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Month: December 2011

Childish Gambino's Camp high gets real

Despite what his mixtapes would have you believe, Childish Gambino is not Just a Rapper. Gambino is the stage name of Donald Glover, who is also a DJ, writer, stand-up comic, and star on NBC’s Community. After releasing four mixtapes, a full-length album (2010’s Culdesac) and an EP for free, Childish Gambino made his commercial debut on Glassnote Records with Camp. Coming from my position as a complete Glover fanboy, I was more than a little excited for the album. After listening through many times, I can say that not only is Camp the best work that Childish Gambino has yet released, it is possibly one of the best hip-hop albums of the year.

Gambino’s strong point is definitely his wordplay. A mix of punchlines, pop culture and unadulterated wit, each track has that one line that is guaranteed to stick with you for days. The reference to French director Francois Trouffaut in particular amazed me, after I googled it to figure it out, of course. Gambino toes the line between unbelievably intelligent lyricism and swagger that appeals to a different crowd. No track embodies this mastery more than lead single “Bonfire.” On a track that could best be described as his earlier “Freaks and Geeks” taken to a whole new level, Glover seamlessly weaves bravado rapping that rivals Kanye’s with references to Invader Zim, The Human Centipede and a subtle dig at Drake (his main comparison in modern hip-hop).

Gambino comes into this album with something to prove and a chip on his shoulder. The minimalistBackpackers” channels Tyler the Creator’s “Yonkers,” except for the fact that unlike Tyler, I’m not terrified of Donald Glover. The track attacks his “haters” (a common theme on the album) and attempts to shed the label of “backpack rapper” given to the likes of Kid Cudi and Lupe Fiasco. It’s a hit-and-miss track that has a heart, but I prefer my Gambino clever rather than angry.

Camp has a dichotomy that shows the range of Glover as an artist. For every “Bonfire,” there’s an “Outside,” a deeply personal track that gets inside the soul of Gambino. On “Outside,” Glover tells a story of his family growing up in poverty, raising foster children in their home and escaping the drug trap in New York that had claimed his uncle and his cousins. The haunting choral hook sets the tone that Camp is a story rather than a collection of tracks.

This continues on the string-driven “All the Shine,” as Gambino talks of the struggle of being himself in the rap game. The identity crisis is another main focus of the album. From race culture to the simple problem of being a nerd in high school, Gambino tries to find himself through his music. When Glover decides to sing—and he can sing— you find him at his most vulnerable. It’s on those tracks that his personality truly shines. “LES” and Kids “(Keep Up)” are the closest things to Gambino love songs, and even those are dripping with his personality and flair.

I could gush about this album for a while, so I’ll leave with a few quick hits.

1. The production (done by Glover and Community composer Ludwig Goransson) is all over the place, but it only serves to show the versatility of Glover as a rapper. He conquers tracks from the driving radio-friendly techno of “Heartbeat” to the triumphant “Firefly” to the kick/snare of “Bonfire” with equal aptitude. You can’t say that Gambino has a type of track that he prefers or excels at.

2. I could have written a term paper over “Hold You Down.” The examination of race relations and what it means to be a “real black” was a heavy hitter and an insight of how Glover became the man he reveals on the album. The piano-led beat provides an introspective mood to the track. “A kid said something that was really bad/ He said I wasn’t really black because I had a dad/ I think that’s really sad/Mostly ‘cause a lot of black kids think they should agree with that.”

3. The two weakest points on the album are the arbitrarily aggressive “You See Me,” a track that lacks the polish of the rest of the album and seems like it would be more at home on his earlier mixtapes, and “Letter Home,” a track that I would love if it was more developed. As it stands, the entirely sung track is a beautiful outro to “All the Shine,” but I wanted more.

4. The standout of the album is closer “That Power.” It combines the two sides of Childish Gambino with a hard intro a la “Bonfire” (featuring the aforementioned Trouffaut line) followed by a chorally-backed examination of everything he has accomplished. The selling point here is the monologue that ends the album. It was a story of a camp love gone awry that I instantly related to. It’s the thesis of Camp.

Camp is a rare hybrid of seemingly conflicting hip-hop tropes. Glover is unafraid to be raw and vulnerable, but knows he can fit in the well-crafted wordplay that is characteristic of “harder” rappers. Glover’s personality and skill allow these elements to come together in an honest, real way. Camp is unashamed to be itself rather than what people perceive it should be. That’s why tracks like “Backpackers” and “You See Me” ultimately fail: they’re like everything else. As Childish Gambino opens “All The Shine,” “What the f*** did y’all n****s really want?/ I went with realness instead.” Camp thrives on that realness, and reality is what rap needs.—Jeff Hinton

Junebug Spade is everything to everyone (and that's great)

Most ’90s radio rock was just really loud and distorted pop songs. Somebody probably would have noticed eventually that Boston’s “More than a Feeling” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” were pretty similar, but Nirvana self-disclosed this by at least once singing Boston’s words and melody over their song.

And while some a lot of ’90s bands took rock way too seriously, some simply wrote great songs; the ones that figured out rock was pretty much loud pop were among the best at this (Blur, Oasis, Nirvana, sometimes Bush) and the absolute worst (Candlebox, Creed, sometimes Bush). Live, on the other hand, took rock very seriously, and they made awesome music too. This isn’t an exclusivity clause.

Still, really loud pop songs make Junebug Spade‘s Extra Virgin Olive Oil my favorite straight-up rock’n’roll release of the year. It takes a lot to get me psyched about ’90s-inspired rock, but a good starting point is a killer melody, and JS has those in spades. Both the guitars and the vocals layer on the catchy, and the results are dynamite. When both of those elements come together on “Slow Your Roll,” it’s clear that Junebug Spade understands this: guys wanna rock, girls wanna shimmy, and everyone wants to sing along, either at the show or in their car. They provide the goods for all of that. This band makes everyone happy. That, my friends, is admirable.

The basic elements of this band are nothing new: a songwriter/guitarist/vocalist, guitarist, bassist and drummer. Bassist Kyle Mayfield is high in the mix, which is a standard ’90s move that provides a nice counterpoint to the melodies. The drummer wails away. The guitars go after it in the aforementioned awesome way. Vocalist Peter Seay caps off the sound with a slacker-tastic vocal delivery that makes it sound like he’s totally not even working that hard to deliver these songs. It’s not the sterilized/rote vocal performances that sometimes took over radio rock; there’s a non-southern drawl to his vocal, and it fits perfectly over the tunes.

All five tunes are money, but “Public Display of Affection” takes a perky, Strokes-ian riff and totally morphs it with a mega chorus. “Slow Your Roll” employs an awesome tempo change and a wicked slide guitar riff (!) to close out the EP. “Aborigine” has Blur all over the guitar line, and I love it, because Seay’s voice is nothing like Albarn’s, so it sounds like an homage and not a rip-off.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is entertaining all the way through. For a guy who doesn’t cover hardly any straight-up rock anymore, this is a pretty dramatic statement. Fans of rock shouldn’t sleep on Junebug Spade.

Keeps' songwriting carries a torch for thoughtful rockers

I’ve been a fan of Josh Ramon’s work since 2006, when I discovered his bands Theanti and Lamps on the label Inderma Music; I liked them so much that it appears I reviewed their Dot With a Dot in a Dot Dot Dot split EP twice. (I liked it more the second time, apparently.)

Ramon is back with one old and one new collaborator as Keeps, and the band’s sophomore album No Bridges has been keeping me off-guard for the last few weeks. Ramon and co. are comfortable playing both improvised indie-rock and the traditional, song-based variety, and Keeps is the latter: The arrangements are comparatively tight and song lengths hover around four minutes. The big difference from then to now is the weight of the songs.

The band still has elements of their erratic, spontaneous self of old, but No Bridges incorporates those elements into thoughtful songwriting and deft atmosphere control. Excellent use of abrupt entries and exits makes opener “Cantland” and closer “Arkansas Blackbird” into the highlights they are: sections roil and churn in guitar sludge, only to snap into wiry riffs before blasting off to more sections of rock. The forlorn guitars/distant vocals/pounding drums outro of “Arkansas Blackbird” is one of the more haunting ends to an album I’ve heard this year, especially since it appears suddenly.

There are some songs of both sides of the spectrum: “Midwest Urn” is a raging rocker that makes me think of the thoughtful anger of late ’90s and early 2000s post-hardcore. But even that song has a slow section toward the end before picking up for the conclusion. “Someone Wanted More” is a pensive, acoustic-led post-rock-type piece, albeit with some distortion and dissonance thrown in to keep the vibe going.

No Bridges works better as a whole album, like the aforementioned late ’90s post-hardcore and similar-era math rock. I didn’t really listen to music in theose genres for particular songs: I listened for how the music felt and made me feel. (This is the argument Chuck Klosterman makes for ’80s metal, and, by extension, pretty much all music in Fargo Rock City.) Post-hardcore’s aesthetic of getting the emotion down instead of being technically perfect is big here as well; Ramon’s oft-desperate, impassioned voice is a great emotive vehicle. He ekes out some memorable melodies (“Arkansas Blackbird”), but the more important thing is that it all sounds slightly unhinged (the ironically titled “Stayble,” “Old Tangled”). Whether leading with an acoustic guitar melody, an erratic guitar line or churning distortion, No Bridges seems teetering over the edge of something.

Keeps’ No Bridges reminds of the early 2000s, when dark, heavy, thoughtful rock was trying to maintain artistic integrity by staving off those who would turn it into emotionally abrasive hardcore, simplify it into pop-punk, or become whatever Brand New is now. But the “everybody else” sides of the sound won, leaving pretty much only Thursday to carry the flag for thoughtful, aesthetically-refined rockers. Keeps does not sound like Thursday, nor does Keeps have a telegraphed political bent. However, the aesthetic ideals seem correlated, and it’s really encouraging to hear Keeps go to bat for loud, intricate, thoughtful rock without pretension, irony or coat-tailing in some other genre. Highly recommended.

Download “Someone Wanted More.”
Download “Its Hard when Its So Easy.”

Subset's fuzzed-out rock catches my attention

If you’re going to rock me these days, you have to have an intriguing guitar tone, an engaging vocalist, hummable melodies and energy to spare. Brits Subset have all of these requirements, and as a result you’re hearing about their Mahogany EP right now. The four-piece sounds like “Song 2”-style Blur as filtered through early ’00s Strokes, which means that they pump out the guitar-heavy pop songs with cool factor intact.

“Desire” is the best example of their mash-up, as the vocals strike the right balance between unhinged and sly, while the gleefully fuzzed-out guitars throw down chord riffs and single-note melodies. Similarly, opener “Lucid Dreamers” has track-meet-tempo verses that recall Jimmy Eat World’s huge guitars vs. low-key vocals tension in the best way possible. The overly dark “We Are Subset” is ironically the least like what Subset sounds like on the EP and “Wyoming” sounds far too much like Blur for comfort, but by the time they wrap it up with the dance beat of “Give or Take,” the four Brits have won my affection. If you’re into Young the Giant or early ’00s rock, you’ll be all over Subset.

The soundtrack to a pretty, terrifying angel

Angelus means “Angel” in Latin, but indie-rockers The Angelus apply more to the terrifying, battle-ready archangel idea than the calming, peaceful messenger motif that is common in our culture. I’m not often scared by music, but the pervasive sense of dread and woe that runs through On a Dark & Barren Land creates some profoundly disorienting and distressing moments.

Emil Rapstine, the songwriter behind The Angelus, is a master of mood: using nothing more than harmonized voices, he can conjure up a profound sense of discomfort (“Let Me Be Gone,” “All Is Well,” where nothing sounds well at all). Add in a tasteful restraint on the arrangements of these dark, gritty dirges, and you’ve got an album that will stick with the listener long after the run time. “Turned To Stone” segues a plodding intro into an indie-rock tune anchored by organ, choir bells, and massively overdriven guitar. Just imagining that should bring up thoughts of The Misfits or Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and it is assuredly more of the latter. “Gone Country” sounds like a doom-thousand The National, while the frantic bass work on “Crimson Shadow” lends an urgency to the tune that jars against the slowed-down guitarwork.

I made the mistake of listening to this last night in the dark by myself, and a sense of dread creeped over me as I read my book. If the goal of all music is emotional connection, The Angelus has succeeded mightily. (Even the album art is darkly fascinating, entering into my best of the year list.) Fans of The Black Heart Processional, darkly atmospheric post-rock, or genuinely creepy music would do well to catch up with On a Dark & Barren Land.

The Noise Revival Orchestra changes well

It should be obvious at this point that I’m a sucker for a pop song by a acoustic-instrument folk collective. But The Noise Revival Orchestra‘s latest tunes, which fall squarely into the aforementioned category, were a bit baffling to me. The last TNRO release I reviewed was To The Seven Churches In The Province Of Asia, which was an intriguing post-rock effort. There have been intervening releases, which other writers for Independent Clauses covered; somewhere in there I missed a dramatic stylistic shift. Their press says that it happened for this album specifically, and that would be an abrupt shift indeed if that were the case.

This is sort of a bummer; I miss TNRO’s old sound. I thought it was vibrant and thoughtful. However, I begrudge them not their new direction; nothing is constant in music but change. Songs of Forgiveness is a strong 20-minute, 5-song EP that shows a confident sound and interesting melodic ideas.

But they can’t fully escape their post-rock bent; having subsisted previously on primarily instrumental melodies in the post-rock realm, their retained sense of melody is a welcome aspect of their new sound. The title track has sweeping cinematic “oh-ay-oh-ay-ohs,” and closer “Sapphire” has a long instrumental intro featuring violin. The title track also features a uniquely syncopated rhythm throughout, giving the song an unusual quality among most straight-four-count folk tunes. “Crushing On You” has a similar highly refined sense of rhythm.

And, get this: there’s a massive key change and distorted bass guitar in the title track. This is pretty much still a post-rock band at heart, just writing pop songs that happen to sound like a folk collective because of their choice of instrumentation.

“Dance the Night Away” and “When I Was 8” have the ornamentation and rhythm, but they are dominated more by the vocals than the instrumental performance. These tracks are less effective; the male vocals are good, but they’re not the most compelling part of this band. The sound works better when the instruments lead the voices through the song, and not vice versa.

Overall, this is an incredibly unique and interesting EP. Critics are fickle, always asking bands to change or not change, depending on what we like or dislike about them. (Sorry.) The Noise Revival Orchestra has pulled off the rare feat of moving forward in their sound while still retaining things that made them great. If you’re interested in progressive, well-arranged pop songs, you should definitely be looking over here.