Album Review: Son Little – New Magic

By Kieran Cannon (@kiercannon)rating 8

Over the past few years, Philadelphia native Aaron Livingston has steered his musical reputation under the Son Little moniker on an upwards trajectory.  Following the release of the 2014 Things I Forgot EP, his self-titled debut album met with a warm reception from critics whilst an appearance on Later… with Jools Holland exposed UK audiences to his modernist reimagining of tried-and-tested R&B. Described by some as ‘neo soul’, truthfully this epithet is disingenuous: it doesn’t do justice to the veritable melting pot of genres his music serves up.

Son Little became a slow-burn success and a gruelling tour schedule ensued. This threw up a challenge or two, not least of which was an absence of time to write new material. While touring Australia, he became enchanted with the remote Northern Territory and so decided to drop off the radar for a few days to catch up with songwriting, feeling inspired by the seclusion those idyllic surroundings offered; a new sort of magic, if you will. Clearly this brief exile to the outback has paid dividends as his latest Anti- Records release, New Magic, immediately feels like an evolution from its predecessor, both in maturity and in delivery.

Right off the bat, the blues musician showcases his genre-bending capabilities as he effortlessly meshes together elements of the contemporary and the old school. “Kimberly’s mine / so stand clear / or I’mma make it bad if I ever catch you tryna hang around here” he vociferates on Kimberly’s Mine, deploying unprecedented levels of sass towards unwanted suitors on the impassioned opening track. His hoarse, soulful vocals are backed by sporadic bursts of guitar and laid back percussion, placing the overall sound somewhere within Michael Kiwanuka territory until electronic embellishments begin to appear, mixing in a noticeable hip hop flavour.

The beauty of Livingston’s songcraft lies in his nuanced approach. He doesn’t set out simply to write a ‘blues’ song; instead, his music appears magnetic in nature, attracting fragments of gospel and traces of funk along the way. Take, for example, the lead single Blue Magic (Waikiki). Wonderfully infectious tropical beats and syncopated rhythms accompany the catchy choir-sung hook, channeling influences as far-ranging as Bob Marley and Jack Johnson. His recent stripped-back songwriting philosophy shines here, allowing for exploration of new avenues with a more restrained approach to sound production. Despite the numerous surprises this album throws up, he remains – thanks in no small part to his extraordinary voice – genuine and believable.

In fact, the only uniting theme across Son Little’s output is his affinity for understated guitars and minimalist drumming. Soul R&B of the apocalypse O Me O My is a good case in point as arguably the most ‘conventional’ track on the album. Incidental blues riffs permeate the song, laying the foundations while the chorus evolves into more soulful territory; Motown, even. Livingstone, himself the son of a preacher, injects question-and-answer gospel vocals as well as harnessing his own innate wordcraft, presumably passed down from father to son. This uptempo aggression continues on to Charging Bull as funky, driving basslines propel the song forward, Xenia Rubinos lending her vocals to proceedings.

Around a quarter of the album was written during his stint in the outback and the underlying theme was established during this self-imposed period of isolation. As a result, the whole record feels cohesive; although the execution varies wildly, his approach to each track is broadly similar. The latter half begins to unveil an altogether darker, more brooding side to his music such as the crunchy downtuned guitars of ASAP and the psychedelic, wah-wah effects of Letter Bound. “Listening to the lightning, thunder and rain / come on, so exciting, so glad that you came” he implores, urging his far-away love to join him in facing the oncoming storm.

New Magic feels very much like a cliffhanger, an intermediate point from which Son Little can develop his own brand of experimental, boundary-defying R&B. As his reputation progresses and anticipation of his music grows, he slowly establishes himself as one of the standout contemporary soul pioneers and many will surely begin to place his name on ‘to-watch’ lists. If this upwards trajectory continues, it gives us plenty of reason to await his future material with bated breath.

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ALBUM REVIEW: SZA – Ctrl

By Will Sexton (@willshesleeps)

Love fuelled, compassionate and confident. Raw, intimate and erotic. SZA’s new album Ctrl contains all of the above, and it’s one hell of a listen.

Ctrl is the first piece of music many will have heard from SZA, considering it’s her debut, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. The album starts off with the very mellow, slow paced ballad Supermodel: right from the start, you’ll get a taste of one of the best things about the album which is the instrumentation. More than half of Supermodel contains no drums and is mainly heavily edited electric guitar and a small taste of bass guitar. SZA singing over the top about an ex-boyfriend who did her wrong and sings about insecurities in herself and admits to sleeping with his best friend because he “purposely broke up with her on Valentines day”. 

The songs to follow continue with this indulgent and almost therapeutic nature where SZA is singing about past lovers and people who have done her wrong. The next song Love Galore feat. Travis Scott is an empowering song where the lyrics are about putting yourself first and “all you need is love” which can be interpreted as all types of love, not just relationships or sex but then also talks about how she is the side-chick on a lot of the songs in the first half of the album. Ctrl has two ends of the emotional spectrum, a lush and intense sexual side to it but can also be at times sad and emotional.

One of the highlight tracks has to be Doves In the Wind feat. Kendrick Lamar which is a song “entirely dedicated to vaginas” (the word pussy is said 28 times) and how there is so much more to a relationship and/or life than sex. A lot of the singing from SZA on this song has a nice flow and an interesting melody and again the instrumentation on this song is gorgeous.

An interesting use of distortion and noise would be on the song Anything where the song starts with a sharp distorted punch and continues throughout the song and it shows that SZA had a confidence with trying new things and using fun new techniques, and even down to how the claps/stamps are mixed at the end make this album an interesting listen.

Three other songs worth shouting out includes The Weekend due to the synth opening and alluring nature, the song Prom with its dreamy mixing as well as its angelic vocals and the rather minimalist Wavy (Interlude) feat. Jame Fauntleroy showing that you don’t need layers to show off SZA’s gorgeous voice.

However, CTRL’s absolute gem is Drew Barrymore. With guitar similar to the opening track and a chilled out and sombre vibe, SZA sings about low self-esteem and the expectations that are placed on her as a woman. She feels the need to have to apologise for “not being attractive enough, for not shaving her legs at night and being too clingy”. She also questions whether the person loves her or loves sleeping with her and asks then whether she is “warm enough on the outside” for them, referring to appearance and also “warm enough on the inside” being a sexual innuendo. Being able to address all of this in one song effortlessly is why it’s my favourite. It’s an anthem for the self-conscious.

One of the best RnB albums of the year so far, CTRL really throws SZA’s name into the stratosphere. Some songs may not gel with you right away but there are plenty of standout tracks that appear on this LP which will redeem that. If SZA wasn’t on your radar before now then she sure as hell is now.

8/10


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So far, so good? New Gorillaz tracks REVIEWED

By Liam Menzies (@blinkclyro)

Whilst it’s common to describe any wait for new material from an artist as “like Frank Ocean”, Gorillaz have been very much synonymous for the word “overdue” in the music landscape. Yes, the band may be more emotive and life-like than most bands despite the fact they’re literally animated but the passion project of Blur frontman Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett have arguably been one of the most innovative of the early to mid-noughties, making the six-year wait more agonising than usual. 

Speaking to Mista Jam before songs off the upcoming  LP HUMANZ  were played, Albarn spoke highly of the project, saying “Gorillaz is always this one place where I can just do whatever I like. No blueprint, just a drum machine and a synthesizer” which may explain why it took over half a decade to hear new material.

Much like the classic “you wait ages for a bus and two come at one” situation, the audio equivalent has occurred as four tracks from the new album have dropped: well, officially anyway, leaks have appeared as they always do and the results are just as tantalising as you may imagine. So without further ado, let’s get our teeth into the fictitious adventures of 2D, Murdoc, Noodle and Russel.

ANDROMEDA FT DRAM

Named after a club in Colchester that played soul music during Albarn’s adolescence, ANDROMEDA is expectedly spacy feeling while also incorporating some interesting elements that help to make it something more. There’s the simplistic whirring that many will be accustomed to after the band’s last release but the aforementioned soul influence gives it that extra edge with Albarn’s vocal delivery showing off his trademark versatility. 

The sombre projection ties in perfectly with the album’s themes, Albarn described HUMANZ as coming from a dark fantasy which transitions the band into something else, backed up by the almost juxtaposing cheerfulness of DRAM who is just as solid a feature as you may have guessed. All in all, a nice display of evolution while bringing back a few old traits.

SATURNS BARS W/ POPCAAN

The ominousness of Humans is fundamental to the album if Albarn’s statement is anything to go by and no track displays this better than SATURNS BARS. While it may be very reminiscent of the dancehall craze that the majority of chart music is trying to replicate (poorly), the laid back nature that many of these songs channel is absent.

In its place is a dread fuelled epic that is ran by reggae from the beats themselves to the inclusion of none other than Popcaan. The distorted EDM production does the job of creating what feels like the equivalent of a horror house anthem which would probably make an appearance on a poltergeist’s running playlist. From what has been shown from the band thus far, this is undoubtedly the strongest of the bunch.

To summarise, it’s safe to say that Gorillaz aren’t playing it safe. The likes of American Football who have came back after a long hiatus only to return with very little new is thankfully not having an effect on what the band has to offer. Albarn has went into this LP with a vision and so far it’s paying off while not limiting the scope of what Gorillaz have always been trying to push the range of. Come April 28th, we may just have ourselves an AOTY contender.


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ALBUM REVIEW: DRUNK by THUNDERCAT

By Dominic V. Cassidy  (@lyre_of_apollo)

Stephen Bruner, who performs under the moniker Thundercat, has just released his third full-length studio album, DrunkBurner is an already established bassist, playing for legendary L.A. punk outfit Suicidal Tendencies, and recently featuring on tracks for other artists, including Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly. After the rough reception of his previous studio album Apocalypse, this album can be seen as a rise in quality on an arguably lackluster discography.

Drunk as far as albums go, is very odd. One of the saving graces of the album is the jazz tones and influences running through almost every track, the smooth sway is very easy listening. The album also seems to be bleeding neon and the full-colour spectrum with the album feeling almost like an auditory kaleidoscope at times, especially through the fifth track on the album A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II). While it does offer the immediate wackiness and almost the intentional neurosis found normally in Woody Allen movies; of singing of wanting to be a cat, and the peppering’s of background meow’s the track – sadly like many on the record – wear out their welcome within a few listens.

While the album is not all sunshine and daisies, it is not without standout tracks: Lava Lamp especially gets the balance perfectly between the jazz, funk, pop, and electro elements, all with Bruner’s voice over it, where it seems like he’s looking for range that is maybe missing in other tracks on the album, which come across as bland in places. Another track that gives respite from the droning near-melancholy of the rest of the album is Tokyo, which has a constant funk buzz, and at the end of two and a half minute runtime you wish had gone on a little longer, with some genuinely funny lyrics, including the chuckle-worthy: “I’d probably hide in the suicide forest (shit!)”; and the whole track kind of speaks volumes about a hinted at weeaboo past for Bruner.

Tracks like Lava Lamp, Tokyo, and Friend Zone are probably the three best tracks on the album, and while it is lovely to see what the Thundercat project can do when hitting the creative marks, it feels somewhat bittersweet that the final delivery was not closer to these tracks. Even stylistically, as the tone of the more sombre songs on the album do work lyrically, it could be argued that the drab tone with a smooth jazz background feels somewhat incongruous. One thing should be said for the featuring artists on the album, including the previously mentioned Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa, and Pharrell, is that when they do make an appearance they exist purely to increase the quality of the music, especially Kendrick’s featured track Walk On By which does seem to sample Tears for Fears’ Mad World, is a fantastically listenable song, especially Kendrick’s actual rap in the song.

Image result for thundercat musician 2017

Overall Drunk is an album that upon first listen, was very interesting, the lyrics were funny, not so much to the level of comedy that bands like The Lonely Island are known for, but definitely elicited more of a chuckle than some of the more serious music that is very much in vogue of the last five years, like Adele. However, once the veneer, which sadly for the majority of the album is paper thin, has worn away, the album becomes almost a chore to listen to, hard to place which track you are on sometimes, with the bass which Bruner is known for, features across the whole album with the very relaxed classically jazzy piano the music drifts into itself.

If it was not for the tracks on the album which are very listenable, the album would be deeply flawed; however with the few gems that are on the album, and the production which is often maybe not up to the level of an artist who is himself a seasoned producer, the album does seem like a few very studio high-grade songs, randomly inter-spliced with something more akin to bedroom recordings. While the album does have a handful of standout tracks and genuinely clever lyrics scattered through the album, this is not enough to offset the abject blandness of the album, and the way it wears out its welcome before it’s over.

4/10


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ALBUM REVIEW: SAMPHA – PROCESS

By Ethian Woodford (@human_dis4ster)

The first time many encountered Sampha was way back in 2011 when his haunting vocals stood out on SBTRKT‘s Hold On and really made that track memorable. Since then his solo debut has been eagerly anticipated by many. Unfortunately there was a 6 year wait though thankfully it wasn’t through a lack of trying as Sampha was busy to say the least. An in-demand vocalist, Sampha has appeared on tracks by heavyweights such as Drake, Frank Ocean, Solange and Kanye West. While his vocals make any song skyrocket in quality, which is no wonder considering how many artists sought to get him to appear, Sampha’s debut has been brewing away like fine wine, making the past half a decade wait totally worth it.

Process is an expansive showcase of Sampha‘s vocal ability that also shows what he can do when he gets to use this ability to express his own ideas. The running theme throughout is one of loss and self-examination, which is unsurprising as Sampha lost his father when he was young and more recently his mother as well. Due to the attachment that Sampha must have had to the material, it is evident that he took a great amount of care in crafting each track, every moment has a purpose and it makes for a truly captivating listen. Right from album opener Plastic 100°C, Sampha demands attention with his powerful vocals that soar and dive spectacularly as they intertwine seemlessly with samples and piano tracks.

Sampha uses this album to show his incredible range as he commands fast-paced tracks such as Blood on Me and Kora Sings. These song can compete on an crowd-pleasing level with any of his past collaborators while also exploring complex ideas such as denial and loss. While these tracks are impressive Sampha definitely excels the most in his most simplistic moments such as on stand-out track (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano. On this testement to his late mother, he once again utilises his vocal ability to deliver a beautiful ballad that sticks in the mind throughout the rest of the album.

Each track on Process is its own idea, a carefully constructed piece of work that conveys Sampha‘s experience of tragic loss and how he has dealt with these feelings. However what makes it truly great is how each one seems to show something different and further prove that Sampha is one of the most innovative and exciting artists around. His ability to shift from a sentimental ballad to a powerful, beat-driven single seemlessly is impressive and the fact that he is so convincing at both even more so.

Process was most definitely worth the wait and with it Sampha has proven himself to be one to watch. While he’ll be even busier after this impressive portfolio of his abilities, hopefully it will not be too long until he is able to do something for himself again.

8/10

Paolo Nutini – Caustic Love review

Paolo Nutini is a hard one to pigeon hole. While most artists find a sound that serves them well and stick to it for album after album, the Paisley born singer song-writer continues to delve into different genres in each of his album releases with his debut These Streets containing a nice blend of Pop and Rock whilst his follow up Sunny Side Up expertly blended R&B and Ska like a Kenwood smoothie maker. After a five year hiatus though, has he managed to keep this trend and quality up?Image

The answer? Of course he has. All you have to do is listen to Iron Sky, one of the album’s finest tracks which is a beautiful blend of both soul and raw compassion that highlights Nutini’s trademark raspy voice that never ceases to amaze you throughout the album’s 13 track duration. Opening track Scream (Funk My Life Up) is an upbeat, funk infused song reminiscent of the sound of James Brown whilst Numpty mixes it up with a more frisky sound and a chorus that’ll inscribe itself into your head after a few listens.

However, where Caustic Love really shines is when Nutini infuses this amazing soul sounds with personal lyrics which he delivers in an apologetic sound. Point in case? The track One Day, which follows up the interlude every RnB album needs, has Paolo saying all the corners of our pictures are a long time afraid, they still symbolize what you mean to me”, showcasing his ability to tap into the deep emotional reserves that allow this track to stand out. The closing track Someone Like You is another example of these lyrics with a much simpler sound which makes for a peaceful and nonchalant conclusion.Image

Some may lump Nutini unknowingly alongside other artists like James Blunt and James Morrison just because he plays guitar and sings. With Caustic Love, Nutini showcases talent that is unparalleled to any other solo artist in Britain today and one that’s bound to develop and improve after each successive record. So sit back, put your earphones on and enjoy the soulful sound that’ll transport you to the 80’s, no DeLorean needed.