Album Roundup by InRO Staff Music

Album Roundup — September 2021 | Part 3: G-Eazy, Billy Strings, Low

Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/WireImage

G-Eazy

By the time Macklemore (and Ryan Lewis) got around to making their second, career-killing album, This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, it had already been clear for some time that their successes were entirely tethered to the cultural moment (i.e. 2012) into which they delivered their first album, The Heist. This was the same moment that sustained fun. and their very bad Some Nights; a culture too cringe to persist, and, inevitably, the Macklemore and Lewis approach to rap music failed to make any long-standing impact, the music on The Heist now mostly serving as a sad monument to the gleeful, corny obliviousness that characterized American pop art heading into Obama’s second term. But, where Macklemore and Lewis tanked, G-Eazy has been able to carve out a lane of some sort, working out a less pathetic take on their “humble white guy rapper” persona while engaging more directly with broader hip hop culture. That said, Gerald Eazy’s career has its origins in music no less embarrassing than the Macklemore/Lewis output, his initial popularity originating with his 2011 mixtape The Endless Summer, a gimmick release that had him styled like a greaser and rapping over beats built off prominent ’50s doo-wop samples. G-Eazy was quick to retire this aesthetic, but he’s never been able to completely shake it despite his seemingly Mac Miller-inspired pivot toward rap credibility a few short years later on 2014’s These Things Happen.

Doubts about his own legitimacy still plague G-Eazy all these years later on his latest project, These Things Happen Too, though he’s also now haunted by memories of aforementioned friend and mentor Miller, whose tragic, untimely passing is a frequent subject here. Over the course of the album’s 19 tracks and hour-long runtime (although there’s also a 29-track deluxe version where features from Chris Brown and Torey Lanez have been relegated), G-Eazy oscillates between Macklemorian talk-rap introspection about his place in the industry, heartfelt tributes to fallen friends and family, and embittered Drake type screeds against various exes — most of these songs indistinguishable from the next, despite being helpfully sequenced into thematic sections echoing the above descriptors. At this point in his career, G-Eazy is a competent enough rapper, though his range is limited and flow largely unchanging, which becomes problematic for him on most songs with a feature; Weezy casually washing him on the hook and feature of track two (“When Your Gone”) while E-40, SOB X RGE’s Datboii, and ShooterGang Kony run away with “Now, Later, Next,” These Things Happen Too’s sole excellent song. Good as it is, “Now, Later, Next” exemplifies G-Eazy’s continued defensiveness around his artistic and genre credentials, one of numerous songs on this album and throughout his body of work that was clearly conceived to reassert his right to claim Bay Area rap culture.

This doubt and anxiety underpin much of the music on These Things Happen Too, but not in an interesting way, hollowing out moments of bravado (“Origami”), letting some occasionally hard-hitting production pick up his slack. While a lot of the lyrical content positions G-Eazy as an outsider in the industry, it’s pretty clear that he really has no idea where he stands, most of these songs totally primed to hit the charts (especially the cheesy Demi Lovato-featuring “Breakdown”). Amusingly (but maybe not unexpectedly), G-Eazy is most convincing in the Macklemore-cornball mode, penultimate track “Time” presented as an epistolary song that has him writing to Miller and a deceased family member. Dopey, but apparently genuine, it’s the one moment on These Things Happen Too where G-Eazy maybe, actually opens up on an album full of otherwise performative soul-bearing. Still, it’s hard to say whether or not there’s any side of this artist that could really fuel an album’s worth of material.

Writer: M.G. Mailloux   Section: What Would Meek Do?


Credit: Jessee Faatz

Billy Strings

Bluegrass remains the most doggedly conservative — from a formalist perspective, though there’s a whole separate conversation about its political sensibilities, too — genre of popular music, one that largely champions adherence to decades-old tropes. While there have been insurgents — Chris Thile, most notably, either solo or in his various bands — there has rarely been a wunderkind that both progressive and traditionalist Bluegrass fans have embraced to the extent that Billy Strings has been. On his third solo album, Renewal, Strings looks to build on his reputation as one of the most accomplished technicians of his generation and to bring a certain level of swagger to Bluegrass that might broaden his audience without sacrificing the top-notch quality of his work. Renewal is a triumph, then, because it accomplishes both of those goals.

“Heartbeat of America” and “Hide and Seek” showcase Strings’ phenomenal guitarwork with nimbly-plucked figures that begin as standard Bluegrass riffs before taking some unexpected, proggy digressions. In his already legendary live shows, Strings and his backing pickers view song structures as a mere suggestion of something they might perform, so it’s critical that they’re building from a sturdy enough foundation. To that end, the bones of “Know It All” and “Hellbender” are quite good, indeed: Don’t tell the genre purists, but “This Old World” even has a killer lyrical hook, while “Nothing’s Working” is impressive for a morose lyrical bent that would play better to fans of Billie Eilish than Bill Monroe.  What makes Strings such a riveting, generational talent is his capacity for honoring the conventions established by the likes of Monroe while embracing a perspective that is very much of-the-moment. Strings isn’t limited by the Bluegrass genre because he rejects the core belief that genre has to be limiting, and Renewal finds him entirely comfortable with all that he’s capable of.

Writer: Jonathan Keefe   Section: Rooted & Restless


Low

Fresh off of another lineup change, Low puts together an impressively tense experimental pop album with HEY WHAT, a record sure to rank high in their large discography for years to follow. Low’s first album as a duo, the sonic focus is not only on the group’s famous harmonies, but in the production that practically collapses around the songs.  Breaking out of previous molds and crafting new sounds would seem like a superhuman task for a band that’s been playing for nearly three decades, but that’s exactly what Low accomplishes on HEY WHAT, and the effort has a stunning payoff.

Low has not been particularly known for writing a generation’s worth of songs about love, more often focusing on life’s tumults and the darkness found in relationships.  After bassist Steve Garrington left the band to focus on other projects, they are now officially a two-piece duo for the first time in their history, and while couple Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker have certainly always been the central focus of the band throughout its different lineups, it’s notable that they opted to focus on this work entirely as a twosome, especially considering the romantic themes littering these tracks. Sonically, they lean into their shoegaze-y roots and occasionally touch on the quieter sounds that made them famous in the first place, but the real star here, however, is the LP’s production. Intentional glitches form the rhythm around tight harmonies, blasting guitars that are pitched to sound like they’re maxing out your equipment, and sharp tonal shifts appear like cracks in a wall, willful imperfection in something otherwise tightly cohered. It’s an album that sounds like it’s falling apart in real-time, each subsequent track lent increasing intensity, listeners left to what could happen or where Low might go on the song next. Sparhawk and Parker situate all this within an intentional irony, their songs of togetherness being broken down and rent as they are experienced, articulating for listeners a unique expression of the duality of romance.

This approach reaches its catharsis on “The Price You Pay (It Might Be Wearing Off),” the only ripping-hot rock track on the record, replete with chugging guitars, soaring vocal harmonies, and, at last, the sense of some palpable relief offered over the seven-minute runtime. Achieving this kind of visceral, experiential grasp on listeners is a rare feat, one that Low has been historically great at capturing, and HEY WHAT is not only not an exception, it’s a pinnacle. The most brilliant thing about Low has always been their ability to reinvent themselves as a band on every record, whether that’s in the form of a several-minute drone piece, a soft indie rock cut, or a bombastic pop anthem.  It’s in no small part to this particular skillset that HEY WHAT is such a notable success, why Low remains essential as a duo, and why it seems more promise than possibility that each new iteration of the band will always be more interesting than the last.

Writer: Andrew Bosma   Section: Ledger Line


Credit: MixMag

Rikhter

The R Label Group — a boutique music distribution network based in Berlin, Germany which was founded in 2013 — has had a busy last few years, releasing a slew of EPs from unknown DJs that happened to contain some of the most aggressive industrial techno and power noise imaginable. Producer Rikhter was one such act, signing in 2019 and becoming something of a flagship artist for the independent label. Since then, he’s dropped several short releases in quick succession, each project constituting a brief four tracks; usually, one of said tracks would clock in at around five to six minutes in length, so that’s four towering behemoths of songs that provided more thrills than what most artists can cram into an album that runs over an hour. Which up to this moment in time, was more than enough for one listener to endure: a ten-plus track product, where intense banger would follow after intense banger, would surely become exhausting and overstay its welcome in quick fashion — there’s a reason why techno isn’t really an “album” genre in any real respect. Thankfully, with the release of his first album-length venture, Doma, those fears can be laid to rest: Rikhter hasn’t sacrificed his music’s usually forceful energy in order to properly function within this particular sound’s strict formatting rules. This isn’t a prestigious release, not one that has delusions of grandeur with what it’s setting out to accomplish. It keeps things simple in that regard, in that it has one mode of operation: attack mode. 

Rikhter also doesn’t overwhelm listeners: he’s crafted a legitimately varied and eclectic project that’s built around the idea of listening from beginning to end, which… duh, all albums are supposed to do that, but most rarely do anymore in an age of streaming service’s playlist dominance. There’s a natural progression to the heft and shape of the tracklisting, where the velocity continues to increasingly ramp up slowly but noticeably with each new song, only to decelerate by the final two. Proper opener “Ufimzew” sets the stage with its walloping bassline and hardcore volume, set at a more relaxed pace than the following tracks but still commanding in its own right, before “Birth of a Star” and “Amaterasu” kick things into a higher BPM range. The anchor for the album — and probably the best moment here — is “Dyylga,” a heavily cyberpunk-indebted outing (it’s loaded with grimy synths and futuristic sound effects) and one similar to the type of material found on Rikhter’s previous EPs in that it suddenly stops and then lunges forward a few noticeable times without ever once losing momentum. But Doma is a different beast entirely from those releases: certainly one with plenty of the same DNA at its core, but a work of artistic maturation in terms of its willingness to switch up a perfectly fine working formula. The music is still massive, larger-than-life even; here, it’s just a tad more refined.

Writer: Paul Attard   Section: Obscure Object

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