations for the album.  “Easy Rider” is great and has earned a permanent place on several playlists, but the rest of the album fades into the background by comparison.

Modest Mouse – Strangers To Ourselves

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Modest Mouse – Strangers To Ourselves

It’s a common expression amongst long-time Modest Mouse fans that the band peaked with their debut, 1996’s This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, and have been in a slow state of perpetual decline ever since.  Personally, I would say that this is a bit misleading; they peaked on 1997’s Lonesome Crowded West and have been declining ever since.

When Good News For People Who Love Bad News came out, my friend and roommate opined that it was the worst Modest Mouse album yet, which still made it better than most of what had been released that year.  I made the same joke in 2007 when We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank came out, and eight years later here I am making it again.  It really is the worst Modest Mouse record – leaving aside their “debut”, 1994’s Sad Sappy Sucker – and while it’s no longer at the point where it’s better than most everything else, it still holds up quite well.

Ever since “Float On” improbably broke the band to a wider audience, their albums have alternated between radio-ready dance friendly numbers and slower, artsier pieces.  “Lampshades On Fire” is the radio ready track here, waking up anyone who dozed off during the snoozy title track that opens the album.  “Shit In Your Cut”, “Coyotes”, and the closer “Of Course We Know” are the more introspective cuts, following in the footsteps of classic songs like “Gravity Rides Everything” and “The Cold Part”.  “Shit In Your Cut” is the worst of the three, being too long by an entire minute and relatively uninteresting besides.  “The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box” and “God Is An Indian And You’re An Asshole” are both classic-sounding Modest Mouse songs; “Pups To Dust” and “The Tortoise and the Tourist” both attempt to hit that note as well but fall relatively flat.  “Pistol” and “Sugar Boats” are more evidence of frontman Isaac Brock’s fascination with Tom Waits, a fascination that became exceedingly clear on the odder parts of Good News.

Lyrically, the theme that Isaac Brock focuses on here is environmental degradation and the impact that the human species has on it.  “Lampshades On Fire” posits the human existence on Earth as a destructive locust party; “Ground Walks” features the line “The world’s an inventor / We’re the dirtiest thing it’s thought about / And we really don’t mind”; “Coyotes” shows mankind as a predator, saying “Mankind’s behavin’ like some serial killer”.  By the time “Be Brave” comes around, he acknowledges that despite our efforts at killing it off, the planet is just too massive to care:  “Well the Earth doesn’t care and we hardly even matter / We’re just a bit more piss to push out its full bladder / And as our bodies float down onto all their rocky little bits / Piled up under mountains of dirt and silt / And still, the world, it don’t give a shit”.  The last track, “Of Course We Know”, takes the widescreen view of our time on this planet, asking “what in hell are we here for?” before realizing that “we just do not know”.

Strangers To Ourselves is actually quite a good album despite being the band’s worst.  Isaac Brock may be slowing down the weird gnarled rock factory with age and sobriety, but he still manages to put indie rock artists half his age to shame.  It may not be AOTY material, per se, but it’s a worthy addition to a legendary band’s canon.

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Mount Eerie – Sauna

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Mount Eerie – Sauna

Phil Elverum is an odd sort of cat, crafting drawn-out ambient folk songs that every once in a while erupt into jagged, distorted sections that edge up into black metal.  Sauna sticks mostly to the ambient drone-folk part, eschewing the black metal influences that characterized previous highlights like Wind’s Poem except for the more obvious “Boats”.  For the most part this is okay, since Elverum’s strengths lie in exactly this sort of music.  A lot of it stems from the surroundings Elverum records in:  the quiet, pastoral wilderness of his home on the island of Anacortes, Washington.  Like the remote places it springs from, Sauna can be equal parts contemplative relaxation and rumination, and unease over things felt rather than seen.  “Books” is the clearest example of this dichotomy, since it starts off as the former and splits into the latter with a jarring suddenness, but “Pumpkin” layers in some dread alongside its purely quotidian walk to the village, and “Emptiness” goes one step further by using a droning synth to cause deep-seated paranoia in the listener.  “Spring”, clocking in at over thirteen minutes, throws everything together into one cacophonous brew of squalling feedback, planet-sized organ noise, string, bells, etc. It’s a very subtle album, one whose charms are not immediately apparent on first listen; for those into quiet folk, ambient music, or drone, there’s a lot to like.

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

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Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Sometime over the past few years, trap music has become the dominant form in hip hop.  As a subgenre it owes everything to spare, menacing beats, MIDI-triggered snare rolls that resemble the chatter of assault rifle fire, and a sing-song flow of drug-game braggadocio and ignorance that is infinitely more Soulja Boy than Sista Souljah.  It’s a cathartic form, to be sure, but in the wake of several high-profile killings of unarmed black men by the police (and police wannabes) in America, it has little to offer in the way of commentary besides more nihilism.  It’s no wonder then, perhaps, that there has been a recent movement towards the past, a retreat that suggests that the inspiration for progress might be better mined from earlier forms of black music.  Joey Bada$$ went back to the gritty streets of New York in the 1990s; D’Angelo enlisted The Vanguard and went back to the conscious movement days of the late 1960s and early 1970s, specifically Sly and the Family Stone, hard soul, and quiet storm; Flying Lotus turned back to a kaleidoscope of jazz forms, and even Kanye has reached back (slightly) in his apparent embrace of British grime.

Then there’s King Kendrick, the man who brought Compton back to the limelight with what was easily the best album of 2012, good kid m.A.A.d. city.  That was an album of hard beats and hood politics, a grandiose concept album that summed up what was best about pre-trap hip hop.  To Pimp A Butterfly is not that album – it’s an entirely different thing altogether.

Right from the beginning you can smell the p-funk – squelchy instruments, stomping basslines, ass-shaking grooves.  Lamar isn’t even subtle about where he’s going – he’s got Parliament/Funkadelic madman George Clinton right there, guesting on it.  Then there’s what can best be described as a spoken word poetry piece over squalling jazz improvisation.  Then “King Kunta” comes on and conquers the world with one groove.  This is Kendrick Lamar, 2015:  willing to scribble madly outside the lines, not content to simply be a commercialized unit, making a name for himself as an honest-to-god artist.

That’s what the album seems to be about, incidentally:  the constant conflict between Kendrick Lamar, the rapper who made it up out of the streets of Compton, shattered expectations, and became widely recognized as the leading light of hip hop, and Kendrick Lamar, the guy from the streets, still caught up in petty beefs and those hood politics from good kid m.A.A.d. city, a man who abandoned his friends and family to live and die in L.A. while he puffed himself up and toured the world.  On one side, “u”, which features a second verse where he breaks down and raps while sobbing, screaming at himself in a hotel mirror about how he failed, he let down everyone he knew, how he wasn’t there when the people he cared about bled out and died.  On the other side, “i”, which is much better on the album than it ever was as a single: the To Pimp A Butterfly version has a serious dance groove running through it, making the declarations of self-confidence, love, and the world being more than slow suicide all the more powerful.   The conflict is given poetic roots at the very end, following the “interview” Kendrick conducts with Tupac Shakur for the last five minutes of “Mortal Man”.  He identifies the caterpillar, the hard part of him that scrambles to survive in the “mad city” of L.A., the part that constantly looks for ways to survive.  The butterfly, then, is the beautiful, artistic, human part inside of him, the talent that is only looking for an outlet.  Being hardened by the struggles of life in the mad city, the caterpillar only looks for ways to pimp the butterfly out, to use it to continue the survival of the caterpillar.  Trapped inside the cycle of thoughts that this produces, the only way out is for the caterpillar to use the butterfly to bring new ideas and ways back to the mad city, and to free itself from the stagnancy of the past.

It’s a heavy concept far removed from the surface-level nihilism that has infected hip hop for the past several years, and I think that’s kind of the point.  Lamar conjures up the old ideals of race consciousness and unity, taking specific aim at the idea of dividing a people by arbitrary and useless lines:  on “Mortal Man”, he says “While my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one / A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination / Made me wanna go back to the cities and tell the homies what I’d learned / The word was respect / Just because you wore a different gang colour than mines / Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man”.  On “Complexion” he discusses the ridiculousness inherent in discussing who’s “more black” than the next person, and segregating each other based on the darkness of skin.  “Hood Politics” sets out the bigger picture beyond the constant infighting between street gangs: “From Compton to Congress it’s set trippin’ all around / Ain’t nothin’ new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodLicans / Red state vs. a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to fuck with you / No condom they fuck with you / Obama say “What it do?”.  On “The Blacker The Berry” Kendrick turns the finger on himself, calling himself a hypocrite for preaching black politics and mourning the death of those like Trayvon Martin when gangbanging caused him to kill another black man and set back unity just as much as any external enemy.

To Pimp A Butterfly is the most powerful album released in some time, an examination of the state of local and national race politics and an examination of the meaning of the conflict between art and money.  Married to mutant funk, jazz, and soul, it uses old music to sound new again, in turn escaping the useless cycle of money and violence between rival sets to embrace a much wider scope of “us vs. them” – the struggle between the downtrodden and those that seek to keep them down.  It’s much more than simply a worthy followup to good kid m.A.A.d city – it’s takes a gigantic leap forward to establish a much fuller circle with which to define Kendrick Lamar’s artistry as a whole.

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Dan Deacon – Glass Riffer

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Dan Deacon – Glass Riffer

I don’t know if I’ve ever actually used this phrase before, but Glass Riffer is a hot mess.

It’s so cluttered.  Every single bit of sonic real estate is developed.  The arrangements are massive.  Every moment seems intricately orchestrated for maximum payoff.  Tracks like “Sheathed Wings” and “Learning To Relax” seem to blast out of the speakers like the blossoming of a nuclear fireball.  This is an incessant, throbbing album that comes off like the epic start of every party ever.

And this is Dan Deacon supposedly stripping down and simplifying things.

While this sort of exuberant energy has its perks, 43 minutes of it can get tiring.  Not helping matters is the second-last track, “Take It To The Max”, which rides an insistently annoying figure for far too long and ruins the end of the album.  When he reins in these obnoxious tendencies the results are pure gold, like on the first single “Feel The Lightning”; Deacon, however, doesn’t always seem to be able to rein it in.  Still, despite its “stripped down” nature, it’s every bit as full and satisfying as America or Spiderman of the Rings.