by InRO Staff Feature Articles Featured Music Year in Review

Quick Takes on Albums 2018 – Halftime

July 3, 2018

All this week at In Review Online, we’ll be presenting our takes on some notable (and less notable) albums that saw release during the first six months of the year, more or less chronologically. In the first of four installments, we look at quarter one 2018 releases, including a strong feminist statement from ’90s alterna-pop hero Tracey Thorn; Justin Timberlake’s failed-experiment pop blockbuster; the long awaited return of ’90s indie-rock heroes the Breeders; and plenty of others.

Tracey ThornUnlike 2010’s chilled-out Love and Its Opposite or the smattering of woozy club sides that made up 2007’s Out of the Woods, Record discards a lot of Tracey Thorn’s more idiosyncratic singer songwriter-isms for an enthusiastic embrace of the impeccable pop craft that sustained the radio life of Everything But the Girl. The only thing missing is that music’s acoustic backing: the strummed guitars and circular rhythms that underpinned easy-listening opuses like 1988’s Idlewild and 1994’s Amplified Heart have been replaced with the thick, irresistibly danceable, post-disco beats that Thorn’s diva-sized vocals have always cried out for, like a desert missing raining. And Record’s “nine feminist bangers” consistently prove the power of that union: Self-actualization is found in “three chords” in a song about a woman realizing her cool musician boyfriend may not be the “star,” and a frank reflection on motherhood’s highs and lows makes an emphatic call to “get the fuck to bed” sound impossibly loving. But the best song here, and maybe the most feminist, moves beyond prescribed roles and settles into an acute psychological portrait. That song, “Face” (as in Facebook), is as rich with vulnerability and drama as, say, Everything But the Girl’s “Missing” or “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.” But on an album that often measures its women, complimentary or not, against men, there’s a particular kind of power in finally reducing a man to a flat image on a screen, and spending the song fetishizing the minutiae of the narrator’s social media stalking. “If I just keep refreshing / Maybe you’ll disappear,” sings Thorn, evidencing her masterstroke on Record: The emotional travails of the women in her songs are way more interesting than any man who might inspire them. Sam C. Mac

Man of the WoodsMan of the Woods presents pop superstar and serial culture vulture Justin Timberlake with his Icarus moment: An overly ambitious album that aims to combine modern dance and R&B with fragments of ‘more authentic’ Americana. The results are garish and baffling, a clusterfuck of different sonic ideas; in a stretch of four songs, the album goes from the lightheartedly poppy “Wave,” to the hard-edged trap of “Supplies,” to the neo-soul love ballad “Morning Light,” to the acoustic guitar-led AOR anthem “Say Something.” Even when the music side of things is coherent, the lyrics tend to be even more eyebrow-raising, with ridiculously unsexy come-ons like “I’ll be the generator, turn me on when you need electricity.” The most dreadful example of this is the tone-deaf diptych “Flannel” and its faux-poetic intro, “Hers (Interlude),” which together seem to suggest that it takes a fashionable man for a woman to really feel like themselves. It’s here where Timberlake far exceeds his grasp; where his “wokeness” feels short-sighted and often too close to virtue signaling (something reinforced by “Young Man,” where JT tells his son it’s ok to cry, a gesture tailor-made to signify that Justin is ‘an ally’). “Y’all can’t do better than this,” JT claims on “Midnight Summer Jam,” though it’s hard to imagine doing it much worse. Paul Attard

The BreedersAll Nerve is the exhilarating sound of a band with nothing to prove to anybody. Twin ’90s alt-rock icons Kim and Kelley Deal reunited with bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim MacPherson to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their breakthrough album Last Splash with a nostalgia tour. But the classic line-up’s new record is as terse and tense as ever without sounding in any way like a rehash or nodding to more recent trends in indie-rock. The title track doubles as a statement of purpose for this new/old incarnation of The Breeders, with Kim’s disarmingly tender “You don’t know how much I miss you” giving way to a defiant chorus of “I won’t stop / I will run you down.” While opener “Nervous Mary” paces back and forth, powered by MacPherson’s insistent beat, “All Nerve” suggests the flipside of that same energy: all raw, all vulnerable, but also all persistent beyond all reason, in the face of years of substance abuse and career setbacks. Though the album’s second half seems to sprawl in all directions at once — including a go-for-broke cover of Amon Duul’s psych-rock classic “Archangel’s Thunderbird” and the unsettling murder ballad “Walking With a Killer” — All Nerve wraps up in just over half an hour. After all this time, the band know how to leave us wanting more — but repeat plays of the sneakily masterful All Nerve will have to suffice until they return once again. Alex Engquist

Culture 2How many different indelible (read: catchy) ways can three effervescent rap formalists find to flex their triplet flows? The Migos have made ad libbed hooks their métier, so much so that the chorus of their 2013 breakout hit “Versace” just repeated the titular brand name 36 times, enough to ingratiate Quavo’s drawling intonation into the collective consciousness. This formula also brought us “Hannah Montana” and “Look at My Dab” and a handful of other winners, but it seemed to exhaust itself by the time the group made the transition from mixtapes to albums (2015’s disappointing Yung Rich Nation sounded not all that different from a mid-level mixtape, except that you could tell the rappers were trying harder than that). The Migos retreated for a bit, and finally, at the top of last year, they delivered their true commercial breakthrough, Culture. The difference was felt most in the beats, which finally didn’t sound like rudimentary vessels for immaculately crafted hooks, but rather like a fruitful augmentation of Migos’s sound. This year’s Culture II is even better, and proves that the group has cracked some kind of code. Even clocking in at 106 minutes, somehow, nothing hear cries out to be cut — with nearly every track, from the jittery, Latin-inflected “Narcos” to the spectral dance grooves of “Gang Gang” to the silvery pop-rap of “Motorsport,” representing the Migos in peak form. The group throw a few curveballs, too, like the Pharrell-produced, future-rhythm banger “Stir Fry” and the emotional, Auto-Tuned slow jam “Top Down on a NAWF.” But mostly the Migos have figured out by this point exactly what works, and Culture II is a dazzlingly indulgent affirmation of their finally perfected formula. SCM

MGMTSplitting the difference between a talent for crafting pop hooks and a penchant for avant-garde trickery, MGMT hits a sweet spot with Little Dark Age. Album opener “She Works Out Too Much” begins in the throes of dissonance, the synths and voices of its refrain creating tension, and the lyrics enforcing it: “The only reason we never worked out was / We didn’t work out.” The music here strays from the non-sequiturs of Congratulations and as well the bombastic mixing of Oracular Spectacular, whittling down MGMT’s experimentation into catchy, three-minute chunks that still draw on the fractured cultural influences, and the feelings of existential horror, that the band favors. “When You Die” features playfully layered vocals and a bouncy beat, while “Tslamp” starts as a sleepy pop song but morphs, with its samba-inflected rhythm, into full-fledged electro-pop, complete with a sing-song incantation reminiscent of MGMT’s earlier work. The title track is the zenith of Little Dark Age; if it raised its tempo and played-up its disco influences (cf. “Time to Pretend”), it could have been a Top 40 hit. But by reigning in the infectious melody and the driving beat, and marinating in the nightmarish soundscape, MGMT show a modest trend toward maturity. Joe Biglin

GanginSOB x RBE establish their unapologetic essence just 10 seconds into Gangin’, as DaBoii’s brazen vocals and pummeling percussion simultaneously crash into opener “Carpoolin.” Two other members from the four-man Bay Area rap crew soon join-in and match DaBoii’s fervor. Slimmy B’s verse on the track is mush-mouthed yet equally brash, and Yhung T.O.’s smooth, half-sung rapping contrasts his rougher counterparts. Lul G, the fourth member of SOB x RBE, shows up later on the album, but delivers his introductory verse with a raw intensity. The production backing this brotherhood directly traces the lineage of Bay Area hip-hop, with rich, three-note melodies guiding the goon-ish music, as fat bass lines add the needed out-the-trunk bounce (it’s no surprise to hear a DJ Mustard beat in the mix). The slapdash samples from ’80s New Wave and freestyle records further connect this group to the older generation (think Luniz’s “I Got 5 on It” as a precedent). But above all else, SOB x RBE operates by its own rules on Gangin’: like their Bay Area forefathers, they’re unwilling to compromise their personality for outsiders. Ryo Miyauchi

Rich BrianThe transformation of Indonesian-born Brian Imanuel from viral meme-rapper into one of the posterboys of 88rising, a media company for hip-hop and R&B artists from the Asian diaspora, has been one not without growing pains — the most notorious being the change of his stage name from the controversial “Rich Chigga” to Rich Brian. Imanuel has been attempting to legitimize himself and put distance between his new music and the goofy spectacle of tracks like “Dat Stick,” and his debut album, Amen, serves as an extension of this. But the rapper tries too hard to ‘be serious,’ especially considering that the biggest thing consuming the young man is the struggles of… you guessed it, fame. Whether it’s a lack of friends (“I don’t got too many friends, I hang with the 88s”) or just his reclusive nature (as evinced by Joji, one of said “88s,” on the personality-devoid hook for “Introvert”), Imanuel raps about only a handful of subjects, making for an overall shallow project that’s not that different from, say, the last G-Eazy album, just with stripped-down production and a more likable presence on the beat. All this seems to just speak to a lack of varied life experience — highlighted further on the album’s absolute nadir, “Kitty,” a track that approaches Lil Dicky territory in terms of unfunny humor and immaturity. PA

SBN3No longer explicitly self-branding as “comedy hip-hop,” YouTuber SBN3 peddles ironic nostalgia as a concept on 2000 on Everything. In reverence to the early aughts, this mixtape is replete with comedic skits showcasing jaunty, cartoonish hyperbole. And the music is more joyous than 2016’s Comedy Noise LP, throwing back to early Kanye soul-sampling. “Silly in ‘99” kicks off the project with verbose wordplay and hopscotching vocal hooks that swerve in and out of the mix, and “Lemme 2000” refines the retro formula with clipped, tension-building jazz samples that compliment the swaying vocal. The skits serve to sketch the narrative of a man time-traveling back to 2000 from 2018 — and the proper track’s instrumentals gradually develop this sense of displacement, bridging generational hip-hop trends (cf. “Cars Threestyle,” which picks up a modern triplet flow). The climactic, strikingly original “Teen Pop Commandments” becomes a sermon: “I pray to Jesus / CHRIST-ina Aguilera / Brought us into the current era.” One reference point for 2000 on Everything could be Internet personality Neil Cicierega’s Mouth series, which also employs meme-ry to craft something greater than parody. SBN3’s skits are clearly tongue-in-cheek, but there’s a sincerity, too; a portrait of nostalgia with a sense of humor, unironically celebrating 2000s pop. JB

OMGRONNYWithin only the past year or so, producer Ronny J has managed to become a key architect in the effort to map-out the current ‘Florida Wave’ that promulgated in the Soundcloud era. His production features ear-shattering bass from the Lex Luger school of chaos over clarity, and his signature tag (“Oh my God, Ronny!”) seems less like the typical assertion of authorship than a warning for listeners to prepare themselves for the aural assault that’s about to follow. It’s little surprise, then, that OMGRONNY, Ronny J’s first commercial album, follows the maximalist formula with little deviation. The biggest surprise here, then, comes from Ronny’s work outside of the production role; he adds his own distorted vocals to some songs, maintaining a memorable presence even on solo tracks. But the central strength of OMGRONNY is the wide assortment of Sunshine State natives featured, from the ever-bombastic Denzel Curry (trying to recapture his “Ultimate” magic with “Glacier”) to the wildly cartoonish Ski Mask the Slump God (claiming girls ride his dick “like a Yoshi” on “Thriller (Forever)”). Clocking in at just 26 minutes, OMGRONNY’s brevity may be its saving grace: The brisk runtime keeps things from getting bogged down enough as to require a real structure, relying, instead, on pure vitality — and plenty of ad libs. PA

POSTIf you listen to POST- as a fan of Jeff Rosenstock’s manic band Bomb the Music Industry!, there’s a strong chance you’ll get their explosive choruses stuck in your head all over again. However, POST- also represents a noticeable departure from Rosenstock’s previous work — especially with its opening and closing tracks, which occasionally give his vocals less prominence. Perhaps as an acknowledgment of feeling a certain political powerlessness in the present moment, Rosenstock submerges his refrain of “We’re tired / We’re bored” beneath guitars and synthesizers on POST-’s first proper song, “USA.” It’s these expressive flourishes, and some ambitious song-structures, that help Rosenstock realize a kind of symphonic grandeur with his new album, far removed from the stylistic grab-bag of 2016’s WORRY. But it’s the familiar reliability of Rosenstock’s versatile vocal — which careens with tireless stamina through revelatory punk, overzealous balladry, and power-pop reminiscent of peak-era Weezer — that situates POST- comfortably within the artist’s discography. His voice can communicate sincerity, ragged desperation, and implicit snark (“TV Stars don’t care about who you are”), and in a way that scans simultaneously as dejected and authoritative. And so, on POST-, we get lines like “They can roll their eyes / They can criticize,” but also: “We’re not gonna let them win.” JB