Grimes – “Art Angels”

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Flesh Without Blood,” “Kill V. Maim”

Grimes has never been known by one genre. She’s sometimes included in witch house, but she defies one of the basic principles of the genre. Her stage name – Claire Boucher, offstage – is short and easy to remember. “Grimes.” Template witch house artists do the opposite, names that can’t be found on Google. Like M△S▴C△RA, or ///▲▲▲\\\ (pronounced ‘Horse MacGyver’), or oOoOO. Her new album, her fourth, is predictable only that we’ve come to expect anything we haven’t heard from Grimes before. “Art Angels” is, more than anything, a pop album.

“Art Angels” is a very mixed album. As always, Grimes blends many influences and ideas to create a wholly original, bastardized sound not unlike the baby on the cover. It isn’t as consistent, this time around, although the high points are just as high as ever. The album takes a much more conventional format, overall. This might be due to Grimes famously scrapping the album she was working on last year because she felt it was “too depressing,” keeping only “REALiTi,” an altered version of which shows up here. Something about the album feels familiar, in the song structures, as if Grimes was leading us by hand into a dark forest but keeping us from being afraid.

Generally, the album’s better songs are the ones that have density and energy. “Flesh Without Blood” is one of the catchiest songs of the year, regardless of lyrical content. There are catchy tunes throughout. “Easily” is a dancy (if not somewhat lacking) song. “REALiTi” and “World Princess, Pt. II,” although similar, are both exceptional and engrossing late-album bangers. “SCREAM,” which heavily features Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, is also an excellent track.

“Belly of the Beat” might be the album’s lowpoint, a largely acoustic track that might sound better if there was a different artist’s name attached to it. Some of the ‘lighter’ songs are disappointing. “California” borders on being too poppy, especially as it’s placement as the first real song, after the intro “laughing and not being normal” (which is a great track, while we’re on it). It centers itself as a lyrical ode, but it’s nothing we haven’t heard before.

Still, you have to pride Grimes on trying new things. She’s included just about everything she can into her music, and she’s even made conventionality work for her. “Art Angels” tells us that, yes, Grimes can occasionally do wrong. But even when she does, she’ll right it on the next song and she’ll still sound great when she does. Her vocal screams – you know the thing she does – permeate the album, breaking up the songs from being too radio-friendly (“California” lacks them, and suffers because of it). It’s also impossible to ignore the power she holds. Grimes learned how to play multiple instruments after recording her last album, the near-perfect “Oblivion.” She does everything herself now. After realizing that only men were being allowed to use the production equipment for her music, she’s begun producing herself. Now she writes, performs all music, produces, choreographs shows and designs the album art and videos. And the video for “Flesh Without Blood/Life in the Vivid Dream” is really something. And although she defies all genres, she’s generally lumped in with electronica music, which is chronically male-heavy. Grimes can release albums that aren’t perfect, and it doesn’t really matter, because she can tell young girls listening that they can do this, too. It’s why the collaboration with Janelle Monae makes sense – they’re two drastically different artists, but they’re both energetic, genre-bashing feminist singers.

Sorry. Went on a little tangent there. But Grimes is an incredibly important musician, and even if this album is frustratingly inconsistent, it could stand as her bid for greatness. “Flesh Without Blood” probably isn’t going to pick up any radio play, but it’ll gain more new listeners than “Genesis” or “Go” did. I’m worried about her next projects, that Grimes scrapped an entire album and ended up with an album like “Art Angels,” which flirts with greatness but rarely gets to it. But, she remains one of the most interesting artists in music today, and the album works well enough for the listener to forgive the sagging moments. “Art Angels” works because Grimes makes damn sure of it.

-By Andrew McNally

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Crying – “Get Olde/Second Wind”

Grade: B

Key Tracks: “Bloom,” “Bodega Run”

To people who have never heard Crying, this double EP is something really new. To fans, it’s very literally not new. The first half is just a reprint of last year’s “Get Olde” EP, combined with a new “Second Wind” EP. So it can’t technically be labeled as an album, and the combination does not answer the listener’s question of why this was done in the first place. Still, “Get Olde” is an excellent EP, and their blend of emo, indie and chiptune is incredibly unique.

What separates Crying from Run For Cover Records labelmates like, say, Pity Sex or Tiger’s Jaw is definitely, unequivocally the use of the digital, video-game-y sounds. It’s a primary focus of their music – the main instrument on every track. Sometimes it’s shrill, sometimes it’s melodic, other times it doesn’t seem to fit and you wonder if you’re going to get a break from it. Luckily, Crying take it upon themselves to differentiate every track, so their unique sound doesn’t become an automatic staple after the first go-around.

It’s easy to describe Crying as a chiptune band, one instrument is literally a Game Boy. But where other bands have experimented with this before, they’ve never roped in such unexpected lyrics. Similar bands often take goofy tones, mimicking the video game world they’re trying to engross. But Crying sing on a real plane – real people in a real, crushing world. “Vacation” namechecks Costco and flip phones, proving they’re living in a globalized society. And frequent references to bodegas cement the band as New York apartment-dwellers, not suburban basement-surviving nerds. It’s a distinction, because Crying’s music has a dense aura to it.

Both EP’s have their up and down moments. They both end on slow tracks (“ES” and “Close,” respectively), and neither really works that well. But both EP’s have honest and devastating lyrics, often delivered in Elaiza’s exasperated vocals. And while “Get Olde” stays right by the Boy’s side, “Second Wind” lets up some room for some drum (“Easy Flight”) and some guitar moments (“Batang Killjoy”). The second side is more varied and denser than “Get Olde,” although the band is more consistent in the release’s first half. I’ve been on to Crying for a while now; their first full-lengthed release is an extremely interesting listen. It isn’t perfect, but it’s still a fun, desperate mess, and it’s a promising release for the future.

-By Andrew McNally

Prince’s “Art Official Age” and 3RDEYEGIRL’s “Plectrumelectrum” – A Review From the Uninitiated

Grades: Art Official Age: B+

Plectrumelectrum: D+

As a music critic, there’s been plenty of times where I’ve faked knowledge of an artist to give some insight into the recording of an album. I’ll admit it, I can’t say I’m on an equal playing field when I talk about both Ariana Grande and Foxygen, I have to look up information on someone like Grande because I’m much more inclined to listen to Foxygen in my own time. But I can’t fake Prince. Not admitting that I don’t know the first thing about Prince’s back catalog and topsy-turvy history would be unfair to him. Prince is a legend; a hero of pop music, and trying to fake my way through a review would not do him any justice. I know that he and Warner Bros. got into a bitter, bitter feud in the ’90’s, partially the reason for him to change his name to a symbol – so Warner would have to find a way to market it. And I know that he’s both feminine and seductive, yet legendary and encompassing enough for the NFL to pick him to play a Super Bowl halftime show (and one of the better ones). What I do know about Prince is that his music has jumped all around, and that’s exactly what his solo album, “Art Official Age,” does. So if you’re not familiar with his music, know that the album is inconsistent but often fun and honest. And if you are familiar, then you probably made up your mind before it even came out. Okay? Okay.

“Art Official Age” starts with a track titled “Art Official Cage,” and it’s a song that would have never existed in the “Purple Rain” years. It couldn’t have. It’s ripped from hip-hop and EDM, with big beats and air horns. It’s fun, and there’s way too much going on, but that’s part of the joy. The album jumps across fun, funky songs and big ballads, all of which are distinctly Prince and neither of which are aligned with any other pop artist. It’s the album’s best and worst quality, that it jumps so frequently and unexpectedly. Luckily, it’s good far more often than it’s bad.

The ballads come early, with the third track “Breakdown.” Prince hits some cringingly high notes, and pulls them off, obviously. “U Know” is a pseudo-ballad two tracks later, but one that has Prince rapping a bit. The hip-hop element is palpable on “U Know,” and is throughout the album. Prince constantly feeds off of genres that fed off him thirty years ago. Ballads aside, the album is a lot of fun, and Prince sounds like he’s truly enjoying it. Late album track “Funknroll” is exactly what it sounds like, a huge disco bash that’s a ton of fun and could easily be thrown on repeat for an hour without getting old. Second track “Clouds” is a strange track, with a strong spoken word that sets up the album’s loose premise of waking up in a world without gender pronouns. And leadoff single “Breakfast Can Wait” is an oddly specific, sexual song that’s exactly what you’d expect from Prince.

“Art Official Age” isn’t all great. The theme of waking up without gender pronouns are neat (and Prince to the max), but it never shows up outside of spoken word bits that are great on “Clouds” and finale “affirmation iii,” but are weak on the other tracks. And Prince seems to be borrowing just a tad too heavily from Daft Punk’s disco playbook – in that he tries lengthy, funky songs, but doesn’t pull them off as well as the duo. There are two tracks, “The Gold Standard,” and “Time,” that are far too long. The former is almost six minutes, the latter almost seven, and there isn’t much of a reason. They just inflate the album’s 53 minute runtime. But it starts strong and it ends strong, and it’s fun in between. People hanging out under rocks like myself should find a lot to groove to on this record, and find a lot of originality in it’s melting of both genres and themes.

On the inverse of that is the debut album from Prince’s backing band, 3RDEYEGIRL. Their album, “Plectrumelectrum,” flows through different genres and influences just as “Art Official Age,” but does so in a much more murkier and standard way. The band, who Prince is proudly touting as being all-female, gets off on the wrong foot with the lackluster “Wow,” a song that lacks the energy to be a true leadoff song, but has enough energy to not be a cop-out slow intro. After that, the album is a topsy-turvy ride, hitting high highs and low lows.

A low low is “Boytrouble,” an overlong and inane pop song that’s stylistically similar to far too many songs that have come before. Another low low is that the album appears to start off with a classic rock vibe for the first four or five songs, before slowly diverging into funk and hip-hop, without seeming to have any real reason. It flows well at the beginning, but the longer it goes on, the more it becomes a collection of songs instead of a fluid album. The album never seems to come to having any point, other than Prince showing off his (talented) backing band. Likewise, on “Fixurlifeup,” he sings lead, and he sings about misogyny in music and how bands shouldn’t be called “female” bands, yet he prides himself on showcasing his handpicked female backing band, contributing to the problem himself. (Not that he shouldn’t have an all-female band, just that he’s being pretty hypocritical about it).

The album isn’t all bad, though. There’s some great, exploratory songs. The title track (and longest on the album) is an instrumental classic rock jam that shows just how talented the band is. And the follow-up, “Whitecaps,” is a pleasant vocal-based pseudo-ballad. And the album has a better pacing, clocking in at a tighter 42 minutes, with some fat trimmed. The album certainly has it’s moments, it’s just very inconsistent and never has a sense of purpose. Perhaps the thing that summarizes it best is that the album’s final track is a different version of “Funknroll,” from “Art Official Age.” It’s a slightly different version that’s still good, but just not as much.

Not knowing anything about Prince didn’t harm me in listening to 3RDEYEGIRL. Their album is more direct, even if it hits different genres. It isn’t a great album and I give only a reserved recommendation for Prince fans only, but it still has some fun moments. And, they’re talented. they’re extremely talented. Non-Prince people like myself can at least enjoy it just as much (probably more) than Prince fans. As for “Art Official Age,” it’s also inconsistent, but it’s fun and energetic, and it might be a refresher for his fans. Or at least that’s what it sounded like to me.

-By Andrew McNally

Skrillex – “Recess”

(Photo Credit: soundisstyle.com)

Grade: C

Key Tracks: “Try It Out” “Dirty Vibe”

Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.

Alright, that’s a slogan for a kid’s toy, but it kind of applies here too. “Recess,” Skrillex’s first official full-length (long delayed after all his work was stolen a few years back), has all the wobbles, but it never falls – there’s no bass drops. The EDM/dubstep mastermind practically invented a new form of music on his ubiquitous EP’s, but he levels out here and settles for more commercial dance music. Sometimes it works, usually it doesn’t. Too many songs on “Recess” fall victim to repetition, and could really benefit from some insanity.

“C,” in grade school terms, comes out to “average.” This is a very average album. The songs are catchy, easy to dance to, and forgotten the second they end. And it’s a shame, because Skrillex, aka former From First to Last singer Sonny Moore, was the leader of an EDM revolution only three years ago. “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” won Best Dance Recording at the Grammy’s, despite being one of the most chaotic releases of the year (and despite the voters of the Grammy’s not wanting to know what drugs their (grand)children were taking to his music). But this album feels safe, like a step back. It’s understandable to think that a full album version of the head-pounding and riot-ensuing music on his EP’s would cause seizures, but there’s a common ground that is almost never found.

There’s really only two great songs on the album – “Try It Out” and “Dirty Vibe.” The former is the leadoff single, and it’s a bridge between standard dance music and the typical Skrillex chaos. It resembles what dubstep has become – high pitches, inexplicably dancy, and shrill, just to the point of annoyance. The latter is the only song that tips on the side of chaos, maybe because of a Diplo guest spot. It’s the only song reminiscent of old Skrillex. It’s also worth noting two other great guest spots – Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos on the otherwise overlong and forgettable title track, and Chance the Rapper on “Coast Is Clear,” one of the more decent tracks.

Although “Recess” is a wholly listenable album, it is disappointing. Skrillex seems to have fallen victim to his own creations. It’s entirely possible that his early releases set a bar too high, one that, if matched again, would only induce violence. It’s also possible that Skrillex wanted to make a more conventional, dance club record. Either way, it’s a turn in a different direction, and one that his fans may not be overly excited to grasp for. Songs from this album – especially single “Try It Out” – will surely be played in clubs. But there isn’t much more here. “Recess” gets a little boring, and it becomes kind of a chore to finish each song. Fans of dance music in general might enjoy the album, but fans honed in more on Skrillex might not feel the same.

-By Andrew McNally

††† – “†††”

(Photo Credit: crossesmusic.com)

Grade: C+

Key Tracks: “Bitches Brew” “The Epilogue”

Fans of the band properly pronounced as “Crosses” might actually be rather disappointed in their full-length debut. The band, a side project featuring Chino Moreno from Deftones, Shaun Lopez from Far, and Chuck Doom, doesn’t actually have many new songs. The album, also called †††, is fifteen songs long, and it feels like it. There’s only one track under three minutes, and six over four minutes. But it includes every song from the band’s first two EP’s. They were working on a third EP, when they decided to turn it into a full album and include the other 10 songs. They reordered the songs so they show up as tracks from EP 1, EP 2, EP 3, EP 1, and so on, but it does not hide the fact that two-thirds of the album is not new material. And one of the five new songs, “The Epilogue,” isn’t exactly unfamiliar either, as the leadoff single that’s getting decent airplay.

With a needlessly overstuffed album, it might be easy to overlook the fact that it is still a pretty decent work. The band has a dark but simple electro-dream feel to it, and it’s obvious that Moreno and Lopez are enjoying a break from the intensity of their respective primary bands. Moreno only screams in one song, and a majority of them are more mid-tempo. While Deftones and Far might be in a hurry to make a loud, electric point, the songs presented here build gradually to smoother, electro-based climaxes. Some don’t build at all, staying put in a moody but accessible base.

So the album is very conflicting – it’s good, and fans of the hyper-specific genres that Crosses fall into will likely enjoy it. It’s got all the negative emotions you’d expect from a Deftones album, and never wallows in it. It has energy, but not too much. It’s just that the album is too long. It hovers around an hour, and it starts to get a little too repetitive around the halfway point. What should be a saving grace, the original and instrumental pseudo-interlude “,” doesn’t show up until track 13, where feels a little more wasted. On an album with a number of pre-established songs, it would’ve been better to only take some from each EP. Still, it’s a solid debut. And there is some promise – the album’s two best songs, “The Epilogue” and “Bitches Brew” – are two of the new ones. “†††” might not win over any fans to dream-pop or dark electronica, but fans of the genres should find the album to be a quality release.

Nine Inch Nails – “Hesitation Marks”

(Photo Credit: Consequence of Sound)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Copy of A,” “Came Back Haunted”

The most immediate thing about “Hesitation Marks” is that Trent Reznor went through some changes in his time off from Nine Inch Nails. There’s no way of knowing what, but forming a band with his wife and winning, of all things, an Academy Award both seem to have livened him up, just a little. “Hesitation Marks” is distinctly a Nine Inch Nails record – lengthy, synth-based tracks with many layers of sound. But there is something gone, and it’s the gloom-and-doom feel. I hesitate to say it’s ‘missing’ because Reznor never really sounds like he’s trying to recapture it. Instead of lyrics about fear of religion and death and mutilation, there’s more inward songs about betrayal and personal responsibility. There may be keyboards and synthesizers abound, but the songs are more structured and sound more accessible than previous Nine Inch Nails records. Reznor did something no one saw coming. He made a rock album.

This isn’t a bad thing, either, because it works for the most part. The album starts off with a 52 second intro, before kicking off with two of the faster songs, “Copy of A” and “Came Back Haunted.” A majority of the songs hover in the 5-6 minute range and follow typical rock song structures. The songs generally get slower as the album goes on, before ending with a 1:29 instrumental outro. Reznor concocted a typical rock album, just one that lacks in guitar.

“Hesitation Marks” lacks the heaviness that is present on nearly all of his past albums. “The Downward Spiral” was one of the best albums of the 90’s because of it’s wicked and menacing layers of volume. “Ruiner” actually sounded like an empire collapsing, and “March of the Pigs” was a better punk song than most punk bands are capable of writing. The layers are present on “Hesitation Marks,” but the outward anger is gone, both lyrically and musically. Instead, we get a more early-80’s sound, like Reznor opening the door a bit for Depeche Mode. While it’s disappointing on paper, Reznor still pulls it off remarkably. The album drags at points, and it’s less memorable than most NIN records, but it is still its own great thing. This is a different side of Reznor, still angry but at different targets, and flirting with commercialism. And at 61 minutes long, there’s a lot of it to take in.

-By Andrew McNally

Fuck Buttons – “Slow Focus”

(Photo Credit: Electric Banana)

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Prince’s Prize,” “Stalker”

The shortest track on this album, the 4:22 of “Prince’s Prize,” is longer than the longest song on the new Hunx & His Punx album, sitting right below this one. This has always been the approach to music for the Buttons. Their songs are long, leaving a lot to dig through. Fuck Buttons, much like their name itself, challenge popularity to accept them. The band is an instrumental, electronic duo that creates long, dense works that are never easy and conventional yet never mean on the ears. There is a secret formula to their music, and it continues on their third album.

With all of the EDM and electronica albums coming out this year already – Daft Punk, Disclosure, James Blake and Zomby have already released great albums – it’s surprising that there is room for the Buttons to fit in. But there is, because they don’t attempt to make music people can dance to. Their music is more complex and tougher to crack. Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” is one of the best songs of the year, but any ten seconds of this album has more complexity and depth than the entirety of Daft Punk’s hit. These songs are mesmerizing, switching to and from rough and pretty, and often mixing the two. “Stalker” is the best example of this, a ten minute dissection of a pretty but monotonous rhythm, played over some decidedly noisy bits. The Buttons give a lot to dissect, but don’t give many clues. They do it in a way that makes for a puzzling listen, not a frustrating one. “Slow Focus” plays out like a mystery that doesn’t get answered, with an ending that is totally acceptable anyways.

Through all three albums, Fuck Buttons have been tough to nail down, with their intentionally complicated sound always being on the verge of remix-worthy without ever going there. “Slow Focus” is loud and empty, seemingly devoid of human emotions, through its grandiose and expansive ideas. It always seems like it is about to crack into club music, but will never go there, because the band places value on the depth of it’s music. “Slow Focus” is long and fantastic. Seven tracks and fifty-two minutes of brilliance. It is too tough to crack on one listen, and will confuse most listeners. Hopefully, enough people will give it a few listens without shrugging it off and moving on to dance music. Although with the attitude of this music, the band might just not care if they do.

-By Andrew McNally