Altered Axiom – Insulation Kit

Today’s post is about a hometown act—Altered Axiom. Jacob Taswell, the human behind the music, is from Bethesda, MD and just graduated from Yale. You can find his Bandcamp here and stream his music on various platforms.

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Jacob Taswell wanted to make a statement with Insulation Kit. Self-released last month under the moniker Altered Axiom, the album is a bold first venture into electronic music for Taswell, who recently graduated from Yale with a music degree. With a 45 minute runtime and tracks that stretch up to ten minutes, Insulation Kit is a fully-formed product on arrival, audacious in its scope and intricate in its details. Created with the 2016 election in mind, the textures are anxious, unsure, and, occasionally, hopeful.

Of course, Jacob could have told you most of this himself. The exhaustive write-up on the Altered Axiom website details the backstory and motivations—both musically and emotionally—behind the recording of Insulation Kit. His approach is thoughtful and carefully calculated, qualities that extend into his music. The record is balanced—sequenced with the more accessible songs in the first half and the more experimental toward the end, while maintaining a cohesive arc.

Before going any further, I feel a need to say that I’m no electronic music expert. I try out the marquee electronic albums every year, but it’s rare if more than a couple are repeated listening for me. I like guitars and lyrics, I guess. This is all to say that my analysis and reaction to this music are mostly intuitive and not based in expertise. Not that Insulation Kit is purely electronic, though. Taswell’s background is in jazz and classical and he describes Altered Axiom as “frozen jazz.” Typical jazz solos are common throughout the album, playfully interwoven with the electronic backdrops.

Insulation Kit starts with “On a Far-Off Shore,” a collection of anxious noises that cut in and out as the song’s foundation patiently builds, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Many of the songs emit an uneasiness—the droning at the beginning of “From Seeds” is eerie, the voices on “Insulation Kit” don’t sound totally human as they vibrate in and out of focus, and there’s something off about the laughs in “Channel Comfort.” But there is also a peaceful quality to these songs by virtue of the melodic instrumentation. Taswell is an excellent pianist and composer throughout the record. His arrangements are fleshed-out and loose, providing a bright contrast to the synthetic repetition of the foundation.

There are political motives outlined on Altered Axiom’s website, but there is only one explicit reference to the mess in Washington on record—an answering machine message from supreme villain Paul Ryan on “Aftermath.” The recording represents taking action despite the feelings of dejection and fear projected elsewhere on Insulation Kit. Feeling lost was common after the election, with promises of exclusionary policies on the horizon. In the album backstory, Taswell writes that he wanted to “shout into the competitive chaos of America that [he] could say it better.” This is subtle protest music, focusing more on the collective American mood than catchphrases or direct anger.

Insulation Kit feels like a movie soundtrack to me. I found myself visualizing imaginary scenes that didn’t exist—walking around a creepy house, riding a train through the country, working in the lab on an endless project. There are everyday noises (various scraping, jingling, rattling) sprinkled throughout that encourage these visuals. The atmosphere is often dramatic—this is definitely a serious album—but there are also moments of playfulness and excitement (I’m thinking of the extended solo on “Aftermath” and the drums on “From Seeds”). It’s not ambient music, but the composition on Insulation Kit leaves room for the listener’s personal thoughts to occupy some of its space. It will be a different movie for everyone, and that’s Insulation Kit’s biggest success.

 

Altered Axiom – Insulation Kit

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It’s hard to find real life people to talk music. Especially if you’re someone like me who doesn’t talk to many people, period. Even the music writing world seems to existing mostly within the confines of Twitter (bringing me EXTREMELY niche and good jokes like this). How many people in the universe would you guess know what the word “shoegaze” means?

This is all to say that I have thoughts (sorry bout it). Hopefully more posts forthcoming.

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It’s officially Alex G release week, which is cause for much (internal) celebration over here. Though it’s been a low-key press cycle, my personal fandom has me feeling protective as his profile gradually rises. Okay, I know that Alex isn’t at danger of selling out or anything; that is exceedingly clear from the eccentric grab bag of singles released for Rocket. It’s that snooty feeling of “I was here first” that I try to push away in favor of not being a total d-bag.

It’s getting annoyed when publications insist on calling him a “Frank Ocean collaborator” or relentlessly push the Elliott Smith comparison, as if his past work hasn’t distinguished him as a unique artist. Or when a typo-filled Noisey piece says that “Harvey” is on Trick instead of DSU (no, I’m not a hero, but yes, I did tweet at them to correct this error). It’s knowing that new fans in 2017 probably haven’t heard the Bandcamp-only “Gnaw,” which is maybe a top 5 song of his.

I wasn’t an Alex G pioneer by any means. I wasn’t hip on DSU‘s drop in 2014. But he’s heavily soundtracked the last two years of my life and it’s weird to see extra media attention that misses the mark. Talking about the details of Alex G’s music is futile to me. It’s successful because of the gut feeling it gives you, the instant comfort. That’s my cop-out answer. I can’t explain it but I know it’s painful to read paragraphs and paragraphs analyzing the lyrics. Especially when Alex said, “The reason you enjoy [music] is because of its unlimited potential, the inability to really understand it.”

Of course I want my favorite artists to gain fans and have financial success. But there’s always an uneasy feeling when something important to you is evolving. There’s something to be said for *being there* that will always feel special, you know?

Oh, but DEFINITELY don’t trust anyone who puts the “(Sandy)” in front of his name.

(Sorry if this was pretentious. These are my confessions.)

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2017: 25% Highlights

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@ blog world, sorry for the neglect. I’m still here. I’m still listening to lots of new music and, more importantly, tweeting about it to ensure I have receipts when I later claim “knew them before they were big.” I wrote a few things over at local music blog Capitol Sound (here and here). And I was working on a lengthy self-indulgent Japandroids piece for a while that will eventually be released into the wild. I’m here now to shout out some of my favorite music from January, February, and March. Q1 2017 didn’t produce a blockbuster album event like last February’s The Life of Pablo slop-fest or the collective freak-out about To Pimp a Butterfly in March 2015, but there’s still good stuff out there! I promise!

Some albums:

Jay Som – Everybody Works

Melina Duterte of Jay Som is like the college ball player you draft after a promising freshman year but before they really dominate the NCAA. There was a lot of upside with last year’s Turn Into, it was a warm and immersive listen that still sounds fresh. It functioned more as a sampler for Duterte’s sound – I could rarely remember the song names or hum the choruses from memory. On Everybody Works, she levels up big time. I have anthemic chants of “EVERYBODY WORKS! EVERYBODY WORKS! EVERYBODY WORKS…” stuck in my head all day. There’s a chorus that could be on Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion. There’s noise rock and trumpets. These songs have clarity and this record is the real deal. She’s starting in the All Star Game in her rookie season. Trust the process.

Priests – Nothing Feels Natural

There’s a lot of confidence on this record. The first song sounds like a claustrophobic apocalypse and then there’s another track about naming a band “Burger King.” My favorite parts are when the traditional guitar-bass-drums combo is joined by outsider friends – a saxophone, a cello, bongos (I think?), piano. Priests are multi-dimensional punks (or maybe post-punks, the lines are blurry) and Nothing Feels Natural is so masterful and nuanced that it’s shocking that it’s a debut album. After years of increasing reluctance claiming Wale as the DMV’s hometown hero, we finally have a more deserving artist to carry the torch.

Smino – blkswn

Smino is a stylist. The STL rapper throws his voice up and down, constantly hitting high notes like vocal acrobatics. He’s talented enough to sing the choruses and rap the verses, all with a signature spastic energy. Monte Booker’s production provides the sunny and danceable backdrop we’ve come to love from the post-Acid Rap Chicago scene where Smino honed his art. 18 tracks is probably overkill for any album, but Smino is a reliably exciting performer with a bright future.

*NOTE: Since the tracklist is a little overwhelming, check out: “Spitshine,” “Netflix & Dusse,” “Anita,” and “Innamission” to get a feel for the project.

Some songs:

Alex G – “Bobby”

This is the best song of the year so far, which shouldn’t be surprising to hear me say. I’ll always ride for Alex G. There’s no one I’ve listened to more over the last two years. Now, what he did here is essentially create a weirdo-indie rock version of “Wagon Wheel.” And don’t act like you don’t love that. I listened to it on repeat walking through a quiet neighborhood DC after a Tim Darcy concert, the dueling vocals bringing me in a little “Bobby” world, and it was perfect.

Five Good Rap Songs

Charli XCX featuring Starrah and Raye- “Dreamer”

More PC Music production for rappers please. I keep hearing Chance’s “Mixtape” flow in other artists (Starrah, in this case). You heard it here first (but you probably don’t care).

Mike WiLL Made-It featuring Rae Sremmurd, Gucci Mane, and Kendrick Lamar – “Perfect Pint”

This Kendrick verse has me more pumped for his upcoming record than either of the singles he released. He’s best when he’s not trying so hard to fit the whole dictionary in every song. Also, “You know the clean lean jump like trampoline” is a perfect rap lyric. If the Sremmlets stay by Mike WiLL’s side forever, they’ll be set.

Jefe featuring Kash Doll – “Over The Hills”

Jefe aka “The Artist Formerly Known As Shy Glizzy” has one of my favorite rap voices out now. I don’t know who Kash Doll is, but her verse is what makes the song – simple yet deftly delivered.

Lil Uzi Vert – “XO TOUR Llif3”

I’m so intrigued by Uzi wailing “She say I’m insane, yeah / I might blow my brains out.” The emo revival is truly in full swing. I’ve never been a huge fan of his before but he really goes for it. BUT, there’s this annoying clicking sound in the beat that is going on throughout the song, right? I’m not crazy!

Starlito & Don Trip – “Bookshakalaka”

I haven’t paid much attention to the NBA for seven or eight years, so I have a soft spot for this album, which name drops both Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu.

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2017: 25% Highlights

Realizations 2016

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Well, it’s been another year. You already know what happened to the world in 2016, so I’ll skip the details. Besides, this is about ME, right? I guess it was a significant year for me. I graduated college, moved back home, got a desk job. I continued to live and breathe all things music.

I thought it was a great year of music. I built stronger connections with records in 2016 than I did during the last few years. Throughout a rough year, music was a constant comfort. I obsessed over the TLOP rollout and the Frank Ocean carpentry extravaganza. I delved deep into the growing east coast DIY scene. I accepted that I’ll never be someone who listens to their favorite albums on repeat and repeat; sacred things need to maintain some of their mystery. I checked Twitter way too much. I got to meet some of my heroes after their concerts.

Anyways, here are a bunch of lists and words about music that is special to me:

Favorite Albums, 2016:

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1. Psychopomp – Japanese Breakfast

I feel like Psychopomp has been with me forever. I remember the day it came out, being instantly hooked by “In Heaven” while walking past the chemistry building. I biked home from my miserable internship listening to “Everybody Wants To Love You” in the newly warm spring weather and felt free. I became obsessed with the beautiful darkness of “Jane Cum” and how the intro sounded kind of like Metallica. I had quiet moments with “Triple 7,” sitting alone on a bridge in Philadelphia at night and admiring Michelle Zauner’s poetry. I was lucky enough to see her live twice within a few months. I could use a lot of adjectives for Psychopomp, but basically this album transcended the music for me and is very close to my heart.screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-12-50-58-pm

2. Blonde – Frank Ocean

I weirdly first listened to Blonde while doing a treadmill workout the the YMCA and watching the Olympic men’s 5k final. It was not the right environment. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I really fell in love with Blonde on a long bus trip to and from Tufts, visiting for the first time as an alum, nostalgia in full force. It’s an album meant for listening alone, like peeking into someone’s dream, complicated yet comforting. I rested my head against the window and looked out, thinking about my own life and listening to Frank think about his. A really beautiful piece of art that we’re lucky exists.screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-12-40-09-pm

3. Pretty Years – Cymbals Eat Guitars

The best band in the world keeps leveling up. When you listen to Cymbals Eat Guitars, you hear guys throwing their whole heart into every second. Even when they sound a little more poppy, a little more sugary, a distorted guitar solo will screech in to balance things out. It’s less dark than LOSE, but just as real. I’ve given up on trying to find a band as good as this one, it doesn’t exist.screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-12-36-56-pm

4. Coloring Book – Chance The Rapper

It was April 30, 2013. I was a freshman at Tufts and I was looking at a clock on DatPiff counting down the minutes until I could download Acid Rap. A month later I saw him for free in Chicago, desperately hoping he would play “Good Ass Intro” (he didn’t.) I’ve been riding with Chance for a long time and the (now) global superstar didn’t let me down with Coloring Book. It’s not perfect (do we need “Blessings” #1 or “Juke Jam”?) BUT, he went big and kept rapping in a way that makes me very happy. Quotable, melodic, personable, smart, etc. etc. No other rapper is making songs like this, each so full to the brim with ideas and color. If Chance rapping “Man my daughter couldn’t have a better mother” on his opening track doesn’t touch your heart, then I don’t know man.mitski-by-phil-smithies-for-diy-magazine-june-2016mitski-4

5. Puberty 2 – Mitski

No, this is not a happy album. It deals with depression, isolation, low self worth, and more. But the way Mitski owns her struggle is inspiring. She sings with poise despite her vulnerabilities. She’s the type of artist that you feel a special connection with and I can’t wait to follow her as she keeps writing what the rest of us aren’t brave enough to say. screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-12-54-00-pm

6. 99.9% – Kaytranada

I didn’t go out much this year, if at all. But I still loved to listen to party music like 99.9% to energize the little details of my day. It would put a bounce in my step whether I was cleaning my room or shooting hoops in the driveway or working on spreadsheets. The instrumentals outshine the guest features but it’s all a great time. Buy your Kaytranada stock now because he’s only going up from here.f849896d

7. 22, A Million – Bon Iver

Bon Iver has been staple morning/night music for me for the last three or four years, but “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” is not appropriate for either of those times. I’ve actually found that 22, A Million is actually best consumed at loud volumes. It’s kind of anthemic and I get super amped listening to the climaxes getting bigger and bigger, rising to *that* part in “8 (circle)” when I will inevitably fist pump every time.screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-1-01-15-pm

8. iiiDrops – Joey Purp

Joey Purp was vaguely on my radar because of his super fun verse on “Go” from Surf last year, but this was still a surprise for me. iiiDrops sees him in full force, with his strongest quality being his confidence. He recounts dark memories of gang violence and poverty while celebrating his success today. My mind never wanders when I listen to iiiDrops, every word is captivating. I’m obsessed with this subset of the Chicago rap scene and many of them show up here: Saba, Mick Jenkins, and Chance all kill it and Vic Mensa is even tolerable. Purp is a super smart MC and I can’t recommend this one enough.screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-1-11-33-pm

9. Camp Cope – Camp Cope

Of all the albums in my top ten, I listened to this one the least. I think it’s incredible, but it’s too real for frequent listens. Georgia Maq bares all in her lyrics and it feels like someone my age talking about things that could easily be issues in my own life. Everything is presented as a conversation, whether it’s her inner dialogue, talking to a best friend, or confronting an ex-partner. This style is refreshingly candid to the point that I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a late night heart-to-heart. It’s such a moving album and if you’re a 20-something lost in the world like me, get ready to feel things. 13293157_10208088121434422_142799953_n

10. Turn Into – Jay Som

I’ve developed a super annoying habit where I’m constantly thinking “this sounds like this song,” “what artist does this remind me of?” “this is such a ripoff of blah blah blah.” I was doing that with Jay Som for a while, who I checked out because she toured with Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, who I infinitely trust. After trying to pin down the various Beach House/Mac Demarco/Alex G/My Bloody Valentine (aka “vague shoegaze sound”) vibes I was picking up for a while, I realized there I kept coming back to Turn Into because of what made it unique. An endearing bedroom sound with swirling guitars and vocals and rock roots that really jams. I heard a bunch of other artists because there were so many sounds, both big and subtle, within this little album. And these are apparently just random demos?? Watch out world.

11. Front Row Seat To Earth – Weyes Blood
12. Teens Of Denial – Car Seat Headrest
13. Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown
14. Telephone – Noname
15. WORRY. – Jeff Rosenstock
16. Goodness – The Hotelier
17. Heart Like A Levee – Hiss Golden Messenger
18. A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead
19. Still Brazy – YG
20. Holy Ghost – Modern Baseball
21. Flood Network – Katie Dey
22. Beyond The Fleeting Gales – Crying
23. Light Upon The Lake – Whitney
24. untitled unmastered – Kendrick Lamar
25. Fall Forever – Fear of Men
26. Blackstar – David Bowie
27. I Had A Dream That You Were Mine – Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
28. My Woman – Angel Olsen
29. Sremmlife 2 – Rae Sremmurd
30. Cardinal – Pinegrove

Favorite Songs, 2016:

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  1. “Everybody Wants to Love You” – Japanese Breakfast
  2. “Your Best American Girl” – Mitski
  3. “Pain” – LVL UP
  4. “8 (circle)” – Bon Iver
  5. “Real Friends” – Kanye West feat. Ty Dolla $ign
  6. “Well” – Cymbals Eat Guitars
  7. “I Need A Forest Fire” – James Blake feat. Bon Iver
  8. “Self Control” – Frank Ocean
  9. “The Ballad of the Costa Concordia” – Car Seat Headrest
  10. “Wool in the Wash” – Cryingscreen_shot_2016-05-29_at_10-47-43_am_qajgvg
  11. “Finish Line / Drown” – Chance the Rapper feat. Noname, Eryn Allen Kane, T-Pain & Kirk Franklin
  12. “Cracked Windshield” – Hiss Golden Messenger
  13. “Golden Chords” – Deakin
  14. “Photobooth” – Joey Purp
  15. “Black Beatles” – Rae Sremmurd feat. Gucci Mane
  16. “Island” – Fear of Men
  17. “Sister” – Angel Olsen
  18. “Wat’s Wrong” – Isaiah Rashad feat. Kendrick Lamar
  19. “Daydreaming” – Radiohead
  20. “Reaper” – Siadb-48-730x410-644x362-640x360
  21. “Kanye West” – Young Thug feat. Wyclef Jean
  22.  “Shadow Man” – Noname feat. Phoelix, Saba & Smino
  23. “I Feel It Coming” – The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk
  24. “A 1000 Times” – Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam
  25. “Tookie Knows II” – ScHoolboy Q feat. Traffic & TF
  26. “Still Brazy” – YG
  27. “Dance In The Water” – Danny Brown
  28. “Breakdance Lesson N.1” – Kaytranada
  29. “Playin’ Fair” – Towkio feat. Joey Purp
  30. “Lost (Season One)” – Camp Copepup-band-interview
  31. “Let It Bang” – A$AP Ferg feat. ScHoolboy Q
  32. “Fake I.D.” – Joyce Manor
  33. “Higher” – Rihanna
  34. “Conceptual Romance” – Jenny Hval
  35. “I’m On” – Kamaiyah
  36. “DVP” – PUP
  37. “No Woman” – Whitney
  38. “Drowning” – Mick Jenkins feat. BadBadNotGood
  39. “Mad” – Solange feat. Lil Wayne
  40. “Drunk and On a Star” – Kevin Morbymaxresdefault1
  41. “Crying in Public” – Chairlift
  42. “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014” – Kendrick Lamar
  43. “Work” – Charlotte Day Wilson
  44. “I Can’t Give Everything Away” – David Bowie
  45. “Dinosaur Dying” – Sioux Falls
  46. “Paul” – Big Thief
  47. “Dang!” – Mac Miller feat. Anderson .Paak
  48. “Get to Know Ya” – Nao
  49. “Parking Lot” – Anderson .Paak
  50. “Bad and Boujee” – Migos feat. Lil Uzi Vert

*limited to one song per artist*

The Year in Lyrics:

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“I’m loving all races, hell nah don’t discriminize” – Quavo

“Unbomfortable” – YG

“Skrrt skrrt skrrt like a private school for women” – Kanye

“Just wrote a book on how NOT to fit into social norms” – Saba

“Get god on the phone!” – Kendrick

“Pray for me, I’m about to hit the Ye button” – Kanye (the Ye button turned out to be a horrible, horrible thing)

“Didn’t I tell you that I was a savage?” – Rihanna

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“I got a lot to be mad about
Got a lot to be a man about
Got a lot to pop a xan about
I used to rock hand-me-downs
And now I rock standing crowds”
– Lil Wayne

“Man my daughter couldn’t have a better mother
If she ever find another, he better love her” – Chance

“I Eurostep past a hater like I’m Rondo” – Gucci

“Sluggish, lazy, stupid, and unconcerned” – Frank Ocean’s mom

“Jumping in the pool with no swim wear gear” – Wyclef Jean

“I’m at your house like, ‘Why you got your couch on my Chucks?'” – Earl

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“And white kids deal with problems that we never knew to bother
Arguing with they dads, we pray we ever knew our fathers”
-Joey Purp

“Inside of the Maybach look like it came out of Ikea” – 2 Chainz

“Play Metro Boomin at my funeral” – Smino

VEEP Character Power Rankings:

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1. Jonah
2. Gary
3. Amy
4. Richard
5. Mike

Best Live Performances, 2016:

T-1. Car Seat Headrest
T-1. Father John Misty
T-1. Julien Baker
T-1. Kevin Morby
T-1. Deerhunter

 

Bonus content:

I wish Kanye didn’t record his “All We Got” feature while he was brushing his teeth.

I have never knowingly listened to a song by Bryson Tiller.

I started driving a lot this year after four years of walking and biking everywhere. We don’t have an aux thing in our car, so good CDs are essential. Rap radio is also surprisingly fun these days as long as you can avoid “Controlla.” I have decided that Funeral by Arcade Fire is the best road trip album of all time. I got really into the Replacements’ Let It Be and Tim. Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted is great but I always inadvertently turn it way too loud trying to hear the vocals. Used CDs are dangerously cheap.

I’ve listened to Endless maybe three times max.

How long until we put Ty Dolla $ign’s verse on “Impatient” in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

I love how the parental advisory on Telefone matches the color scheme of the cover art.c0p63wrwqaaig3q

We need way fewer H*rambe references in rap lyrics.

I had an interview with a really solid company back in March. As I sat on the plane to go back to Tufts, where I was pretty broke, I listened to Kamaiyah sing “I’ve been broke all my life / Now wonder / How does it feel to be rich?” As we took off, I optimistically wondered the same thing, looking back on my day with a confident smile. I did not get the job.

Why did I download a 100 song Kool A.D. mixtape?

The hardest thing I did all year was try to recite Chance’s verse on “Girls @” in the car.

Prince is the greatest musician of all time to me. My dad introduced me to so much great music as a kid but Prince was the most important. I learned about how he changed his name to a symbol (which is a crazy concept when you’re like 10) and we watched Purple Rain together (when I was older than 10, don’t worry.) No music will ever be as fun as “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m A Star” back-to-back. This was tough to swallow. RIP.

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Realizations 2016

The Complexity of Cymbals Eat Guitars

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I want to talk about Cymbals Eat Guitars.

Cymbals Eat Guitars is the perfect band to me. And it saddens me that they’re severely under-appreciated, especially because their music doesn’t strike me as divisive in any obvious ways. CEG songs are dense but simultaneously inviting: whether it’s the driving drums that get your head banging or the fuzzy-yet-catchy guitar riffs.  But you’ll never feel like you got the whole picture after just a listen or two. This is largely due to Joseph D’Agostino’s twisting poetry, which can be delivered wistfully or aggressively, depending on the song. Naked truths are wound together with imagery from D’Agostino’s childhood and candid introspection, always stated with elegance and an air of mystique.

There are two songs in particular that illustrate the complexities of Cymbals Eat Guitars: “Beam” from 2016’s Pretty Years and “XR” from 2014’s LOSE. There are a lot of similarities between these tracks. These aren’t the hits. These are fast-paced hard rock songs with virtually no pop sensibilities. Both find D’Agostino’s voice more alien than ever. But beneath each song’s hard exterior, there are raw glimpses of Joseph D’Agostino’s struggles.

“Beam” sees D’Agostino with a grim outlook on life, acknowledging his flaws and ready for the consequences:

“Beam me up to Jesus

Beam me up to Jesus, I’m ready”

 

Some dark humor about his presumed fate:

“Saying ‘hey’ to Satan

He’s a dog in the yard on Morningstar

Half a buttered bagel

That I slip under the fence as an offering

Hot but his breath is freezing

And all I am is guilty”

 

And the brutally honest set of lines:

“Weary of fake epiphanies

Not the man that I had hoped

That’s alright

No one knows but me”

It’s a song that takes place entirely in D’Agostino’s head. Both the conflict and acceptance are internal, which makes it infinitely harder to express in a way that can make sense to another person. The conclusion isn’t fully formed, but that’s what makes it so human.

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I didn’t understand “XR” for almost two years. It wasn’t until I really sat down with the lyrics that I could begin understand its full depth. I knew that D’Agostino’s best friend, Benjamin High, had died unexpectedly and LOSE was partially about his passing, but I hadn’t connected the dots specifically to “XR”. It’s easy to misunderstand the song: the vocals are gruff and distorted in the middle of the mix; it’s not a clear-cut emotional song. But D’Agostino’s memories of High and how his death haunts him are devastating:

“Here I am again at Ben’s MySpace grave

And then out of nowhere

The smell of his basement”

 

“Imagining victory

Our alternate history

The songs we never wrote

They float above and below me

Keepsake tinnitus shrieks me to sleep

Each frequency’s a memory of some

Show we attended”

 

“Wanna wake up wanting to listen to records

But those old feelings elude me”

I could quote literally any line of “XR” and it would convey a mountain of human pain. It’s an addicting song because of how much is packed into it, I keep coming back because I want to keep learning (and screaming “IT’S EMERGEN-C”). The subject matter of “XR” isn’t uplifting, but it is delivered with such heart that it’s enthralling. And that’s what is the biggest selling point of Cymbals Eat Guitars: heart. D’Agostino throws himself full force into every vocal performance. Difficult feelings are delivered loudly with desperation. Tracks quickly explode, rising and falling with D’Agostino’s wails, while never idling. It’s hard to multitask while listening to Cymbals Eat Guitars because they’re experts at creating worlds to lose yourself in. There’s never a note nor a word wasted.

Most Cymbals Eat Guitars songs are not 80-miles-per-hour (not quite 100) emotional tirades like “Beam” or “XR”. But I think that by highlighting the counterintuitive (to me, at least) detail in these tracks, it illustrates how rewarding this band can be. They are one of the most creative rock bands out there, with plenty of varying tempos, weird turns, and “I didn’t know sugary synths would sound so good there” moments blended with purposeful guitar rock. And the glue that holds it all together is the collection of stories that we’re luckily invited to witness, over and over and over.

The Complexity of Cymbals Eat Guitars

Soundtrack Your Summer

We are officially at the halfway point of 2016, which means that everyone with a Spotify Premium account and access to pitchfork.com has some sort of list ranking their favorite music releases of the year. I won’t deny that making lists is super super fun, it’s my favorite way to procrastinate and I have a extensive spreadsheet to keep track of every album I’ve listened to this year. But music is made to be heard out in the world, in everyday life. So I matched up some of my favorite songs of 2016 with appropriate activities. Go live it.

 

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Driving with the windows down: “Finish Line / Drown” by Chance the Rapper featuring T-Pain, Kirk Franklin, Eryn Allen Kane & Noname

Driving with the windows down and the volume up is maybe the most quintessential summer activity. The best car jams are easy to sing along to, and nothing is simpler than the “do-do-do-do-do-do-do” that kicks off Chance the Rapper’s “Finish Line / Drown.” Placed towards the end of Coloring Book‘s tracklist, “Finish Line” is triumphant victory lap that also showcases vulnerability, as Chance touches upon his Xanax addiction and relationship with the mother of his daughter. Coloring Book can feel overly sweet, but “Finish Line” is a song that makes me feel like I’m actually getting to know Chance the Superstar. On top of that, the second half of the song, “Drown,” makes the listener feel like they’ve been transported to the grooviest church in America, where the choir sounds lush and everyone is standing and clapping their hands. Put this on when you get handed the aux and everyone in the car will be similarly unified as you all wail “ALL MY DAYS, I PRAYED AND PRAYED” with Minister T-Pain.

 

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Playing basketball: “Lite Spots” by Kaytranada

When I first heard “Lite Spots,” I immediately thought that it would be the perfect soundtrack for one of those commercials where some guys are playing pick-up basketball on a blacktop and they’re jumping way above the rim and then time stops and the camera rotates around before a guy slams it down. It would probably be for Sprite Remix or something. Aside from my weird TV vision, I actually have shot around while listening to Kaytranada’s new album, 99.9%, and it fits the mood. It’s blissfully carefree and meant for sunny weather, perfect for shaking a defender, draining your shot, and smiling about it.

 

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Running: “Cornerstore” by Joey Purp featuring Saba & theMIND

For me, running music has to be captivating above all else, as to not let my mind wander and question why I’m voluntarily running. On “Cornerstore,” Joey Purp and Saba tell stories of lost youth, guns, and violence in Chicago over a lush array of horns. You can hear the pain in Purp’s voice as he practically yells his verse; I find myself hanging onto every word because I can feel the reality of these anecdotes. It’s heart-wrenching song but it’s also extremely motivational. Not because it’s optimistic or preachy, but because it paints a portrait of perseverance.

 

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Cleaning on the weekend: “Drippin'”  by Young Thug

I don’t know if this is true for other people, but cleaning my room is one of my favorite times to listen to music. You can turn the volume way up and jam out as you bop around picking up your junk. The alien beat on “Drippin'” is one of the most infectious things I’ve heard all year. I dare you to sit still when the song comes on (it’s impossible). This is a beat that pulses through your body and takes over. After the first few notes kick in, Thugger proceeds to absolutely float on the track, effortlessly weaving in and out of different flows. In no time, you’ll be dancing around and feeling ready to do a backflip off the wall or something.

 

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Biking around the neighborhood: “Everybody Wants to Love You” by Japanese Breakfast

I started riding my bike a lot this year, through some small suburban streets to and from work, passing by colorful houses and kids playing basketball.  I would stand up on the pedals and do a slalom in between manholes like I was 12 instead of 22. I always tried to pick the perfect soundtrack to match the scene and the most fitting was “Everybody Wants to Love You,” a song that explodes with joy instantly after the opening guitar riff. The simple chorus is uplifting and reassuring, making age irrelevant because you’re going fast and living in the moment. You’ll probably want to yell the lyrics and dance with your hands in the air, and at the very least you can’t help but feel free.

Soundtrack Your Summer

The Problem with Pablo

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I have been putting off this blog post for a long time. In part, it’s because I’ve been busy with my last semester of college, two internships, and running a bunch of steeplechases. But the main reason that I’ve been procrastinating this review is because The Life of Pablo has torn me in a lot of different directions. Within a week or two of the album’s release, I had a thousand words of my thoughts about Pablo ready to go. They were mostly negative, but it didn’t feel right to completely trash the album. Kanye West is one of my all-time favorite artists and I regard several of his albums as masterpieces. I wanted this album to change my life, I was ready for it. The Life of Pablo is not the album to do that. It’s too long and full of momentum-killers. It has a lot of songs brimming with potential that are derailed by embarrassingly bad rapping. It’s Kanye taking some big swings and striking out.

Kanye albums have been home to some of the most innovative production of the last ten years, and Pablo lives up to its predecessors. The Pastor T.L. Barrett-sampling intro in “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” features a gloriously drawn-out (but now over-memed) Metro Boomin tag and builds into Kid Cudi’s joyous hook in epic fashion. But the production is quickly forgotten when Kanye’s first lines are about bleached assholes. “Famous”, with the uncomfortable sex-with-Taylor Swift lines, closes with the bouncy “Bam Bam” outro, which is genius and transforms the original song into something bigger. Inconsistency and unevenness run deep on Pablo. Even the already-classic “Ultralight Beam”feels skeletal and haphazardly pieced together before Chance spits a Hall Of Fame verse that absolves any previous sins.

“Pt. 2” is another misguided song that boasts lot of potential but ultimately falls flat. Kanye shared the song lyrics before the album’s debut and my expectations for the song skyrocketed. He says he cried while he wrote it. He references his father’s mistakes, his mother’s death, and his near-fatal car accident all in one verse. I was ready for an emotionally devastating Kanye performance. But the finished product? He’s rapping with the Autotune turned way up on a remix of Desiigner’s trap anthem “Panda”. I’m not saying rappers can’t convey emotion with this style of hip hop; Future does it all the time. But right after Kanye’s verse, the hook bursts in with “I got broads in Atlanta / Twisting dope, lean, and the Fanta” and the song officially becomes a confusing mess. “Pt. 2” goes from exploring some deep topics (though maybe not in the most effective way) to transforming into a hype anthem, which is just one of Kanye’s many frustrating choices made within Pablo‘s 59 minutes.

Not every rapper has to use internal rhyme schemes or tell vivid stories to make rewarding music. Kanye has never been the most talented lyricist or had the smoothest delivery, but it has rarely compromised the quality of his music (save for some of his guest verses, where he often struggles to fit in and elevate the song with his presence). At his best, his rapping is personal, clever, and memorable. Despite flashes of these qualities, The Life of Pablo is ultimately bogged down by poorly executed delivery of clunky and childish lyrics. His delivery is usually clear and simple, which highlights his weak lines more so than someone like Young Thug. He has an annoying habit of repeating a line right after he says it the first time. Among the misfires there are still gems such as “I just copped a jet to fly over personal debt”, “Name one genius that ain’t crazy”, and most of the second verse in “No More Parties in L.A.”, but these quotables can’t hold together the album.

“Real Friends”, positioned towards the end of the “actual” album (aka everything before “30 Hours”), is a friendly reminder of what makes timeless Kanye songs. It’s a simple concept that hits home: “Real friends, how many of us?” The piano-driven beat is haunting but also has an instant feel of nostalgia and comfort. Kanye’s straightforward and honest lyrics are what makes his songs enduring. His flow is natural and even when he breaks out of it to fit in all his thoughts into a single line (“I had a cousin that stole my laptop that I was fucking bitches on”), it’s forgivable because it really feels like we’re getting a look into his mind.

The Life of Pablo is an album of what-ifs. What if the tracklist wasn’t so bloated with deadweight songs? What if the lyrics were fine-tuned a little bit more? What if all the songs were fully fleshed-out like “FML” and “Real Friends”? What if lines like “You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than / This n*gga when he off his Lexapro” were explored more? Would I be here talking about another classic Mr. West product?

This isn’t a disappointing album for me because of a few bad lines or because I need a deep album from Kanye to consider it worthwhile. When I listen, I can’t help but hear the flaws. I hear the unused potential and the disconnect between the instrumentals and the lyrics. It’s distracting and frustrating. Kanye probably had an amazing album within his grasp, but Pablo‘s final form is more similar to a glorified mixtape: it’s too long, doesn’t flow, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s hard to view it as a singular piece of art like his other albums. It’s pretty easy to get the whole picture on the first listen.

I can’t tell what I would think of The Life of Pablo if I had never heard Late Registration or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Maybe I don’t like it because I had such high expectations. The Life of Pablo isn’t a fun listen for me, but I can hear the greatness within it.

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The Problem with Pablo