“I’m fightin’ my demons while fuckin’ this demon,” Fivio Foreign claims on the Kanye West tribute track “Through the Fire” (the song even interpolates Chaka Khan, how subtle). This turn of phrase — so simple, so efficient; a little fresh, but pure in intent — is one of the few moments of genuine wit the self-proclaimed “King of New York” presents on his debut studio album B.I.B.L.E., an acronym for an actual title so mind-numbingly stupid it’s not worth repeating here. Instead, he’s far too often playing it safe, refusing to divulge any part of his personality that might offend some minor part of the listening populace. He’s rarely funny (unlike, say, Lil Yachty on “Slime Them”), frequently po-faced (a DJ Khaled hustle grindset interlude? In 2022? Really?), and sometimes a heartless romantic with zero sex appeal (the Cerberus-styled collection of godawful love ballads that consist of “What’s My Name,” “Hello,” and “Love Songs”). He exudes next to no natural charisma, which does him no favors when compared to many of the guests he’s assembled for this behemoth of a project: next to the sly swagger of A$AP Rocky on “Confidence,” his voice barely even stands out; Polo G is rapping (more like shouting) circles around him on “Changed On Me”; hell, even fucking Blueface sounds more resolute on “Left Side” than a mopey Fivio ever could. Most of these tracks are produced by long-time collaborators Bordeaux and AyoAA — the dude who essentially added the “drill” section to “Off the Grid” after the fact — and yet, there’s little rapport between the music these two entities make and the raps Fivio provides. He’s so habitually on autopilot that he treats any 808-heavy beat like it’s the exact same, interchangeable noise.
That is until you get a track as tasteless as “City of Gods,” a semi-sequel to “Off the Grid” — spiritually, it’s more in line with the gaudy “Empire State of Mind” — which features the exact same Playboi Carti ad-libs to boot. It’s already been noted before how dreadful the whole thing was on Donda 2, but at least there it felt like an addendum, a vibe switch after hearing Ye sounding morose after a turbulent three-track trek. Here, it’s promoted to top billing. Its presence is felt. You’re really supposed to walk away from a first listen thinking “wow, Ye and Fivio killed it on that one!” Where does one even start with what’s wrong here? The inert chorus? The overblown Chainsmokers sample? The semi-digicore beat that’s too non-committal to care about? While West has the funniest line on B.I.B.L.E. by a country mile (“I’ma turn your life to a meme, let Justin LaBoy post it”), he also compares his life to Micheal Jackson (again) and airs out his personal grievances; he’s dynamic, even if his flow is a bit stiff. It’s little stuff like this that Fivio Foreign seems utterly incapable of accomplishing; he’d rather monotonously rap about how he’s “viral,” or how some girl he likes is “viral,” or how the city is “viral.” The only thing that really defines the rapper right now is his drive: he so desperately wishes to reach the superstardom that’s just out of his reach that he’s willing to give in to any/all major-label demands to do so, sanding the edges off of the Brooklyn drill sound until it’s this blandly polished prestige product.
Although she’s been part of the pop landscape for the past ten years – first as a member of Fifth Harmony, and then as a solo artist – Camila Cabello has struggled to carve out her own niche. She has one of the most recognizable voices in modern pop (raspy and nasal, unique and alluring), but while it’s always obvious when she’s hopped on a track, her individual sound as an artist has been harder to pin down. Familia returns to the fame-granting Latin rhythms of “Havana,” but here combined with more confessional and introspective songwriting. The result is quite strong, offering something altogether more kaleidoscopic from Cabello.
While Familia is, in Cabello’s words, inspired by “family & food,” dancing, and good times, the album also dwells on anxiety and heartbreak. Standout “psychofreak” (featuring Willow on the chorus, whose vocals are a rich textural addition) sees Cabello feeling like “an alien” because “Earth is hard,” battling a plague of negative thoughts and dissociation while her friends have fun at a party. “No Doubt” moves between bouts of intense paranoia about an unfaithful lover and the reassurance she receives from him whenever they are together. Unsoothed jealousy also rears its head on “Hasta los Dientes” (one of two all-Spanish tracks on the album), a neat little disco duet with Argentinian singer María Becerra. Cabello has previously made a point to speak out about her struggles with mental health, and it’s worth noting that Cabello boasts co-writes on all her music here, including solo lyric credits for five songs, which makes these explorations of anxiety all the more vulnerable.
That’s not to imply Familia is devoid of joy, however. Lead single “Don’t Go Yet” is a playful explosion of Latin pop, a full-on party in a three-minute package trying to convince a lover to stay. Likewise, “Bam Bam” (featuring previous collaborator Ed Sheeran) touches on the struggles of a mid-twenties breakup, before bursting into an anthem about rolling with life’s hardships. It’s breezy and light, a style that suits Cabello much better than some of her previous overwrought offerings. But more than simply communicating fun, Cabello sounds like she’s having fun throughout the album rather than merely ticking off the requisite party-track boxes, especially when she gets to sing about Cuba in Spanish on the slinky “Celia.”
Even during its occasional awkward moments (“Lola” rhymes the title character’s name with both “supernova” and “Barcelona”; “everyone at this party” has a verbose chorus that could’ve been trimmed to match the spare acoustics), Familia is a solid and surprising record that both provides more meaningful insight into Cabello as a person and articulates her perspective as an artist. It’s adventurous and deeply personal, a work that (finally) feels like it could only have come from Cabello herself.
There’s a stark, potent metaphor at the center of the new Molly Tuttle album: Somewhere in the darkness of a forest, all the hale and hearty trees are uprooted and fed into a mill, their pulp transmuted into toothpicks and paper currency. Meanwhile, the trees that grow with a gnarl or a bent are spared, unable to fit into the mill’s narrow parameters. They remain where they are, growing strong in their imperfection. In interviews, Tuttle has linked the metaphor to her own struggle with alopecia, a perceived flaw that has allowed her to cultivate resilience. It’s also a big songwriting flex: One of those images that’s so simple and effective, you wonder how nobody thought of it until now.
Such evocative storytelling is typical of Crooked Tree, a sensational album that Tuttle cut with her Golden Highway band, plus an all-star list of featured players that includes Gillian Welch, Margo Price, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Sierra Hull. Though long celebrated as one of Americana’s most dexterous instrumentalists, this is guitarist Tuttle’s first record that explicitly engages with the bluegrass idiom. It’s hard to imagine an album more balanced in the way it honors bluegrass’ hallowed virtues, including technical virtuosity and a connection to tradition, while also making those virtues feel alive and contemporary thanks to personal revelation and a modern sensibility.
Certainly, Tuttle’s bluegrass bona fides can go uncontested. Fleshed out with ace session players, Crooked Tree is a bravura demonstration of skill, but also a keen overview of Tuttle’s genre knowledge. Her take on bluegrass is encyclopedic, spanning not just fleet-fingered pyrotechnics (check the breakneck opener, “She’ll Change”) but amiable rambles (the yodel-filled “Nashville Mess Around”) and soft-shoe balladry (the doleful “San Francisco Blues”). Her music can just as easily strike an ominous note (the minor-key rage in “Castilleja”) as it can adopt a big, goofy grin (the juddering, ramshackle “Big Backyard,” with breathless jaw harp and harmonica from the Old Crow gang). Though Tuttle and her band honor familiar forms, they avoid affectation: Rather than sounding self-consciously old-timey, these songs crackle with joy and camaraderie.
Indeed, Tuttle’s smartest move here is avoiding brazen experimentation in favor of more subtle modernization efforts. A lot of it just comes down to point of view, and not just in the powerful metaphor at the heart of “Crooked Tree.” “San Francisco Blues” is a hard-times tune that could almost pass for a Depression-era chestnut, save for lyrics referencing Dubyah-era financial collapse — a subtle way of adapting working-class blues for the millennial generation, tying contemporary economic plight to an age-old storyline. There is also an unmistakable feminist undercurrent to Crooked Tree, introduced by the flinty, unpredictable character at the heart of “She’ll Change” but perfected in the irresistible “Side Saddle,” a glorious piece of empowered whimsy featuring Welch on the chorus. “I just wanna ride bowlegged like the boys,” they sing, but by that point on the album, Tuttle has already proven the point: With Crooked Tree, she’s produced a stellar album that can proudly stand alongside the inventions of her bluegrass forefathers.
The 2010s brought with them an international post-punk renaissance which spawned a plethora of noteworthy acts such as German punk poets Messer, English dada-druggies Fat White Family, and American end times-chroniclers Protomartyr. In terms of critical and commercial success, however, few of those groups have reached the heights of Irish outfit Fontaines D.C. Hailing from their country’s capital, the band hit the ground running at the tail end of the decade with their extraordinary debut Dogrel, boasting a musical and lyrical maturity often reserved for musicians in their middle period. Dogrel told stories of gentrification, love, and heartbreak in Dublin, and the quintet’s approach was poetic, romantic, working class, and proudly Irish, referencing Gaelic slang and James Joyce’s literary modernism on songs like “Boys in the Better Land” and the mysterious “Television Screens”. When their expansive follow-up, A Hero’s Death, came out the next year, they were catapulted into the big leagues, the album receiving nominations at the Brit Awards, the Choice Music Prize, and even the Grammys, where they were up for Best Rock Album (notably not Best Alternative Music Album, the realm of Björk, Radiohead, and Coldplay).
On their third record, Skinty Fia, Fontaines D.C. further flex their songwriting muscles, branching out into shades of basement trip hop on the album’s title track, shanty-traditionalism on the accordion-led ballad “The Couple Across the Way,” and tense atmospherics on haunting opener “In ár gCroíthe go deo.” It’s easily their most musically adventurous release yet — no small feat considering their heterogenous body of work — but even with some of the more experimental flourishes, their musical DNA remains very much intact. Skinty Fia continues the band’s exploration of life under crushing, globalized modernity, manifesting a reluctant and thoughtful sneer that stands in stark contrast to the scuzzy black humor of Viagra Boys or the didactic sloganeering of IDLES. Lead singer Grian Chatten’s characteristic drawl laments urban decay, youth suicide, and the suppression of Irish identity by the British, sung from the perspective of young Dubliners who, for the sake of their careers, have left their city behind for London. The band members are in two minds about the move: “It’s difficult to stay in touch with Irish culture while you’re not there,” says drummer Tom Coll in an interview with the NME. “You grapple with guilt because you want to make the country better while you’re away.”
That tension is palpable on the band’s latest offering: the spectral chants that accompany the LP’s opening track, quote the epitaph of deceased Irishwoman Margaret Keane, whose family’s request to have the Gaelic phrase “In ár gCroithe go deo” engraved on her tombstone was originally denied by the Church of England for fear that it could be taken as “political.” After three years of intense campaigning, the church finally reversed their decision in 2021. On “I Love You,” a rich charlatan (“the man who profits“) declares his phony love for Ireland and its youth in the choruses, while Chatten articulates his disdain for the direction the country has taken — as well as the sins that stain its past — in two stream-of-consciousness diatribes against the country’s regime in politics, industry, and the Catholic Church. It’s an untangling of complicated feelings and issues both historic and contemporary, rife with vivid, macabre imagery, such as when the singer describes Ireland as an island “run by sharks with children’s bones stuck in their jaws” — a grim reference to the unearthing of the remains of almost 800 babies on the grounds of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home.
Disillusionment, insecurity, and quiet rage run through Skinty Fia‘s veins, the band grappling with life in an increasingly harsh and impossible-to-understand era, whether it be corrupt politicians, greedy priests, or noisy neighbors that inspire reflections on the future of the world or the longevity of young love. Fontaines D.C. speaks to the moment in a profoundly personal way, refusing to pander to their audience and instead pushing further outward to create what is their most introspective, diverse, and beautiful effort to date.
Kelly Lee Owens
Kelly Lee Owens’ third record, LP.8, is a work of brooding electronic soundscape which evinces a natural progression — by intentional, self-aware design — of her sound, imagining where it might go next and taking us there. It’s an interesting enough concept in its own right, and it’s wonderfully supported by the rich personality that Owens already carries through her music, here pivoting much more sharply than you’d expect out of a third album, particularly one as lauded as her sophomore release. The result from this soft experiment produces plenty of fine moments, but distinctly fails to reach the high mark of her first two records.
What’s immediately, notably present on LP.8 is its sense of command. Opening with “Release,” which builds from the repeated, titular order, the first track establishes a definitive, heavy rhythm that lasts the whole record through, as if it was an extended electronic mix. There’s a certain spirituality that springs from this pulsating beat, almost as if it was a mantra or chant from some faded religious practice. This unique character is further expressed on “Anadlu,” which becomes not unlike a guided breathing exercise set over a loud kick drum, the kind of sound that settles deep in the listener’s brain. It’s sensorially impressive in the moment, but unfortunately it’s not a sensation that’s maintained for the whole record; there are inconsistencies in execution, bogging down a concept that is otherwise well-realized. The first half of the record shines, but its frontloaded nature becomes clear as we move into its back stretch, which plays like a slow descent to the finale; it’s not necessarily a sequencing issue that enervates the album, but rather a complete lack of bangers to offer a switch-up. Even a few tracks with more uptempo production could have worked wonders here.
Still, there’s no denying LP.8 is the album Owens wanted to make, one that takes stock of her work and makes a concerted effort to move it forward. After two successful albums, it’s a move that reflects reasonable enough logic and artistic calculation, but while much of the work here is pleasant on its face, it doesn’t quite measure up in sum, and certainly doesn’t meet the hype that Owens has engendered thus far. There are worse fates than releasing a conceptually adventurous if functionally colorless album, but ideally Owens’ next time at the plate will result in something a bit different and considerably more organic.