Mini-Album Review Roundup: Future, Pinegrove, Saul Williams, and Animal Collective

Future – EVOL
Atlanta rapper Future has put out 7 full length mixtapes/albums in the last year and a half. EVOL (no relation) is his second release of 2016, and he’ll probably have another tape on DatPiff by the time you finish reading this paragraph. While he’s spent this run firmly entrenched in his cavernous, drugged out, lean-soaked, trap sound, him and in-house producers Metro Boomin and Southside push in a different direction with each release so that each project has a distint identity. EVOL doesn’t venture outside Future’s heel persona–“Xanny Family” is about him and three women who don’t speak English getting high as shit and fucking, which might be the most Future thing ever–but it’s polished, confident, and light on its feet in a way that DS2 wasn’t. That album was out for domination, all concussive beats and piledriver deliveries that left a purple, hazing crater in its wake, while by-numbers (but still great) EVOL cuts “Ain’t No Talk” and “Maybach” temper that raw power with poise. It’s album that flexes its muscles instead of assaulting you with them.

EVOL‘s got variety, too. The horns in “Little Haiti Baby” are a great flourish, as is the sparser, plinking beat to the spitting “Photo Copies.” Elsewhere “Lie to Me” veers delightfully close to an R&B pop jam, and “Fly Shit Only” has a decadent guitar hook straight out of 80s rock. Meanwhile, it’s not hard to imagine the Weeknd assisted “Low Life” as a single. Even with some stumbles–“Seven Rings” and “Program” are redundant and the whole album is still a little too singular–EVOL does enough different for Future to still be rewarding on multiple listens. Who knows when his current streak will end, but so long as he’s coming out with replay friendly material like this, I won’t complain.

Pinegrove – Cardinal
It’s always a treat when the albums you fall for are ones you’ve never heard of. So it goes for New Jersey’s alt-country outfit Pinegrove and their new record CardinalCardinal‘s been something of a word-of-mouth success, and it’s easy to see why: at 8 songs in half an hour, the record is an almost too-quick listen, and it’s produced with the warmth and intimacy of a live performance. Opener “Old Friends” properly introduces you to Evan Stephens Hall’s yearning, nervous vocals and the band’s twangy instrumentation, and “Cadmium” highlights the emotional range of both. For me, though, the album doesn’t take off until third song “Then Again,” whose rollicking chorus goes off like an R.E.M.-meets-Avett-Brothers bomb following the building tension through the album so far. It’s just an incredibly likeable song, even with its Stipe-ian inscrutability.

While Cardinal as a whole isn’t breaking any musical barriers–I’d argue it’s subtly a fantastic guitar record–a large part of why it’s great comes down to how tuneful it is. “Aphasia” shows this best with its interplay between that swooning chord progression, rise and fall melody, and backing harmonies. Those same qualities, present throughout all of Cardinal, shine through especially bright again on the emo-tinged, cathartic “Visiting” and on penultimate climax “Size of the Moon.”

The album ends with “New Friends,” capping off a half-hour of uncertainty and hesitance (“Aphasia” is named after a speech disorder, after all) with resolution in the face of the unknown. The song sounds more stable than anything else here, at one point even asking “What’s the worst that could happen?” It feels like the first time personal success is possible on Cardinal, and after spending a month with this record, I wish the same for Pinegrove itself.

Saul Williams – MartyrLoserKing
Poet/musician/artist/actor Saul Williams described MartyrLoserKing as “the last fuck I have to give,” which is a better one-liner for this political protest record than any of us would come up with. Williams has been making these quasi-genreless (hip-hop meets rock meets soul meets electronic) records since before genre cross-pollinating records were sold at Urban Outfitter, and MLK is one of his strongest. Much of that comes down to the method of attack: eschewing the lumbering productions of his past records, Williams opts for lighter, more varied, and concussive beats here that improve his own vocal dexterity and give each song their own sonic identity. The beats, be it the somber piano loop on “Horn of the Clock Bike” or scorched earth Nine Inch Nails electro-rocker “Ashes” (NIN mastermind Trent Reznor produced Williams’ 2008 The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust), feel as cerebral as Williams’ lyrics.

The most potent material is the most percussive, especially around the album’s first half. Williams’ dexterity is demonstrated best on “Think Like They Book Say,” where the drums hit in a flurry under heavy bass, synths, horns, and his own furious cadences and chants. It’s a blunt instrument of a song, but incredibly effective. A labored hacker metaphor threatens to derail “The Bear/Coltan as Cotton” and “Burundi”, but the two arguably overcome it thanks to fiery performances (“Burundi” gets a backing vocal assist from Warpaint vocalist Emily Kokal). The aforementioned “Ashes” is also a keeper, ditto for slowburning, clap-and-chant looping post-punk highlight “The Noise Came From Here.” If you want to hear Williams in slam prophet mode, there’s “All Coltrane’s Solos” at once, where him and Haleek Maul just go off over a buzzing beat.

Even if MartyrLoserKing arguably has more songs than it does ideas (“Roach Eggs” throws off momentum the album never records), the highlights here are worth revisiting. Williams reputation as a fantastic poet is well-earned, and in a year that’s politically exhausting already, sentiments like “Protect and serve/Your bullets won’t deliver the last word” and “Fuck your history teacher, bitch, I’ve never been a victim” are gratifying in a defiant, “fuck them for being wrong” type of way. Williams might be down to one measly fuck to give, but if MLK is any indication, a lone Saul Williams fuck is apparently worth a dozen normal ones.

Animal Collective – Painting With
A week or two back, I went with some friends to Cincinnati’s 21c Contemporary Art Museum. One of the exhibits I saw was a looping video of a naked black woman in knee socks reciting the lyrics to “Hey Mickey” while standing in a 70’s wood panel living room.

I’m not sure I got it exactly, but it set off my bullshit detector far, far less than Painting With does. Experimental psych pop outfit Animal Collective have always prided themselves on being weird, but this record is full of enforced quirk. They sample Golden Girls! They brought dinosaur projections and a kiddie pool to the recording studio! The lead single is a portmanteau of Florida and an art movement steeped in gimmicky weirdness for its own sake (*cough*)! And this dippy presentation isn’t even “FloriDada” or the album’s biggest issue. That would be the fact that Painting With is literally a headache to listen to.

After about twenty seconds of its four-minute run time, “FloriDada become a swirl of manic programmed drums, stretched and clipped synths, sound effects, and bounced call and response vocals for. And that claustrophobic, incessant clatter is the near entirety of Painting With‘s sound. Frantic, wide-eyed psych can be effective in bursts, but the album never relents over 12 songs in 41 minutes; when “Natural Selection” fires up halfway through, you’re already thinking “Not again.” For an album with this much stuff on it, very little sounds distinct even on repeated listens: the vocals, synths, samples, and drums rarely coalesce for a full song. The end result is an album that sounds like a ProTools project being kicked down a rather long flight of stairs.

Painting With isn’t entirely without pleasures, though. The interplay on the lurching “Lying in the Grass” works pretty well, and when the album finally finds some chill on “Golden Gal”, its touted Beach Boys influence shines through. There are fulfilling stretches on “The Burglars” and “On Delay”, and even though it marks the point where Painting With gets exhausting, that intro to “Natural Selection” is enjoyably spastic. But these aren’t enough to make the record worthwhile. Animal Collective’s always used their loudness for some greater purpose–say what you will about Centipede Hz but at least its had a point to its abrasiveness–and I can’t find one on Painting With. Its noise is just noise, and it won’t blow your mind.

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About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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